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Obama urges alumni to help fight poverty

Gives speech at Harvard meeting of black grads

(Correction: Because of incorrect information provided at the event, a story in Sunday's City & Region section about US Senator Barack Obama's speech to Harvard Law School alumni incorrectly described his position on the Harvard Law Review. He was the review's first black president, the top editor elected by the staff.)

Introduced to a sold-out luncheon for black Harvard Law School alumni as a hero and compared to a rock star, US Senator Barack Obama urged the nearly 1,000 people in attendance to take personal responsibility in combating the urban poverty brought to light after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

''The people that we saw in front of the Superdome and in front of the convention center, they had been abandoned before the hurricane," Obama, an Illinois Democrat, said.

Mayhem and violence were not phenomena created by the disaster, Obama said. They have existed in inner cities across the country while the nation's political leaders have stood by, largely indifferent, he said.

''The violence has always been there. It just wasn't on your television screen because it wasn't spilling out onto the lives of the rest of us," said Obama, who lives in Chicago's South Side.

Obama, a 1991 Harvard Law School graduate who in 1990 became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, delivered the keynote address yesterday during the school's three-day Celebration of Black Alumni.

People stood along the back of the white tent, hovered between tables, and spilled into the courtyard for a glimpse at the man who many call a rising star in the Democratic party. Law students lined the stairs of a nearby building to hear the speech, which was broadcast in two classrooms set up to handle the overflowing crowd.

Last summer's Democratic National Convention in Boston served as Obama's ''coming out party," said Elena Kagan, dean of the law faculty, when Obama, then an Illinois state senator running for US Senate, mesmerized the audience with his speech about the audacity of hope.

At yesterday's luncheon, Kagan presented the 44-year-old Obama with the Harvard Law School Association Award, the school's highest honor, for being a ''gifted orator, dynamic leader, public servant extraordinaire, and pride of Harvard Law School."

Obama challenged his fellow alumni to do everything they can to alleviate the ''festering sores of poverty and racism," and hold national leaders accountable for their promises.

He said the federal government's slow response to the hurricane stemmed not from racism, but from indifference.

''I do not ascribe to the White House . . . any active malice," Obama said. ''But rather what was revealed was a passive indifference that is common in our culture, common in our society -- the sense that of course once the evacuation order was issued that you will hop in your SUV with $100 worth of gasoline and load up your truck with sparkling water and take your credit card and check into the nearest hotel until the storm passed. And the notion that folks couldn't do that simply did not register in the minds of those in charge."

Miles LeBlanc, a 1981 alumnus and the general counsel for the Houston Community College System, likened Hurricane Katrina to a ''gigantic yellow highlighter highlighting all the inequities that exist in our country."

In a public question and answer session after the speech, LeBlanc told Obama that community colleges are working to train evacuees now in Houston with new job skills such as construction and plumbing. Obama said he would work to get them federal funding.

''We want to ensure that people who've been displaced have opportunities to participate in the rebuilding of their own communities," Obama said.

This weekend marked the second gathering for black alumni at Harvard Law School, which -- except for the historically black Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. -- has produced more black lawyers than any other law school in the United States, organizers said.

The first gathering was held in 2000 after the school felt it needed to better connect with its black alumni, many of whom felt disaffected and distant from their Harvard experience, LeBlanc said. Events like the one held this weekend, he said, have ''gone a long way to bring [black] alumni back in the fold of the law school."

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