Security was tight Tuesday afternoon at the Pennsylvania Convention Center as thousands of people at the NAACP annual convention began assembling to see and hear President Obama.
Attendees entering a giant hall were screened as they arrived shoulder-to-shoulder, some in wheelchairs and others using walkers.
Obama had been scheduled to speak at 3 p.m. but his arrival was delayed an hour as the president dealt with the historic accord reached hours earlier to limit Iran’s nuclear ability in exchange for lifting oil and economic sanctions.
This will be Obama’s second address to the NAACP national convention. It comes at a time of acute sensitivity about the nation’s racial divisions – and widespread unrest over police involvement in the deaths of unarmed African Americans.
Obama is expected to urge “meaningful juvenile and criminal justice reform that makes our system fairer, smarter and more cost-effective, while keeping the American people safe and secure,” the White House said.
The administration, the White House said in a release, has acted “to enhance fairness and efficiency at all phases of the criminal justice system and to better address the vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.
“Now, it is time for Congress to act.”
The key points the administration emphasizes include meaningful sentencing reform, reducing the number of repeat offenders, reforming the juvenile justice system, cutting the costs of incarceration and making the system more fair.
Obama’s remarks come just weeks after the president’s June 26 impassioned eulogy for the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C., one of nine worshipers massacred as they prayed inside.
As they awaited Obama’s arrival, Gov. Tom Wolf told the group Tuesday afternoon that Pennsylvania is the right place to deal with issues of justice and liberty. And the time is right, he added.
“This is the place that has grappled with these internal issues since its founding,” Wolf told the NAACP delegates.
Liberty and fairness, he said, are the right issues. “If society is unfair to some, it’s unfair to all.”
The governor said he is working to make Pennsylvania a great place to live and work, regardless of color, gender or who people love.
Obama’s speech also comes three days shy of the one-year anniversary of the chokehold slaying of Eric Garner by New York City police. A $5.9 million settlement with Garner’s family in that case was announced on Monday.
The South Carolina killings, by a 21-year-old man whom authorities believe was inspired by white separatism, led the governor and legislators to pass a law ordering that the Confederate flag no longer be flown outside the South Carolina statehouse.
The flag was lowered on Friday on the eve of the start to the five-day national NAACP convention in Philadelphia. The next day, the civil rights group’s board of directors voted to end the NAACP’s 15-year boycott of South Carolina. That boycott began in 2000 because the state had refused to take the flag off the Capitol grounds.
On Wednesday, former President Clinton will speak at the convention, followed in the evening by the nation’s first African American attorney general, Loretta Lynch.