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Overcoming the odds

To understand that justice and equality for all can only be brought about by people of courage and determination.

by Laurence Chilcott

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To understand that justice and equality for all can only be brought about by people of courage and determination.

Preparation and materials

  • If possible, display some recent photographs and headlines related to President Obama.


(Where time is very limited or prior knowledge of the civil rights movement is secure, the section about Rosa Parks and Dr Martin Luther King could be omitted.)

  1. On 20 January 2009 Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States of America. One hundred years ago he could never have become president because people of African descent or mixed race were treated differently from other American citizens. They could not attend the same school as white children; they had to sit in separate areas in restaurants or theatres; they had to sit at the back of buses and were compelled to give up their seats to white people when their bus was full; they could not use the same public toilets or drinking fountains as white people.
  2. Barack Obama would never have had the opportunity to run for president if the civil rights movement had not fought for equal rights for all American citizens, regardless of the colour of their skin.

    It was a woman called Rosa Parks who brought the movement to the attention of people all over the world. In 1955, when travelling home from work on a bus, she refused to give up her seat to a white man. For this she was arrested and charged with breaking the law.
  3. Dr Martin Luther King Jr and other community leaders felt that a protest was needed and all African Americans were asked to boycott the buses in the Montgomery area of Alabama where Rosa Parks lived. For over a year African Americans walked, rather than use the buses to get around the city. And they were successful in making segregation, or separation, in buses illegal.
  4. Dr King was to become the leader of the civil rights movement in America. He worked tirelessly for equal rights and improvements for African Americans. He led protests and marches and met with political and community leaders to persuade them to change the law. Change did not come without opposition and many protest marches were broken up with violence and intimidation. Undeterred, Dr King continued his campaign and travelled across America speaking about civil rights.

    Many of Dr King’s speeches inspired the people, none more so than a speech he made in 1963. To a crowd of around 200,000, who were gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr King spoke of his dream that one day his four children would ‘not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’.
  5. Barack Obama was judged by the content of his character when he was elected President of one of the most powerful and influential countries of the world. The election of the first African American to be president of the United States of America is seen as a culmination of the efforts of many to bring equality and justice to the nation.

    Like Dr King, President Obama is a powerful orator and his words have inspired Americans to new hope and optimism in difficult times. In 2009 he appreciated the significance of the fact that he could take the presidential oath, whereas his father, just 60 years earlier, would not have been served in the local restaurant.

    President Obama realized that throughout the world there is still much to be done to bring peace and justice, and no doubt his words will be remembered too. In his inauguration speech he said:

    ‘To those leaders around the world who seek to sow conflict . . . know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent . . . we will extend a hand if you will unclench your fist.’
  6. Words can uplift and inspire a nation, but in the end the leaders of nations are judged by what they do and what they achieve. The first two years in office have not been easy for Barack Obama. Many feel his words have not been matched by his actions while others appreciate that change is never easy and often takes longer than we would like. It remains to be seen what Barack Obama will achieve.
  7. For further thought and discussion

    Discuss how our opinions of people can be influenced by factors such as what they wear, how they look, where they live.

    Consider the famous words of other world leaders and how they inspired or influenced people.

    Discuss how the concept of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ (Isaac Newton’s comment about all he had done) can apply to progress in many aspects of life.

Time for reflection

Think about how you judge people. What do you set most store by? Are you influenced by their clothes, by how they look, by what sort of a house they live in?

In what situations do we actually clench our fists or extend our hands?
Consider the symbolism of such actions.

Heavenly Father,
we thank you for people who have gone before
and showed us the way,
for those who refused to give up when times got hard
and for those who gave their lives for what they believed in.
We pray for all who continue to work for peace and justice,
seeking to follow the teaching and example of your Son, Jesus Christ.


‘When I needed a neighbour’ (Come and Praise, 65)

Publication date: June 2011   (Vol.13 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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