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Obama meets with civil rights leaders, vows action on jobs, wages

Civil rights leaders emerged from the White House Tuesday confident in Pres. Obama's commitment to a minimum wage hike, jobs, and criminal justice reform.
President Barack Obama (2nd R), Attorney General Eric Holder (C) and Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett (R) meet with leaders from African American civil rights groups an the White House Feb. 18, 2014 in Washington, DC.
President Barack Obama (2nd R), Attorney General Eric Holder (C) and Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett (R) meet with leaders from African American civil rights groups an the White House Feb. 18, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Some of the nation's top civil rights leaders left the White House Tuesday afternoon confident that President Obama would fight hard for progressive policies designed to help the African-American community.

Attendees appeared optimistic that the president would focus on key issues including an increase in the minimum wage, jobs, worker training, voting rights, criminal justice reform, and so-called "stand your ground" laws across the country.

Rev. Al Sharpton called the meeting "the most substantive conversation" he's seen in the series of similar visits he and other leaders have made to the White House, saying the president was "passionately committed to dealing and exploring with some of these issues."

"It has been always said that if America has a cold, blacks have pneumonia," Sharpton said. "And in many areas, in the criminal justice area, particular with this last verdict in Florida, and in the economic area we have deep concerns that we expressed to the president." 

The leaders and activists in attendance presented the president with "21st Century Agenda for Jobs and Freedom," a policy report put together in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last year. 

The conversation came as leaders from both parties reacted to a new Congressional Budget Office report predicting the impact of such a minimum wage hike. The White House quickly pointed to the economic benefits outlined in the report, including that raising the hourly rate to $10.10 could lift nearly one million out of poverty and would directly benefit more than 16 million workers. Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, focused on the report's prediction that the wage hike could reduce total employment by roughly half a million workers in the second half of 2016. 

Marc Morial, president of National Urban League, said that while the report did not come up during the meeting with the president, his own groups research has shown no such impact. "We believe based on our research that the evidence shows that raising the minimum wage, in the past six times it has been raised, has not cost jobs for this nation," he said. 

NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill praised the White House's dedication to "Smart on Crime" criminal justice reform efforts.

"We were deeply gratified to hear both the president and the attorney general's commitment in describing the ways in which they stand united in some of the efforts to ensure that our criminal justice system reduces racial disparities and doesn't break communities as our current criminal justice system is doing by the kind of mass incarceration, over-sentencing, and misuse of the criminal justice system that has been so rampant over the past 20 or 30 years," she said. 

Ifill also praised the president's recent efforts to provide clemency to some of the individuals incarcerated before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, said the president indicated he is looking for more candidates for clemency.

When asked about perceived frustration in the African-American community with Obama, Sharpton quickly pointed to the president's high approval and margin of victory in the 2012 election.

"I think that a lot of the frustration that has happened in the African-American community has been based on a lot of the resistance, and frankly some of the blocking that has been done here in Washington," Sharpton said. 

Sharpton reflected further on the meeting on PoliticsNation Tuesday, reiterating the need for action both in and beyond Washington.

"As we continue to move forward to secure and sustain and protect civil rights for all Americans, just remember, really maintaining civil rights just not just come from the White House, it comes by and it comes from what you and I do in our houses as well," he said.