CHICAGO — Addressing a packed congregation at one of the city’s largest black churches, Senator Barack Obama on Sunday invoked his own absent father to deliver a sharp message to black men, saying “we need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception.”
In an address that was striking for its bluntness and where he chose to give it, Mr. Obama directly addressed one of the most delicate topics confronting black leaders: how much responsibility absent fathers bear for some of the intractable problems afflicting black Americans. Mr. Obama noted that “more than half of all black children live in single-parent households,” a number that he said had doubled since his own childhood.
“Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Mr. Obama said to a chorus of approving murmurs from the audience. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, who sat in the front pew, Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, laid out his case in stark terms that would be difficult for a white candidate to make, telling the mostly black audience not to “just sit in the house watching ‘SportsCenter,’ ” and to stop praising themselves for mediocre accomplishments.
“Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation,” he said, bringing many members of the congregation to their feet, applauding. “You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”
His themes have also been sounded by the comedian Bill Cosby, who has stirred debate among black Americans by bluntly speaking about an epidemic of fatherlessness in African-American families while suggesting that some blacks use racism as a crutch to explain the lack of economic progress.
Mr. Obama did not take his Father’s Day message to Trinity United Church of Christ, where he resigned as a member in May after a series of disputes over controversial remarks by the church’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Instead, he chose the 20,000-member Apostolic Church of God, a vast brick structure on the South Side near Lake Michigan. The church’s pastor, Byron Brazier, is an Obama supporter.
The address was not Mr. Obama’s first foray into the issue. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has frequently returned to the topic of parenting and personal responsibility, particularly for low-income black families. Speaking in Texas in February, Mr. Obama told the mostly black audience to take responsibility for the education and nutrition of their children, and lectured them for feeding their children “cold Popeyes” for breakfast.
“I know how hard it is to get kids to eat properly,” Mr. Obama said at the time.
The remarks Sunday were Mr. Obama’s first since he claimed the nomination that have addressed the problems confronting blacks in a comprehensive and straightforward way. While Mr. Obama’s remarks were directed at a black, churchgoing audience, his campaign hopes they resonate among white social conservatives in a race where these voters may be up for grabs.
On Friday, Mr. Obama said he would co-sponsor a bill, with Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, that his campaign said would address the “national epidemic of absentee fathers.” If passed, the legislation would increase enforcement of child support payments and strengthen services for domestic violence prevention.
“We need families to raise our children,” he said at the service on Sunday. “We need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception. That doesn’t just make you a father. What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child. Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”
Mr. Obama spoke of the burden that single parenthood placed on his mother, who raised him with the help of his maternal grandparents.
“I know the toll it took on me, not having a father in the house,” he continued. “The hole in your heart when you don’t have a male figure in the home who can guide you and lead you. So I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle — that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my children.”
But Mr. Obama also acknowledged his own flaws as a father, citing the breakneck schedule of the campaign and the rare days he spends with his children.
“I say this knowing that I have been an imperfect father,” he said, “knowing that I have made mistakes and I’ll continue to make more, wishing that I could be home for my girls and my wife more than I am right now.”
Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and an Obama supporter, said he welcomed not only the message the speech sent to black Americans, but also how it laid bare Mr. Obama’s own struggles growing up and, now, as the father of two children.
“I have been saying for some time now that he needs to talk more about his life experiences and what it means to be raised by a single mother,” Mr. Clyburn said. “He opened up.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton called the remarks on absent black fathers “courageous and important,” but cautioned that Mr. Obama’s words would not be embraced by all segments of the black community.
“There are a lot of those who will say that he should not be airing dirty laundry, those that will say he’s beating up on the victims,” Mr. Sharpton said in a telephone interview. “This will not be something that will be unanimously applauded, but I think that not discussing it is not going to make it go away.”
The Obama campaign added the speech to Mr. Obama’s schedule on Saturday, when he returned to Chicago after a campaign swing through Pennsylvania and Ohio. Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, took the day off from campaigning, but met privately in Washington with Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister.
The church did not publicize Mr. Obama’s visit in advance, and carried no mention of it on the its Web site.
But word had clearly gotten out, and by 11 a.m., as a musician warmed up on the timpani, thousands of people had filed through metal detectors at the church entrance and filled the pews, saving seats for latecomers with pocketbooks and hymnals. Even those who arrived an hour before the service milled around the church searching for empty seats.
Mr. Obama sprinkled his roughly 30-minute address with moments of levity. He said that when he asked his wife why Mother’s Day produced so much more “hoopla” than Father’s Day, she reminded him of his special status.
“She said, ‘Let me tell you, every day is Father’s Day,’ ” he said. “ ‘Every day you’re getting away with something. You’re running for president.’ ”
* By JULIE BOSMAN June 16, 2008
Michael Falcone contributed reporting from Washington.