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Inauguration Marks Generational, Racial Turning Point

January 19, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Barack Obama's inauguration marks a turning point for the civil rights movement. Experts mull the event's significance and how it may shift the conversation over race in America.
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GWEN IFILL: Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 80 years old had he lived to see tomorrow’s inauguration of the 47-year-old Barack Obama. The arc of that journey resonates loudly today.

Joining us to talk about that one-generation leap are: Rev. Joseph Lowery, who with Dr. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; he will deliver the benediction at tomorrow’s swearing in; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a NewsHour alum who was also the first African-American woman to attend the University of Georgia, she’s now a special correspondent in Africa for NPR and other news organizations; Ta-Nehisi Coates, contributing editor for the Atlantic and a fellow at the Nation Institute; and Rael Nelson James, a development associate for KIPP DC, a network of high-performing inner-city charter schools in and around Washington, D.C.

Welcome to you all.

As you look at this day, Charlayne, and you talk to your cohorts about what not only this Martin Luther King Holiday means, but tomorrow’s inauguration, what’s the conversation like?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, National Public Radio: The conversation is simply ebullient. I don’t think I have seen a time like this in my lifetime, even though I wasn’t one of those who thought I wouldn’t see Barack Obama become president. I thought, given the experiences we had in the civil rights movement, of course a black man one day would be president.

But the exuberance in Washington, D.C., alone — and also where I live now, in South Africa — I was buying something at a deli the other day. And the young man said to me — he notes I’m an American — he says, “Are you going to the inauguration?” And I said, “Oh, absolutely.” “And what are you going to do?” And I said, “I’m going to this ball and that ball and that ball.” He said, “Well, we’re having a ball, too, all over Africa.”

I mean, it’s truly all over the world. I think it’s a transcendental moment.

GWEN IFILL: Rev. Lowery, would you use the term “transcendental” or is there anything that kind of makes people nervous about this ebullience?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY, co-founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: I might use it, if I knew what it meant.

GWEN IFILL: How would you describe it?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: I don’t know. Words are so inadequate. Martin would be 80 last Thursday. And I don’t know. I can’t put into words what this means to the world.

He’s the first global president. If anybody is the president of the world, Barack Obama symbolically represents that.

I’ve never seen what CNN and some of these networks did on election night, going around the country, showing the exultation, the joy, the celebration in country after country after country, because Barack Obama had been elected president. There’s something electrifying about it.

And it’s not just — when we were fighting in the ’60s for the right to vote, all of us thought one day there would be a black president. And we knew there would be a day; we just didn’t know the date.

And the date becomes November 4, 2008. And it’s a marvelous day and a marvelous date. And it’s the beginning of a new era in global politics and in human relations across the globe. It can’t be the same anymore.

Closing the generation gap

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
National Public Radio
Hopefully he can bring these two eras together, the Joshua generation, the Moses generation, and then the whole notion of education, the kind of thing that you do to bring this new generation into the context that we need to make progress.

GWEN IFILL: Rael-Nelson James, you deal with a lot of high school students. You work with younger people who are, I find, less fazed by all of this, happy about it, but not as blown away as older folks are.

RAEL NELSON JAMES, KIPP DC Charter Schools: Definitely. I think, because people my age and younger really haven't experienced the nadir period in American history -- things have been relatively static in our lifetimes, until the sort of wartime that's come, so I think that's the biggest thing that we respond to is help us in this war, help us return to the sort of period of stability and prosperity that so many of us -- for so many of us was all we knew.

And I think that's the hope. And also just the idea that there's been this groundswell, this grassroots movement of young people that's actually, you know, propelled Barack Obama to the presidency, it's just incredibly powerful, because we don't have that context of the '60s and understanding that that was a grassroots movement, also.

We get taught the sort of top-down leadership model of the civil rights movement. And so we don't realize that that, too, was a grassroots movement, that those foot soldiers were just as important to the success of that movement as Martin Luther King was or any of the other sort of hotspot Black History Month names that we think of, that there are all of these other people who are just the same as the campaign staffers who worked on, you know, Barack Obama's campaign.

And so the more we're feeling connected to this movement that we have now, the more I think there's a context to understand and to use the civil rights movement, in addition to teach how, look at these two movements for change and how can we use those as conceptual frameworks for anything that our generation wants to do in the future.

GWEN IFILL: Ta-Nehisi, as you talk to folks, do you have a sense that people are more taken by the generational shift or the racial shift?

TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic: The racial shift, I mean, just in all honesty. I think it's fascinating to listen to my esteemed panelists over here, who have gone through so much, and yet still had the expectation that one day there would be a black president, because I had written it off in my lifetime, which seems -- I mean, I should be the one with hope as anyone, but I had basically written it off.

And this really came out of left field, so much so that I find on a daily basis it still reverberates back to me. And I'm amazed. I'll see a picture. I'll see, you know, Barack Obama and Michelle on stage with their kids, and...

GWEN IFILL: It'll strike you all over again?

TA-NEHISI COATES: ... it'll strike me. And it's like, "Oh, my god," like this is actually happening. It was way, way out of left field. I think a lot of people my age and my sort of cohort very much feel the same.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Gwen, can I just say something about that? Because I was listening today to the Rev. Ralph Abernathy's wife talk about this. And one of the points -- Juanita Abernathy -- one of the points she made that I think is so relevant to what Ta-Nehisi is saying is that we don't have this in our history books.

GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by "this"?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The civil rights movement, the things that Rev. Lowery and Martin Luther King -- they've even deconstructed the "I Have a Dream" speech, because everybody knows that, but they don't know the context of it and they don't know the essential message of it, which was about economics and getting poor people out of poverty and into the mainstream. Even today, this isn't taught in a significant way in our history books.

And if there's anybody who can -- who understands what you were talking about, Rael, it's Barack Obama. He's -- because he's talked during his campaign about the shoulders, including these, that he stood on. And he knows the history; he's learned the history. And he also understands this notion of education and how important.

So hopefully he can bring these two eras together, the Joshua generation, the Moses generation, and then the whole notion of education, the kind of thing that you do to bring this new generation into the context that we need to make progress.

'In this election we did move'

The Rev. Joseph Lowery
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
I think this ceremony, in which I can't believe I'm taking part, is the national response to that call or to move, because in this election we did move. But I'm hearing a term that bothers me a little about 'post-racial.' I don't know what it means.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me move it forward a bit, Rev. Lowery, because I'm curious about whether what Barack Obama is doing, has done here, which is building coalitions which cross racial lines, frankly, has devalued some of the race-specific solutions that people have traditionally pushed for over the years -- affirmative action or closing the gap of racial disparities in sentencing -- things like that?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: I don't think so.

GWEN IFILL: You don't?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: No, I think there's enough left over to keep us busy for a long, long time. Tomorrow, when I look down that mall, they tell me I'm going to be able to see a little of the Lincoln Memorial. And I think I'll hear a 34-year-old preacher calling America to move away from all of this race-based decision-making, think about character and competence, not just color and race.

And I think this ceremony -- in which I can't believe I'm taking a part -- is the national response to that call or to move, because in this election we did move. But I'm hearing a term that bothers me a little about "post-racial." I don't know what it means.

GWEN IFILL: Does anybody at this table think there's such a thing as post-racial, that term?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: I heard "post-civil rights" for a long -- I didn't understand that, either. But if you think one election of one man, even if he's the most powerful on the planet, solves all the racial problems, the median income of black folks in this country still is a little less than two-thirds than the median income of white people.

The criminal justice system -- and I said at Duke yesterday that, when we talk about service, I'm all for honoring Martin with service, help old ladies across the street, you know, clean up the trash out of the yard, but after we help the old lady, let's go down in her neighborhood and see if her street's paved.

You know, let's see if the Social Security system is -- he was not just a social worker rendering social service. He was an agent of social change. And I don't want us to lose the perspective on change. And we've still got a whole lot of changing to do.

GWEN IFILL: The needs still remain. So, Ta-Nehisi, how does one contain expectations? You know, there's a lot being put on the ascension of the first African-American president.

TA-NEHISI COATES: People will inevitably be disappointed. That's just the way it is. He's tried to tamp it down.

I noticed -- I went down to the concert the other day. You know, after all these great singers and everybody was pumped up, he came on and he immediately talked about all the problems facing us. And we were standing on just like, "God, Barack, you're a downer, man."

Meaning of 'race' has evolved

Rael Nelson James
KIPP DC Charter Schools
If you can find a high school that has racial diversity in the first place, you're going to see a table here of this kind of kid, a table here of this kind of kid. You're still going to have those divisions. So I don't think we're truly post-racial.

GWEN IFILL: A real buzz-kill.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. But the thing is, he's the one that's going to have to do the job, so I understand. I mean, he's bringing people back to planet Earth.

If I can, I want to follow up on the comment over here, about whether we're in this post-racial age or whatever. I thought there was a moment at the end of Barack Obama's speech where he talked about Ann Nixon Cooper. I think she was 106 years old, and she'd gone to vote...

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: From Atlanta, Georgia.

TA-NEHISI COATES: From Atlanta, Georgia. And she'd gone and voted for him. And I thought one of the brilliant things he did was he talked about her as an African-American. He mentioned, you know, being the descendents of slaves, et cetera, the marches and all that.

But he also mentioned some of the moments in American history: flight, the Depression. He gave her, her American identity, along with her African-American identity. And I think that's been one of the brilliant things.

And so as we move into talking about our solutions, Barack Obama has been able to articulate race problems as American problems, so we think about, for instance, the criminal justice system. And so the question is, well, there are a large number of African-Americans in the system. Isn't that a disgrace?

But the bigger question is, were there no black people, is this how we would want to handle our problems anyway? In other words, is it right anyway, race aside, is this the way Americans want to handle their problems? And I think that's been absolutely brilliant.

GWEN IFILL: Rael, is that what you hear? Is that what you listen for? Is that what the young people you deal with and work with every day listen for?

RAEL NELSON JAMES: The difference between -- in terms of post-racial America?

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

RAEL NELSON JAMES: Well, I mean, there is the sense I think among high school students that we're in a different era where race means something different than maybe it did 40 years ago, but...

GWEN IFILL: Meaning?

RAEL NELSON JAMES: Meaning that it's not necessarily a barrier to them interacting on a social level or, you know, people have friends of all, you know, races.

But if you go into any high school around, you know, D.C. that has racial diversity, if you can find a high school that has racial diversity in the first place, you're going to see a table here of this kind of kid, a table here of this kind of kid. You're still going to have those divisions.

So I don't think we're truly post-racial. I mean, just -- you know, I'm a native Washingtonian, and I think of, you know, people being down on the mall. And that's nice, and there's this sort of federal part of our city that gets honored a lot.

But, you know, just a couple miles from there is Ward 8, where you still have only 34 percent of the residents graduating from high school. And that's a majority black part of our city. So, I mean, I don't think that we can say that, that we're in a post-racial era, when that's still those people's reality.

GWEN IFILL: You sound just a little pessimistic about all this?

RAEL NELSON JAMES: I don't think that there -- I think there are enormous areas of hopefulness. I mean, the organization that I work for, KIPP DC, is, you know, creating the highest-performing college prep schools in the city. And I think that there are enormous areas of achievement and of hopefulness.

I just don't want this to be symbolic of, you know, us making a check next to the problem of race in America and letting ourselves off the hook for ongoing movement.

Continuing the race conversation

Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Atlantic Monthly
As we move into talking about our solutions, Barack Obama has been able to articulate race problems as American problems.

GWEN IFILL: So we have a black president, so we're all done.

How do we continue this conversation? You watch it from a unique vantage point, Charlayne, from South Africa, where everyone is watching very closely to see how America handles this moment. How should America and how can America handle this moment?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, I think that -- I'm not disagreeing with you in terms of what you said about what Barack has to do, but I think that what President-elect Obama has said is that everybody needs to be involved in this conversation and we have to figure out how to do that.

And, you know, when I worked here for the NewsHour years ago, we used to have regular national conversations about race. And I don't think that's a bad idea to continue this conversation so that people can understand how a young black person feels or a young white person.

Let me just say, because I know we're going to run out of time in a minute, Barack Obama is not just any black man. He had a black mother. He had a father from Kenya.

GWEN IFILL: He had a white mother.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: ... a white mother and a father from Kenya, and a white mother whom I've just written about, who helped make the man the man he is. And what she emphasized was values.

And if we want to understand Barack Obama and if we want to understand the kinds of things that we need to be passing on to our young people no matter, you know, whether they're black or white, it's those values that you see coming out in Obama all the time.

Everybody talks about his confidence and so forth. Well, this was a kid who was a recalcitrant teenager, but his mother, who was poor -- although she was educated -- nevertheless, when he was screwing off in school, she said, "You are going to get up every morning at 4:30, and we're going to go over your lessons before I go to work." And she said, "You may not be enjoying this, but I'm not either, buster."

So we've all got to help Barack Obama be this global leader, but we can't sit back and just wait for him to do it. We journalists have a responsibility. You writers have a responsibility -- and the preachers.

GWEN IFILL: Well, speaking of the preachers, since you give the benediction tomorrow, I want to give you the benediction here at our table, as well, today. Is this even possible? Can those values be translated from the leader of the country to the streets of the country that need to hear these messages?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: I think that's the way they are translated. I think people pick up human traits and translate them into their own personal behavior patterns. I think it's got to be that way.

And I think -- I can't wait for a few years, Barack has been president, to see what happens to the little doll experiment that black kids picking white dolls, you know, over black dolls. Well, now that we've got a guy in the presidency who looks like us, I think it's going to impact kids at that level. And I think we'll begin to pick a few black dolls.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we'll come back and take that experiment again in a couple of years. Rev. Lowery, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rael Nelson James, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you all very much.

JIM LEHRER: There's much more about the inauguration on our Web site. You can keep track of tomorrow's events on our interactive map, and you can view news updates and photos from across the city.

In our Insider Forum, you can even ask questions about race and the Obama administration. Just go to PBS.org, then click on "TV Shows" and then "Online NewsHour."