Artifact Three: Listen to Obama Make the Case for Activism
Follow @sarah_childressSeptember 20, 2012, 11:02 am ET
In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. Each Monday and Thursday for the next three weeks, we’ll publish a new artifact for each candidate. Check back this afternoon for an artifact from Mitt Romney.
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Obama had long been passionate about making a difference, helping others. His roommate in New York, Sohale Siddiqi, recalled teasing him about his idealism, calling him naïve when he fretted about kids in their Harlem neighborhood getting into drugs instead of sitting in class. While Siddiqi would eventually tune him out, Obama kept searching for answers, first in community organizing, and then in law school.
In 1994, Obama was an attorney at the Chicago firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill and Galen, specializing in civil rights litigation. That year, he went to Nebraska Wesleyan University to deliver a speech on the importance of community organizing, in an effort to try to inspire a similar passion in young people.
In his speech, “Community Revitalization,” Obama acknowledges that young people aren’t as engaged as they were in the 1960s — the issues are more nuanced, and marches no longer get the same results as they did in the civil-rights era. After some awkward jokes and archaic references (VCR machine?), the young attorney makes a case for why, despite these challenges, college-aged people today should still push for social change — not out of guilt, but self-interest, because of his belief that we are all connected to each other.
Click to read the full speech
ANNOUNCER: Today University Forum presents Barack Obama, a Chicago attorney, community organizer, and Civil Rights advocate, and his lecture, Community Revitalization. Obama is an attorney with the Chicago law firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill and Galen, where he specializes in Civil Rights litigation, real estate financing, acquisition, construction and redevelopment of low and moderate income housing, and representation of not-for-profit organizations created to promote the welfare of low and moderate income urban communities. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he lectures on Civil Rights and social change.
After graduating from Columbia University, Obama gained national attention in 1990 as a law student at Harvard University, where he was the first African American to serve as editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in 1991.
From 1985 to 1988, Obama served as executive director of the Developing Communities Project, a grassroots church-based community development organization in Chicago’s far south side. During his four years as director, Obama trained leadership from churches, public housing complexes, parent organizations, and block clubs to work collectively to restore housing, streets, and parks in the area, established counseling and tutorial programs for at-risk youth, created job training programs for the unemployed of the area, and forged partnerships between community leadership and the public schools, to raise reading and math performance.
In 1992 he served as director of Illinois Project Vote in Chicago, organizing and directing a voter registration and education campaign, targeting minority and low-income voters in the Chicago area. Obama is also the author of Mixing Blood: Stories of Inheritance to be published by Random House in 1995.
Join us now for University Forum and Barack Obama.
BARACK OBAMA: [applause] Thank you very much. I’ve been wired for sound, so I suspect this should work. I’m very happy to be here today. I’ve never been to Lincoln. I was told, when I was coming to Lincoln, that I should know something about the Cornhuskers. Fortunately, on the flight, somebody announced the score of last night’s game. So I’m up to speed.
I myself did not play football, as you can probably tell by looking at me. Actually, I played one year of football when I was in 9th grade. We had a pretty mean coach. You know, he wore dark glasses and chewed tobacco. And he’d spit at our shoes while we were playing. And that was my one experience with football. I was defensive end. I was a little bigger when I was young. And the coach told me– I got clipped one day. And sort of, by the end. And the coach called me over. And he said, “Next time, I want you to step all over his back.” And this was my best friend. And I decided that my football career was over. But I admire– You know, I’ve seen some Cornhuskers. And I’m pretty impressed with their heft. [laughter]
I am here to talk about community involvement and community service. And, you know, it’s a difficult thing, I think, to talk to young people about today, because the setting has changed between when I was coming up, when I was sitting where you’re sitting today, and where you are now. I did not grow up in the ‘60s, I wasn’t in college in the ‘60s. That was my mother’s generation. I’m sort of in between the baby boomers and generation X, so-called. So your parents are the people who grew up in the ‘60s and marched in Vietnam. I came sort of at the tail end of it.
But nevertheless, I was influenced greatly by that generation. And I always felt that young people were the agents of change in this country. I think for a lot of your parents, that was the feeling. Many of them were inspired by the Civil Rights movement, by the antiwar movement, by the movement to expand women’s rights in this country. And recently, I have been reading a lot of articles, both in the New York Times and Newsweek and on MTV about Generation X. And I guess you guys are considered Generation X. It’s not a very flattering term. It sounds like an insecticide or something. [laughter]
But, from what I’ve been told in these articles, this current generation is cynical and apathetic and generally doesn’t believe in the value or utility of community participation. Now I’m not sure whether that’s true or not. But that’s the reputation. And so I have reflected on why that is. It’s disturbing to me, because my sense is, is that at no time in our history has there been a greater need for community involvement, a greater need for idealism among young people.
And so the question is, why it is that young people have not been as active or involved as they might be. And I’m not sure. I don’t have all the answers for this. I think some of it has to do with a disenchantment across the nation with what happened in the ‘60s. As you recall, the heyday of the ‘60s, there was a lot of clarity about the changes that needed to be brought about in this country. The Civil Rights movement dramatized the fact that there were a certain portion of our society that were locked out, that were disenfranchised, in dramatic fashion.
And it was clear that there was a wrong there that needed to be righted. I think for women of that generation, the sense that they were inhibited from living out their aspirations and dreams, that the choices that were available to them were in the kitchen, you know, or as secretaries, or as teachers, as opposed to attorneys or Supreme Court justices. That was, over time at least, became clear, that that was something that needed to be changed. The Vietnam War and the cost in terms of lives and in terms of the economy was at least a more dramatic and easily identifiable issue that young people, I think, felt they could do something about.
Today, the problems we face are more complex. You know, the path towards betterment of the society isn’t as clear. I think my expertise is in Civil Rights. And certainly, for the African American and minority community in this country, the solutions that are available aren’t as promising as they were back in the ‘60s.
Some of you may have heard recently in Chicago of a young man, an 11-year-old, named Robert Sandoval, who was the object of a manhunt, although he was only four feet, eight inches tall, and was only 13 years old, because he was accused of having shot and killed a 14-year-old young girl. She happened to be in the line of some gang fire. And Mr. Sandoval, at the age of 13 or 14, had a rap sheet a mile long, had already been arrested 28 times, had been the victim of child abuse growing up in a public housing project in Chicago, an area where I used to organize. His mother was on welfare. His grandmother had been on welfare. There were drugs involved. He ended up, when they finally found him, he was already executed by other fellow gang members, shot in the back of the head twice. This was all at the age of 13.
You know, when we read reports like that, I think we have a difficult sense of what can we do about that kind of situation? What can we do about the collapse of the inner city? What can we do about young men who don’t have any fathers and don’t have any guidance and can’t read and are unemployable? And are the Civil Rights strategies available in the ‘60s going to do anything for those young people?
So in some ways, your generation, I think, is going to be confronting issues that aren’t as amenable to easy solution. It’s going to require long-term vision and long-term commitment in a way that your parents’ generation, or even the generation that came immediately after your parents, didn’t have to face. And I think that’s a troubling thing, because this entire country, I think, has responded to the difficulties and complexities of the issues that we face today, whether it’s environmental degradation, or economic restructuring, or the challenges that we face in improving the educational system in this country.
And I think our reaction has generally been to withdraw. I think our reaction has generally been to become more privatized, more mean-spirited, more cynical about the possibilities of collective action, less optimistic about politics. I think that was exhibited pretty clearly in the recent debates in Congress. Everybody feels that government should be doing something, but nobody feels that government can do anything. And so our response tends to be to not vote. Our response tends to be not to get involved. Our major forms of entertainment, like Bart Simpson or Rush Limbaugh, are constantly displaying a deep-rooted cynicism about what we can accomplish together.
What I’d like to do today is to talk a little bit about how we might break out of that cynicism, how we could potentially return to a notion in the ’60s that was perhaps naïve, and maybe we’ve learned some good lessons from that time, that in fact community participation is a good thing, that young people should be idealistic, that we can accomplish jointly some changes that are going to make this society fairer, more equitable, more prosperous, not just for the few, but for the many.
To do that, I think what we’re going to have to focus on is a concept of community that has been lost, not just in inner city communities, where the fabric of community has been torn asunder by drugs and crime and unemployment, but even our concept of community in places like Lincoln. As I was driving over, I was talking to a few people about what it must have been like in Lincoln, Nebraska 50 years ago. And I suspect that there was a lot of hardship here. I suspect, if you sit down and talk to your grandparents, they had to rely on each other. I think there was a sense that they couldn’t make it on their own, that whether you come from a farming community, or your grandparents worked in an industrial plant and were members of a union, the sense that community was important, that was the thing that held things together.
Now that’s something that, even in a place like Lincoln, I suspect has been lost. You know, I don’t know how many of you spend Saturday evenings talking to your grandparents or parents, as opposed to watching television, or staring at the VCR machine. But I suspect that, even here, we have lost a sense of community. Certainly, nationally we’ve lost a sense of community.
And to restore that community, I think as a starting point, we’re going to have to talk about values. This is something that probably was a major mistake that was made in the ’60s, when we talked about social change. People didn’t talk about values. People talked about power. And they talked about injustice. But a lot of times, values were ignored. Values have made a comeback. Dan Quayle talks about values, right. He talks about Murphy Brown and her lack of values. [laughter] Bill Clinton talks about values. Jesse Jackson talks about values.
So we have values bandied about all over the place. Politicians really like values now. Part of the reason for that is that values are cheap, at least the way they talk about them. You don’t have to pay any money or tax anybody to talk about values. Family values, American values, values.
I’m disturbed about how we talk about values. I think values are critical. I think that’s how you build communities. But I also think that the term “values” is an empty vessel. It doesn’t mean anything on its own. Values have to be acted upon. They have to be tested. Values are dynamic. And I think one of the things that you are going to have to think about in your lives, in your careers, and in your communities, is how do we test out our values?
First, as I said, I think values are dynamic. Part of the reason that I don’t trust Dan Quayle talking about values, and I often don’t trust Bill Clinton talking about values, is they tend to have a static notion of values. You know, Dan Quayle talks about values in terms of Ozzie and Harriet values. I think the values that they see on TV — and my wife, who’s an attorney, she likes to watch old TV reruns. And so she watches The Dick Van Dyke Show and Ozzie and Harriet and things like that. And I’m always struck by the values that are embodied in these television shows, which I think are the values that people have in mind when they talk about return to American values.
The wife is at home. She’s not working. You know, dad’s got his nine-to-five. There are no African Americans in these family values. There is no discussion of poverty in these values. There’s not much talk about the nuclear arm race that was taking place on these television programs. So the notion is that we can somehow return to that time and recapture those values without acknowledging all the things that were left out.
Well that’s not the case. We have to figure out how to live out the American ideal, or the value we have in terms of fairness and justice and family in an environment that’s changed. And the only way we can do that is to act upon our values and test them out and see whether we can create new paradigms to live out those old values, those […] values that […].
Acting on your values, I think is critical. Just most of your classes, you are learning about values. You are reading Shakespeare. Or you’re reading Jefferson. But, if we don’t act out on our values, they don’t mean much. I know that from personal experience, because when I was your age, I was an angry young man who thought that I had all kinds of values. I was […] protests. And I wore […] and I had a big afro. And when I look at pictures of the time, I’m always a little embarrassed.
And I would read philosophers like […] and […]. I was […] And we trashed the place. We trashed the dorms while we were having these conversations about values. You know, we’d […] beer bottles […] Put out our cigarettes in the carpet. And all the time, talking about values.
And I remember waking up one morning and seeing the cleaning ladies come in to clean up after our mess. And they were Mexican women, and they were stunned […] we’d left behind. And I had […] the values I professed to believe in I was not acting on values. And I think that’s typical, not just of young people, typical of how I was, I think […] agree that part of the mistake that we made […] that’s why people are cynical about idealism.
I think that the values that we profess […] the belief in racial justice, or the values that we said we believed, in terms of the environment, or all kinds of values that we talked about, we didn’t always act out in our personal lives. We didn’t always make the choices required to take responsibility for those values.
It’s easy to believe in Civil Rights and integration and busing if you send your kids to a private school, right. It’s easy to believe in gender equality if you’re wealthy enough to hire a made so that you can have your career, and somebody is cleaning up after you. It’s easy to believe in environment, environmental regulation, when your dad does not work in a steel plant and is not going to be potentially laid off because of increased environmental regulation.
It’s harder to believe in these values when you actually test them out. Because it turns out that values are often intention. That it’s not easy to live up to your ideals and your values. It requires sacrifice. It may require taxes on the part of the society. It may require that you go without certain luxuries that you’ve become accustomed to. If you don’t live out those values, they don’t mean much. And I think part of the cynicism we have about politics right now is a politics of symbolism that talks about values but does not live them out. And we all know that. That’s why people don’t listen to politicians. And we don’t get involved. Because we know that we say one thing, and we do another thing, both personally and in the society.
And so I would challenge you, first, to think about what your values are, and think about whether you’re living them out. Think about whether the things you read in these books in your classes, about equality or justice, whether you live those out, whether you’re contributing to the promotion of these values, or whether you’re just giving lip service to them and not living them out. That’s the first thing I have to say about values. And I think that was a mistake that we’ve made in the past, is to think that living up to our ideals and values is easy, that we can do it on the cheap, that we can take shortcuts. That’s not the case.
The second thing, I think, that we made a mistake about in the ‘60s– I know personally I’ve made mistakes in terms of my community involvement in the past– is the notion that being involved in community service, or being involved in politics is a matter of being against something, as opposed to being for something. I think this was– this was a major mistake that many of us made.
There is a notion that the “system”– quote/unquote– needs to be changed, and that all we need to do is just complain about it. Throw the bums out, you know. Get on the picket line. You know, the corporate interests, all kinds of slogan and jargons that were thrown around in the ’60s and aren’t thrown around as much now, because I think people recognize that, well, you know, we’ve seen the enemy and it is us. There is no “they” out there, whether, you know, you think that “they” is white people, or you think that “they” is black people, or you think that “they” are corporate interests, or you think that “they” is unions. Well they’re all us. Community involvement requires that you be for something, not just against something, that you don’t just complain about how messed up things are, but that you figure out how to bring about some solutions to these problems.
I know that at Harvard, one of the most frustrating things about student life at Harvard was, I guess, what’s called political correctness in the media. Now political correctness, I tend not to– I tend not to be that sympathetic to people who cry about political correctness and complain about, you know, the liberals and the minorities who are giving conservatives a hard time. You know, I think that there’s nothing wrong with giving somebody a hard time if they’re being insensitive to other people’s feelings, if they’re being rude, if they’re telling racist jokes, if they’re telling sexist jokes. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with telling them where they’re wrong.
But I do think that what’s happened in a place like Harvard and maybe happens less so here, is that young people tend to jump with both feet on a whole lot of symbolic issues. I remember when I was organizing at Harvard, when I was the manager of The Law Review at Harvard, I had a young black woman come in to me and complain vehemently about the fact that the word “black” was not capitalized in an article. Whereas she felt that “black” should be capitalized because that would show more respect for the black community.
And then, you know, a white editor came in. He started complaining, “Why should black be capitalized when white is not capitalized?” Now this seems like a ridiculous argument, but this is the kind of thing that a lot of students, groups, a lot of well-meaning idealists spend their time on. I think there are a lot of academics that spend their time on it. I’m not sure that’s really useful. I think it’s a matter of symbols and not substance. And I think it indicates our willingness to try to, instead of making the sacrifices that are required to really bring about changes, I think it’s an indication of our sense of powerlessness, that we just complain about things, that we pick at small issues, instead of taking on and really engaging the major issues that face our country right now.
So I think that, as you think about community service, you’ve got to be concerned about being for something and not just against something. That’s particularly important in inner city communities, where to rebuild these communities, we’re going to have to figure out how to create jobs in these areas. We’re going to have to figure out how to fix up schools. We’re going to have to create new paradigms to revitalize these communities.
And that’s not just going to involve protest and complaint. That’s something that’s changed from the ‘60s. We’re not going to be able to just march, we’re going to have to really roll up our sleeves and figure out how to do it. And that’s going to be more challenging. And that’s something that I expect all of you could make great contribution towards. But it’s going to require some sacrifice. And it’s going to require some effort. So be for something, not just against something.
The third thing that I want to talk about is this whole notion of service. I tend not to use the term “service” in thinking about community. I usually use the word “self interest.” I don’t get involved with the community, I don’t do the things that I do, I don’t get involved with Civil Rights, I don’t organize, I don’t work in low income communities because I feel that sort of I’m more fortunate and I have to give back to this community. Although I am fortunate, and I do have to give back to this community, I don’t do it out of a sense of charity. I don’t do it out of a sense of guilt.
I think the reason that you get involved with community is a recognition that your individual fate, your individual salvation, is tied to the larger group. You do it because you recognize that, in your gut, the story of your life is connected to the story of other people’s lives. In Chicago, right now the black community and the Hispanic community is suffering a great deal of crime. And I think, for a long time, the white community in the city has felt that’s a minority problem.
But of course what’s happening now is that it’s starting to spill over into the white community. The fact that these are– the school systems don’t work in the inner city affects the economic viability of the city. It means that corporations are moving out into the suburbs. The fact that housing is not working very well– public housing is not working very well, and that it’s collapsing. Well, what that means is that the tax burden on the entire city is increased.
And so the reason that you should get involved in community service, even in Lincoln, as pretty as it is and as isolated in some ways from these major urban problems, as it seems, the reason you should get involved in community service is, because over the long term, what happens in these communities, what happens to people in the inner city, what happens to that 11 year old who’s being shot, is going to have a direct impact on you, is going to have an impact in terms of the viability of the economy of this country; it’s going to have an impact in terms of your life chances and the opportunities for your career; it’s going to have an impact in terms of the lives of your children, because they are going to be threatened by crime and violence in a way that your parents were not and you were not. The reason you do it is because of your self-interest. That’s the most important reason for getting involved.
Because, if you get involved with guilt on the basis of guilt, guilt usually doesn’t last, all right. Good feelings and charity don’t last that long. That’s what happened in the ‘60s. A lot of people got involved because they were feeling charitable. But, when you started to have to make tough choices about where you lived, and where you sent your kids to school, and what kinds of careers you had, oh, you know, charity went by the wayside.
The reason to get involved is because your self-interest is tied to these people. And the other reason is because of a recognition that, in your own history, in your own story, people have had to struggle along the way. I know that one of the things for me that motivates me to do what I do, is the fact that I know that my grandparents lived through a depression, and that the struggles they went through, I have to– are part of me. They’re part of my story. That, when I see poor people on the street, those are my relatives, at some point in time. That, when I see minorities who have been locked out, those are me even if I am not directly discriminated against.
And that’s true across race and across gender barriers. I think a lot of college students are big on diversity. And we talk about diversity and multiculturalism. Well, I think that’s good. I think diversity is the agent for excellence. People talk about diversity and excellence being in conflict. I don’t think that’s the case. I think diversity is an agent for excellence. It helps us drop away our blinders. We all come into college, and we all have blind spots.
But I also am concerned, when people talk about diversity only in terms of people who are “most like us,” so that black students believe in diversity when it applies to us or when it applies to white persons who think like us. But we’re not so keen about diversity when it comes to Joe Six-Pack, you know. Well, we don’t have to think in terms of diversity because those people are red-necks, or they’re racist.
White folks, we believe– you know, many white students believe in diversity, as long as, you know, the black people or the Hispanics or the Asians that they meet talk like them and, you know, are educated like them. And, you know, you read Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, and you feel, you know, really liberal. But, when it comes to a poor young black, then you don’t feel like diversity is such a good thing, right? And I think that’s a concern that I’ve got.
You’ve got to recognize that your story, in some way, is connected not just to the people who are most like you, but also the people who are most different from you. That, in this country, all of you have, at some point, come from immigrant backgrounds. Very few of us were– you know, our parents came over on the Mayflower. If you’re Irish, somehow, somewhere along the line, you came over because you were fleeing famine. If you’re Italian, you came over, in some sense, because there was greater opportunity in New York. Somebody in your family landed on Ellis Island. You know, if you’re Hispanic, same is the case. Obviously, if you’re African American, you didn’t come here voluntarily.
All of us, somewhere along the line, are connected to struggle. That’s part of our story. And the reason to get involved in community is because you are living out your own story. That’s the reason you do it. That’s the lasting reason. Because you recognize that the only way that you’re going to get a sense of “self” and a sense of meaning is if you connect up with a larger story.
And I can’t emphasize that enough. I know that, when I first got involved in organizing in Harlem, I was out there because of liberal guilt. And I got disabused of that real quickly. I was working for a group called […], a public interest research group. And they were big on recycling. This was connected to Ralph Nader. And they sent me out into the middle of Harlem to try to get people involved in environmental and recycling issues.
And, as you might imagine, the folks in Harlem weren’t all that interested in getting involved. And I would guilt them all the time. And I would say, “Now don’t be apathetic. These are important issues,” and this and that and the other. No. They weren’t interested because I wasn’t speaking to their self interests, right. I wasn’t cooking up with a story that they were living out every day, which is a story of want and a story of facing indifference and lack of opportunity. I had to address their self interest, not their guilt. And I had to address my own self interest and not my guilt.
When I went to Harvard after– And I’m going to wrap up and open up to questions after this– But I’ll close with a story and a bit of advice that a pastor friend of mine gave to me when I was leaving for Harvard after having organized in low income communities for four or five years. And I was a little troubled about the notion of going off to Harvard. I thought that maybe I was betraying my ideals and not living up to my values. I was feeling guilty.
And this pastor friend of mine, who was an older gentleman, he had been in the Civil Rights struggles for a long time. I went to talk to him. And he said, “Go. Go to Harvard. It’ll be good for you. You’ll learn a lot.” He said, “But one thing, don’t let Harvard change you. Don’t let Harvard change you.” And I didn’t know exactly what he meant, “Don’t let Harvard change you.” Because he knew that I didn’t come from the streets of Chicago. He didn’t mean, “Don’t let Harvard educate you.” He didn’t mean that, “You’re not going to meet new people and get new ideas.” I think what he meant was, “Don’t forget the larger story that you’re a part of.” He also meant, “Don’t misplace your dreams.”
I think the danger that all of you are going to confront as you leave college and start entering into your careers, is the process whereby young people’s dreams get misplaced. Among attorneys who come into law school and are very idealistic, and then go on into legal careers, there is a constant process where your dreams are chipped away. So that, if you sit down with attorneys in Chicago who had gone in there thinking they were going to be Clarence Darrow or Thurgood Marshall, they’re now talking about the BMW that they can buy, or the fur coat. Now that disturbs me. And I think that’s what disturbed my pastor when he talked about, “Don’t let Harvard change you.”
I am disturbed that the fur coat or the BMW or whatever you like to spend your money on has become the big payoff in your life, so that you are willing to work in jobs that may not hold much meaning for you, and you are willing to work long hours in things that you don’t believe in, that may draw you away from your community and your values and your passions, that you’re willing to let somebody else determine what your goals are, that your dreams get sanitized and deodorized and packaged and advertised. And you buy them on a Visa Gold Card. And that, somewhere along the line, your best hopes and your best dreams and your best ideals about what you could accomplish in your life, what you could do for other people, what would inspire you and challenge you, have been set aside.
Don’t let that happen to you. It is going to require that you struggle and test out your values and act on your beliefs. But, in the end, that’s the only way that you are going to be able to live out the best impulses inside of you. That’s the only way that you’re going to be able to be true to your ideals and the ideals of the people who came before you.
And so I hope, and I’ll leave some time open for questions, I hope that all of your, as you’re considering both your involvement in community here at the university, and more importantly, your community involvement as you think about careers and where you’re going to go after this, that you all hang on to your dreams, and you don’t simply think in terms of what you can buy and how you can protect yourselves from the problems around you; that you, instead, engage and challenge yourself to do something about those problems.
Credits: This recording is provided courtesy of Nebraska Wesleyan University, which retains all rights. Researchers may contact the NWU archives for further information.
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