Barbershop: King's Legacy, Civil Rights, Gay Rights

The statue shows King emerging from a stone extracted from a mountain. i i

The statue shows King emerging from a stone extracted from a mountain. Amy Ta/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Amy Ta/NPR
The statue shows King emerging from a stone extracted from a mountain.

The statue shows King emerging from a stone extracted from a mountain.

Amy Ta/NPR

With this week's unveiling of the MLK, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall, the Barbershop guys weigh in on what King's legacy means today. They also debate whether gay rights and civil rights are the same. Host Michel Martin talks with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and Latina Magazine Vice President Javier Morgado.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and new to the shop, Javier Morgado. He is a vice president of Latina Media Ventures. That's the publisher of Latina magazine. He's also a former board member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

Welcome. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: All right. Fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Hey, hey, hey.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: I'm good, man.

JAVIER MORGADO: Great.

IZRAEL: Javier, first time in. Welcome.

MORGADO: Thank you so much. Happy to be on.

IZRAEL: Man, we making it do what it do, brother. All right. Well, you know what? It's been a long time coming, but the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial was opened to the public this week. This is the first memorial in the National Mall to honor a man of color, Michel.

MARTIN: I think any person of color, right?

IZRAEL: I think so.

MARTIN: I think so. Any person of color. And the memorial, for those who haven't yet had a chance to find their way there - it's on about four acres. It's on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin. It's between the Jefferson and the Lincoln memorials, just for those of you who are planning your visit. And there's an inscription wall with 14 of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s well-known quotes.

And as we've mentioned already, the ceremonial unveiling was scheduled for this weekend. It's been postponed due to concerns about Hurricane Irene.

But Jimi, you got down there.

IZRAEL: Yeah, I sure did.

MARTIN: What'd you think? What'd you think?

IZRAEL: I sure did. Me and my wife got down there and the most common question I'm asked is - to give people a sense of size - now, it's about as tall as a duplex with a finished third, if that gives you any frame of reference.

MARTIN: No, it doesn't.

IFTIKHAR: No idea. No idea.

MARTIN: We have no idea what you're talking about here. I'm sorry.

IZRAEL: Yeah, you do. You've seen a duplex. Where do you live? In Beverly Hills?

MARTIN: Three stories. Three stories.

IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah. It's three stories.

MARTIN: About three stories.

IZRAEL: It's about three stories. It is imposing and it's challenging.

IFTIKHAR: Wow.

IZRAEL: A quality that I overheard a lot of conversations about. It turned a lot of people off, they were talking about it because they thought it was kind of ostentatious and grandiose.

MARTIN: Well, or kind of - the metaphor is it depicts MLK as a stone of hope, which is from the speech.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: Which is from the "I Have a Dream" speech. I'll just play a short clip if you want to hear it again. For those who don't remember that particular passage, here it is.

NAVARRETTE: Okay.

IZRAEL: Yeah, drop that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING: With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: But some people thought it was too severe, you know, that he didn't seem friendly enough. It was sort of monumentalist or square. They didn't like the kind of squareness of it, but I know you liked it, Jimi.

IZRAEL: I mean, what's he supposed to be doing, like dancing a jig, shooting dice?

IFTIKHAR: Oh, come on.

IZRAEL: I mean, this is America. I mean - yeah. I mean, he had to confront some of the injustices head-on, and I dug it. I dug it a lot. A-Train. You know, according to USA Today/Gallop poll, 70 percent of Americans say they are interested in visiting the memorial.

Now, it makes me wonder how many of these people understood Dr. King's message. What do you think?

IFTIKHAR: I think his message, you know, continues to evolve, you know, to this very day. I mean, I'm a civil rights lawyer because of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of my favorite quotes of his was, he once said that we will have to repent in this generation, not only for the actions of bad people, but also for the appalling silence of good people.

And so, you know, that message to me showed that, you know, we as Americans can always strive to be better in our society, in our ability to better ourselves, you know, for all Americans. And so his legacy will always live on.

IZRAEL: Ruben, jump in here, man.

NAVARRETTE: Well, on a related note, we all have a favorite Martin Luther King quote or a lot of us do, and mine is: A man hasn't started living until he rises above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. Okay?

Think about that. Go back and think about it again. This is a challenge to all of us, of all colors, backgrounds, classes, you know, economic station in life, to think beyond what's immediate to us and think about what impacts us directly and start thinking about other people.

And for instance, you know, in the gay rights movement, the fact that I'm not gay shouldn't be a block toward gay family members who worry a lot about gay marriage. You know, so I began to sort of take that on. It was something I had to overcome. I had to think about that. It's the difference between having sympathy for somebody and having empathy for somebody.

It's a great quote, great man, and I'm glad that this monument went up. Just one thing I want to add on. This is not just the first time a person of color has had a monument. This is the first time there's been a monument on the Mall to a non-president.

IZRAEL: Right.

NAVARRETTE: And so it's a huge thing. It's a beautiful structure from what I understand, and it's just an amazing moment in our history. We're a complicated people and race has always been complicated for us as a people, but this is a great tribute.

IZRAEL: Javier, check in.

MORGADO: I couldn't agree more with Ruben. I think Dr. King's message is more relevant than ever, and every time I hear that speech, I get chills 'cause I try to relate it to my experience as a Cuban-American in this country and to my experience as a gay American. You know, when I look at, like Ruben said, the LGBT movement, what people are fighting for aren't special rights - they're civil rights. It's basic things. And our plight may be different in some ways from the African-American ways that were, you know - of discrimination, but we have to combat all that intolerance. We have to take the fight from courtrooms and op-ed pages into civil rights battles that were on the streets, like in the '50s and '60s. And that was what - the message that resonates for me from Dr. King and people like Rosa Parks.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with author, Jimi Izrael; civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar; syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette; and the vice president of Latina Magazine, Javier Morgado. But, you know, Javier, that raises a question that I think some of us were grappling with, which is that many people align the movement for same-gender-loving people with the civil rights movements of the past; they see it as part of a continuum. And other people just don't. And I just wonder how you react to people who just don't. They say part of the difference here is that people don't have to disclose this aspect of their identity if they don't want to. And so, for them, it's just - that's just one of these ongoing arguments, and I'm just wondering how you react to that.

MORGADO: Well, I mean, I would say that I look at comments from people like Reverend Jesse Jackson, just a year ago, in looking at the whole gay marriage battle in this country and when President Obama was trying to pass the federal hate crimes legislation, he said to African-Americans to support gay marriage because they should not, quote-unquote, become that which they hated. And that's exactly what Ruben and the others are saying here, that, you know, as Americans we should all share one dream, and that dream being that we should all enjoy the same rights as everybody else - irrespective of religion, and--

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MORGADO: And I think a lot of people tend to hide under the guise of religion and say that you can't argue against me because that's my belief. As Americans we should all want the same for everybody else.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, and absolutely. You know, and again what they teach you, you know in any law school, about civil rights, is using the protection of one person's civil rights is the protection of all Americans' civil rights. And the best example of that is Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. It was about a seven-year-old girl in Topeka, Kansas who couldn't go to school. But that legal precedent set the course for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which basically protects against employment discrimination now. So we had a seven-year-old girl whose case is now protecting all Americans'...

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

IFTIKHAR: ...rights in the workplace. And so, you know, we can never look myopically and see that, you know, any constitutional protection of one group of people cannot affect me, because at the end of the day, it really affects everyone.

MARTIN: You know, that leads me to a question - it's an interesting, kind of, going a different way, because here we're talking about broadening the conversation around civil and human rights. One of the interesting things that's going now politically is that, you know, even as we're talking about Dr. King and his colorblind legacy there are number sort of African-American intellectuals who are arguing - not just intellectuals, but sort of thought leaders, who are arguing that this president doesn't talk enough about race. Not just for, you know, for grins, you know, not just because he has nothing better to do, but because there are particular communities that are particularly affected by - particularly by our certain economic circumstances and to not talk about it is breaking faith with his job, his mission, for which he was elected. And I'm interested in what you all think about that. Jimi?

NAVARRETTE: Right.

IZRAEL: Well, he's the president of the United States. He's not the president just of the black people of the United States. And I think if he wants to keep his job, I think he will do good to remember that. You know, I'm loath to have any - to have race in any conversation, frankly. You know, people know me, they know I'm not necessarily a race man. You know, but that said, when you look at him you see he's black.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: I mean it's not like he's Vin Diesel and we're all scratching our heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: What is he? What is he?

IZRAEL: You know, and...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah, what is he, Vin Diesel?

IZRAEL: ...people don't even know Vin Diesel's black, you know, so it's like, you know, it's like what else to be said? Does he need to wear a dashiki and, you know, a Bart Simpson T-shirt?

MARTIN: Ruben, what do you think about that? You're not shy to criticize the president...

NAVARRETTE: Oh really not. No.

MARTIN: ...on any number of grounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAVARRETTE: Yeah, absolutely.

MARTIN: So what about that? What about that particular one?

NAVARRETTE: I have always thought that the most important and significant criticism of this president is not from white folks and the Tea Party but from the liberal base that helped elect him and the support that is withering underneath his feet even as we speak - from civil libertarians and the labor movement and Latinos of the immigration movement, you name it, and now also, from some African-Americans for this reason that you mention. That to me is much more interesting a political story that is not often told.

MARTIN: Yeah, but we always liked the insider critic. You know what I mean? We like the - one reason why the media was in love with Chuck Hagel from Nebraska was that he was willing to criticize Republicans. Okay, so...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay, so everybody always liked the insider critic.

NAVARRETTE: Well, yeah, because it's, you know, it's important. Other than - if you don't have that, you just have Republicans beating on Democrats and Democrats beating the Republicans.

MARTIN: But the question I'm having for you is are the grounds of the criticism fair?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah, I think the grounds are fair.

MARTIN: Why?

NAVARRETTE: This was always - well, because if you don't have, if you don't have a black president tending to the concerns of black people and giving - and taking sort of the bully pulpit to speak to race in this country - the way he did once during the campaign trail in Philadelphia - then what good is it to have a black president? You have a black president is governing like a white president.

IFTIKHAR: No.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Arsalan.

NAVARRETTE: And so...

MARTIN: Go ahead. Go ahead.

NAVARRETTE: And so let me just wrap it up. I think that for those critics out there who say if we do not criticize him for this the next time we have a white president are we just going to sort of dust off those moral outrages and come back and bring it them. We'll have no credibility.

MARTIN: Well, they're saying that politics are - Arsalan, you wanted to say something. Go ahead.

IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah, I mean let's not forget that, you know, we still have 29 percent of the American public that still thinks that Barack Obama is a Muslim or was born in Kenya, you know...

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

IFTIKHAR: And already otherized to the point where, you know, he does - like Jimi said, you know, he's the president of all Americans, not just black Americans. And I think the more he talks about race the more the haters are going to hate. You know, they're going to keep otherizing him. And, you know, I think that that is also a reality.

NAVARRETTE: They don't need his permission. They don't need his permission to hate him.

IFTIKHAR: Right. I know that.

NAVARRETTE: They hate him already. They hate him already.

IFTIKHAR: I know. But that's what I'm saying, Ruben is that, you know, even...

NAVARRETTE: So this strategy isn't working very well.

MARTIN: But isn't it different for say George W. Bush, which after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush made a very strong statement saying that this is not a war with Islam. This is a war with the radicals who have hijacked Islam to kill people...

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ... and that's who our war is... And he was very influential with Christian Evangelicals who identified with him.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: I mean is it that a very different political thing for Barack Obama to say? And isn't that - it's just different. I mean, what you can say - it's like telling a joke. I mean depending on who you are telling that joke is different, isn't it?

IFTIKHAR: Well...

MARTIN: No? Wrong? No?

IFTIKHAR: No because if Barack said this, you know, 29 percent already think he's a Muslim and he's like they're going to be like well, of course, he's going to say that we're not at war with Islam. You know, and so it is about the messenger sometimes, and in George Bush's case he happened to be a white, conservative, evangelical, Republican president from Texas.

MARTIN: Javier, what do you think? Do you think that the criticism of Obama...

MORGADO: I was just going to say...

MARTIN: ...from the left is fair?

MORGADO: Well, how does the dynamic change if he is reelected? You know and how much of it...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MORGADO: ...is him protecting his role as a first-term president, wanting to stay, you know, in that position and not jeopardize it. Because I think if you politicize the issue of race too much, then he's being too black, so to speak.

MARTIN: Okay. Can I just play a short clip from a conversation that Robert Siegel, our colleague Robert Siegel in ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, talked to Julian Bond earlier this week, the former chair of the NAACP, the longtime chair, he spoke on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And he - Robert Siegel asked if President Obama is perhaps less vocal about what he called explicitly black issues then another officeholder might be. And this is what Julian Bond had to say.

JULIAN BOND: I do think that's true. I think he's taken care to not be perceived as the president of black people. I think he thinks it would be harmful to his presidency, it would hurt him in other ways. He would be thought of as a single issue president and he badly - he does not want that to happen.

MARTIN: You know, but then here's another perspective from Andy Young, who - former United Nations ambassador, former mayor of Atlanta whom I spoke with earlier in this week - different perspective. He says this is actually the black community's problem, that they haven't stiffened his spine. Here it is.

ANDREW YOUNG: We have not found a way to make President Obama a great president. We have not given him the power to lead that we gave to many others.

IZRAEL: Jimi?

You know...

MARTIN: What do you think?

IZRAEL: ...these (unintelligible) of blackness always come out and want to hold other black people accountable. You know - you know, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Just let this man work his job, man. You know, there's nobody at your job telling you to be black. I mean just...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: I mean come on, man.

NAVARRETTE: Here's look, here's what I - here's what we can afford...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Ruben.

NAVARRETTE: ...this notion of - this historic idea of electing a black president was supposed to be empowering to black people and empowering to America as a whole. I don't see how you get empowered by the fact that you let a bunch of non-black people dictate what a black president should do.

IZRAEL: Period.

NAVARRETTE: How is that empowering?

IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, I could make an argument that, in fact, what's amazing is that given how dire the economic conditions are in some of these communities that people aren't more angry and upset. And there are some who would argue that it is, in part, because Barack Obama is president people have a sense of optimism that they otherwise would not have. So that's one theory that we can see play. Okay, before we let you...

NAVARRETTE: Not the Congressional Black Caucus.

MARTIN: All right. Well, before we let you go, Ruben, now...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAVARRETTE: You know, I know you were out there laughing because Mother Nature has been very busy on the East Coast this week.

Yes.

MARTIN: There was this 5.9 magnitude earthquake that originated in Virginia and I was just - and then, of course, now we're waiting on this hurricane, this tropical storm.

IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So Ruben, I was just asking, being from California, do you think that, you know, we're...

NAVARRETTE: Yes.

MARTIN: We're...

NAVARRETTE: Now you know.

MARTIN: Do you sympathize with us or you, are you laughing at us?

NAVARRETTE: Yes. No now you know. Well, I wasn't laughing. But I'll tell you, it's a frightening thing to be so completely out of control that everything shaking the ground is moving underneath your feet. People in California experience it, but we always get those calls are folks on the East Coast who say one, how y'all doing out there? How was that for you? You know, are you okay? Just check in on you. And how in the world you live in California given the earthquakes?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAVARRETTE: Now I have that question for my folks in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Javier, are you going to stay put in Philly, or are you going to head to New York? Did you dive under your desk...

MORGADO: That's true.

MARTIN: Tell the truth.

MORGADO: I'm actually heading back - I'm heading back to New York tomorrow. I'm a Hurricane Andrew survivor so I've weathered...

MARTIN: Well.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORGADO: ...the big ones. And I'm from Miami so I know what hurricane's are like. But I do...

MARTIN: So are you sandbagging your terrace or whatever?

MORGADO: No I'm not sandbagging a terrace but I do think that New Yorkers in general are little, you know, not paying attention to this because I feel that they just haven't dealt with it and if they have it's been so long ago that they can't remember something like this. So I think people should heed the warnings, I really do.

MARTIN: Okay. Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: So we had the earthquake here in D.C. now we have Hurricane Irene. We had Steve Jobs resigning at Apple. We know we have entered the end times.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: I'm getting...

MARTIN: Oh, no. Snap.

IFTIKHAR: I'm getting on a plane to Chicago tonight.

NAVARRETTE: I'm serious baby. Fuel the horsemen. Next week locust.

IFTIKHAR: I'm going home to Chicago.

MORGADO: That's exactly it. The Philly paper, today, had locusts (unintelligible) back. That was on the front page.

MARTIN: Jimi, what about you? What are you doing? You laying in sandbags? What are you going to do?

IZRAEL: No, of hiding out somewhere warm and sexy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh okay.

IZRAEL: Bow-chicka-wow-wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Okay. That's Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book, "The Denzel Principle." Arsalan Iftikhar is a legal civil rights attorney and managing editor of the Crescent Post. He's also founder of the muslimguy.com. They were here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Washington Post Writers Group and Pajamas Media. He was with us from San Diego. And Javier Morgado is vice president at Latina Media Ventures. They publish Latina Magazine. He was also the former supervising producer of NBC's "Today Show." He was with us from Philadelphia. Thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

MORGADO: Thank you.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, a programming note of sorts. This Sunday night we will be live tweeting during the MTV Video Music Awards. The annual show is famous for outrageous moments, so follow us at TELL ME MORE/NPR to share your reactions to the show as it happens. Join us on Sunday night at 9 PM Eastern time, assuming you have power.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's wait on Sunday and talk more on Monday.

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