How Large Does President Obama Stand In Black History?

Robert Siegel talks to several prominent African-Americans for their thoughts on what it has meant to have the first black president. We hear from Roger Wilkins, a civil rights activist, history professor, and journalist; Washington, D.C., Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton; writer Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution of Stanford University; and civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill, the new head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The coincidence that Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, begins his second term on the day that commemorates Martin Luther King poses this question: In the pantheon of African-American leaders, on some imaginary Black Mount Rushmore where Frederick Douglass and Dr. King's images would be carved for the mind's eye; perhaps Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X too, is Barack Obama up there? How large does he stand in black history? I asked four African-American thinkers and activists.

ROGER WILKINS: He's not there yet. That he is the president is an extraordinary achievement for an African-American. But he's still a young man and it's clear that's going to go for big things.

SIEGEL: That's Roger Wilkins who's been a civil rights activist, history professor and journalist. One big thing he foresees President Obama doing is something about guns.

WILKINS: If he does that, he'll certainly be up on that mountain.

SIEGEL: How would you describe today his importance to African-Americans?

WILKINS: I'm 80 years old, so people like me who were born into official segregation, and then came the wars and the blacks were asked to do as much fighting and dying as white people. But the reward was not sufficient. And I think there is huge change when Truman desegregated the military, then led to the civil rights movement. But all of that wash came along and President Obama is the biggest winner.

SIEGEL: Roger Wilkins says Barack Obama's presidency has changed how African-Americans see themselves.

WILKINS: I think the feeling of being an American and seeing your president the same color as you suggests that your grandchildren may be members of the Senate; maybe great grandchild could even be running for president. That is to say you really feel American.

SIEGEL: Washington, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton says Barack Obama's presidency has also changed the way the white majority regards itself.

REPRESENTATIVE ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I think there's a pride white Americans feel in themselves that they did it. They know that African-Americans could not have done it by themselves. And they feel that they have shed some of the racism that was their legacy as white people. And black people simply feel (unintelligible) by the notion that black man could - it's just enough for black people to identify with the notion that a black man could rise to the very top of the country.

SIEGEL: Part of what you're saying is that black America, to speak schematically, in effect, perhaps underestimated white America when it came to electing this man.

NORTON: There is no question about that.

SIEGEL: In the anteroom to your office, there are many photographs on the wall. One of them is of Martin Luther King standing with Malcolm X. We're talking about the African-American Rushmore - the Frederick Douglass, MLK. Is Barack Obama up there? For being elected president, is he up there as well in your mind?

NORTON: He's up there on that mountain top for being elected president and for what he did during his first term as president. It would truly not have been enough just to be elected. That firecracker stuff is really is heard around the world. But after the firecrackers burn out, then you want to know, well, what did he really do in his first term? What did he really do in his second term? What difference did he make?

SIEGEL: And Eleanor Holmes Norton says, he has already done things that have disproportionate benefit for blacks: the recent tax bill, health care, avoiding a Great Depression.

Writer Shelby Steele, who's based at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, says he didn't vote for Barack Obama either time, but he sees his election as a remarkable event.

SHELBY STEELE: I mean this is the certainly the first black leader in all of history for any Western nation. And so, it symbolizes a kind of human breakthrough that I don't think many of us actually expected to see this soon.

SIEGEL: Barack Obama's two elections are a measure, Steele says, of the moral evolution of America. As for how whites and blacks view one another, I reminded Shelby Steele of what he wrote around 20 years ago about the phenomenon of "The Cosby Show." That it conferred on its white viewers a sense they were innocent of racism. He speaks similarly about Barack Obama, as a black man who has made a bargain with the majority society.

STEELE: When minorities enter the American mainstream, they invariably wear a mask of one kind or another that they hope will bring them some advantage. And "The Cosby Show" is a perfect example of that. Bill Cosby said if, you know, I will not assume that you are a racist if you will not hold my race against me; and you will sit down once a week and you will watch my television show, enjoy it, and you'll be able to feel comfortable that I'm not going to challenge you with America's ugly racial past. You can be comfortable and you can get to know us as human beings, rather than just as blacks.

And certainly, Barack Obama took that one step further into the political arena. Bargainers do very well in American life because they inspire in whites what I call a gratitude factor, where whites who live under the stigma of being seen as racist, well, here's somebody who is going to spare you that and not stigmatize you.

SIEGEL: And Barack Obama is part of that bargain.

STEELE: He is just the archetype of bargaining.

SIEGEL: Shelby Steele says, Barack Obama isn't the same as Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King, but he exemplifies the result of their great work.

Civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill is the new head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She says it's fashionable to underestimate Barack Obama's policy accomplishments, but she says they're important. For example, supporting voting rights which are vital to African-Americans.

As for my notion of an African-American Mount Rushmore and Obama's claim to a place among the great civil rights leaders. Well, Ifil reminded me that iconic stature among black leaders isn't easily achieved during their lifetimes. Malcolm X and even Martin Luther King were controversial figures in their day.

Barack Obama, she says, enjoys great popularity among blacks for being elected, for what he's done, and for how he has done it.

SHERRILYN IFILL: He demonstrates himself to be a powerful family man, a man of integrity, and so forth. And I think that's very important in terms of lifting up the image of black men and of the black family. I think that's been, you know, powerful and important.

SIEGEL: People commonly remark on how the economy has recovered a lot better on Wall Street than on Main Street.

IFILL: No question.

SIEGEL: If you want to find a street where it really hasn't recovered all that well, you can go to Martin Luther King Boulevard all around the country.

IFILL: Yes. We have one here in Baltimore. Absolutely true. And I think that's going to be the focus of a great deal of attention. The reality is that most African-Americans hold their wealth, such as it is, in their homes. And so, the foreclosure crisis essentially has wiped out the wealth of too many African-American families.

And so, the question remains what happens for the future? What happens in terms of access to credit? What happens in terms of student loans? And most of all, what happens in terms of jobs, particularly in our cities, where the jobless rate for African-Americans - particularly for African-American men and for African-American young men - is reaching as high as 30, 40 percent?

SIEGEL: Sherrilyn Ifill, like the other African-American thinkers we heard from, said that will be among the challenges facing Barack Obama in his second term.

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