White House Appears Closer To Military Action In Syria

President Obama heads into this week facing a major decision on how to handle what appears to be the use of chemical weapons by the government in Syria. At the same time, he's preparing to speak at the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene, good morning.

President Obama heads into this week facing a major decision on how to handle what appears to be the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Over the weekend, administration officials appeared to be moving closer to some sort of military action. Now, this demand to deal with foreign policy comes as the president prepares to speak at the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his historic "I Have A Dream" speech.

Joining us, as she does most Mondays, is Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: This was quite a weekend in Washington. I mean tens of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall to commemorate the march and hear from speakers. And one of them, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, spoke this weekend and also spoke back in 1963.

ROBERTS: Well, this weekend - as opposed to Wednesday, which is the actual anniversary of the march - was an opportunity for families to be there, people who work, people who go to school, and for some current activists to speak. You know, it was something of a passage of a generation; Martin Luther King III spoke.

But John Lewis was really the mark of continuity. He was a 23-year-old man back in 1963, definitely not a kid after all that had happened to him in the Civil Rights Movement. And now he's a senior member of Congress. And truth in packaging: He's also a friend, he was a eulogist at my mother's funeral earlier this month.

But he represents both the success of the laws the march helped get passed, especially the Voting Rights Law of 1965, and the fact that you have to keep at it - nothing is ever finally done. Especially now in that area of voting rights, as states have been passing restrictive laws and the Supreme Court has overturned a key part of the act.

Here's Congressman Lewis at the march.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: I gave a little a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote. I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ROBERTS: Now, that was a theme over the weekend. What the Congress is going to do about that, of course, is another question.

GREENE: Powerful moment and a voice you know well, it sounds like.

Cokie, you were in college at the time of the march in '63, you and your peers. I mean what was the general feeling then?

ROBERTS: Well, actually I was at a student political meeting at the time of them march. Our colleague Linda Wertheimer was actually at the march. But the - it was very, very controversial. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was there at the meeting, trying to get support for the march. And we students, you know, went way out on a limb saying: Well, we endorsed the goals but not the march itself.

You have to understand how frightened people were that this was going to be a violent mess. My father was the Democratic whip at the House at the time. He was very close with President Kennedy. They were concerned that it would just set back all of the movement toward civil rights if there was any violence at this march.

Now, of course just the opposite happened. As a result of the march and unfortunately the assassinations, three landmark civil acts bills were passed: the '64 Public Accommodations Bill, the '65 Voting Rights Bill, and the '68 Open Housing Bill.

GREENE: And of course the memorable speech from Dr. King. And I know it's been 50 years, but in a way President Obama has this unenviable job of following Dr. King's speech.

ROBERTS: That's right.

GREENE: That's a tough act to follow.

ROBERTS: Very much so. Now, fortunately the president is a good speaker. And just the fact of him being president of the United States, standing on that spot is a strong speech in a way all of its own. But I think this anniversary has already been a time of assessment; how far we've come, not come in the struggle for equality. And the president really began a conversation that he might continue with the American people. He did it after Trayvon Martin.

Under any circumstances, I think that it's going to be quite an event. Past presidents will be there. And then the moment when Martin Luther King said the famous words let freedom ring, bells will ring from churches all over this city and from the places he mentioned: Stone Mountain, Georgia; Lookout Mountain, Tennessee; the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. So it will be quite a moment.

GREENE: And maybe an opportunity for the president to think about some of those things instead of, you know, very difficult foreign policy decisions he has to make.

ROBERTS: And over the weekend he of course did spend time with his national security advisers on the question of what to do about Syria. They say it's very little doubt that the government used chemical weapons and that the U.N. inspection will be too late to be credible. But the administration has not decided what to do about that.

GREENE: Alright, Cokie Roberts, she joins us most Mondays. Have a good week. Always good to be with you, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Thank you, David.

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