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Encore: How Life In The Motor City Shaped Ben Carson's Conservative Views

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Encore: How Life In The Motor City Shaped Ben Carson's Conservative Views

Politics

Encore: How Life In The Motor City Shaped Ben Carson's Conservative Views

Encore: How Life In The Motor City Shaped Ben Carson's Conservative Views

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Republican presidential candidate and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson was born and raised amid the tumult of Detroit in the 1960s. Even as a young man, Carson sought a different path from his peers.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Republican presidential field is now down to 12. Former New York governor George Pataki dropped out yesterday. Who's next - probably not Ben Carson. His support's been fading, but there's no talk about quitting. Earlier this year, NPR's Brakkton Booker explored Carson's upbringing and how it shaped the candidate's views.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: A room of mostly African-American high school students in Midtown, Detroit, break into their school chant.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Ben Carson, we got the power. Ben Carson...

BOOKER: They're celebrating the man their school is named after.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN CARSON: Well, first of all, it's always a pleasure to be back in Detroit and particularly to be at this high school.

BOOKER: For a generation of black parents, Ben Carson's life story was used to inspire their children. Carson grew up poor, but he would eventually go on to make history by becoming the first doctor to separate twins conjoined at the head. On the day of his presidential announcement, he shared with the students some of his humble beginnings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARSON: I didn't like being poor. I remember; we used to have popcorn balls at school. And they looked so good, but they cost a nickel. And I never had a popcorn ball.

BOOKER: To get a sense of Carson's childhood, an old friend of his, Brad Wilson, took me to Southwest Detroit on a rainy spring afternoon. As we drive down I-75, the downtown skyline gets smaller in the distance.

BRAD WILSON: There, you can see the salt mine.

BOOKER: Is that what I'm smelling, too?

WILSON: No. That's the refinery.

BOOKER: There's a whiff of rotten egg smell throughout the neighborhood.

WILSON: Now, this is the street that Ben grew up on.

BOOKER: It's full of small postwar ranch-style houses. When Ben Carson lived here in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREET")

MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Calling out around the word - are you ready for a brand new beat?

BOOKER: The Motown sound became synonymous with the motor city, and the Vietnam War dragged on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAR")

EDWIN STARR: (Singing) War - look out. What is it good for - absolutely...

BOOKER: In the summer of 1967, 43 people died in riots in Detroit. And amidst the unrest on the streets and the rise of the Black Panthers, Ben Carson chose an unconventional path - ROTC. Kevin Fobbs met Carson in ROTC in 1969. He says classmates had plenty of insults for them.

KEVIN FOBBS: Sellouts and Uncle Toms and so on because of the fact that we were even putting the uniform, quote, "of the man" on.

BOOKER: Fobbs is the former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Michigan. He says the discipline of ROTC coupled with Carson's Seventh-day Adventist faith helped solidify Carson's conservative views.

FOBBS: And then you have those few of us who decided that there had to be another way, and that other way actually was ROTC.

BOOKER: Some aspects of Carson's inspirational biography have been called into question lately. Carson said in his 1990s autobiography, "Gifted Hands, he met a Vietnam-era Army general while still in high school. He said the general offered him a full scholarship to West Point. This fall, a report surfaced contradicting that account, prompting his campaign to clarify that Carson was actually told he could get an appointment based on his grades.

Other questions followed. Carson claimed he was a violent teenager who, at one time, almost struck his mother and, in another incident, tried to stab a friend with a knife. No one NPR spoke to for this story mentioned Carson's alleged temper during his childhood, including Timothy McDaniel. They met in junior high school and remain close to this day.

TIMOTHY MCDANIEL: Before he announced his run for politics, he was considered one of America's heroes and darlings by all the people.

BOOKER: Since then, Carson has become much more divisive. McDaniel noticed this last year while organizing the 45th anniversary reunion of their Southwestern High School class. In 2013, Carson compared Obamacare to slavery, and that didn't sit well with their former classmates.

MCDANIEL: Some wanted to tell him we all grew up poor, and now that he's no longer poor, they want to remind him that we all came from the same place.

BOOKER: Carson ended up not going to the reunion, and even though McDaniel says 99 percent of the class are Obama supporters, they're all still happy about Carson's success in life.

MCDANIEL: We're very proud that he's running for president. He's from Southwest Detroit.

BOOKER: But, he says, they just don't agree with Carson's politics. Brakkton Booker, NPR News.

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