Faya Rose Toure, founder of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Ala., thinks the president's race is a factor in the bitterness of the health care debate.
Faya Rose Toure, founder of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Ala., thinks the president's race is a factor in the bitterness of the health care debate. Debbie Elliot/NPR
The sometimes bitter public discourse over overhauling health care has raised the question of whether race is a factor in the demeanor of the debate.
This week on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman, President Obama had a lighthearted response to the race question.
"First of all, I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election," Obama said. "One of the things you sign up for in politics, is folks yell at you."
Still, some prominent Democrats, including former President Jimmy Carter, have said racism is at play. And some black voters in Selma, Ala., agree.
In the shadow of the Edmund Pettus Bridge where civil rights marchers were beaten back by state troopers, Sam Walker leads tours of the National Voting Rights Museum.
The museum collects the stories of the foot soldiers, and documents milestones of the voting rights movement. The timeline ends with a portrait of the nation's first black president.
Walker sees parallels between what happened in Selma then and the resistance to Obama's health care plan now.
Former President Jimmy Carter recently suggested that opposition to President Obama is rooted in racism. NPR commentators respond to Carter's statements.
"Anytime there's change, people's going to resist change," Walker said. "People who would abuse you in 1965, I don't think all the people that did the abusing were bad people. But they were afraid of change. And they was trying to hold on to that last little bit of control that they thought they had. So that's the same thing that's coming back 44 years later."
Museum founder Faya Rose Toure is more harsh in her response to the president's critics. "Race is a major factor," she said. "There are people who have legitimate concerns. But they have never expressed their legitimate concerns with such vengeance and hatred."
She believes the fight over health care legislation is rooted in something deeper.
"There are those who lead you to believe that this will help black people, and you should be against anything that helps black people. That is the propaganda that has been placed out there in the environment for 400 years — that if it's going to help blacks, then it's going to hurt you. I really do believe that's at the bottom of what's going on."
But other Selma voters are frustrated that the public discourse has turned to race.
"If we're not able to criticize his policy because he's black, we've lost our country," said self-described conservative Steve Fitts, who runs a pest control business.
"Us sitting here having to defend having this different view and we're talking about race shows how effective that tactic is. Because we're sitting here now having to talk about race rather than the issue. And the issue is that we're going socialist."
Fitts says he was just as mad with President Bush's spending and support for the first stimulus package.
Car repair shop owner Benny Austin no longer believes the government has his best interest at heart. "Every quarter, I write those estimated income taxes," Austin said. "When I paid mine just a few weeks ago, I had a hollow feeling inside that I've never had before. And it's because I don't trust."
Convenience store owner Gene Hisel says Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) acted inappropriately when he yelled "You lie!" during the president's address to Congress.
"I think it was certainly bad taste," Hisel said, "and I wish he would have thought beforehand what door this was going to open up. Because this was the door that opened the major racial turmoil that we're having to deal with today."
Selma has long dealt with the nation's racial turmoil. In the 1800s, steamships carried slaves up the Alabama River to auction.
The city was one of the Confederacy's main munitions centers and was overtaken by Union troops in the Battle of Selma. Violence there in the 1960s brought about the Voting Rights Act. Today, the mostly black city school system struggles to attract white students.
Some longtime civil rights activists-turned-barbers say it's time to move on.
"Give the president a chance; forget that he's a black president," said Floyd Tolbert, who owns a four-chair barber shop in downtown Selma.
His colleague Donald Brown says until the races get together, there's a price to pay for everyone. "Black people, white people, Democrat, Republican. The price is less of an America than what it could be just because we're different colors."