South Carolina Community Leaders on Civil Rights Today

As the nation observes the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., South Carolina's communities of color are considering their progress in the plight for social justice. The Rev. Joe Darby, a former NAACP leader in the state, is joined by State Rep. Bakari Sellers and Myriam Torres, an expert on Latino immigration, to discuss the future of civil rights in the southern state.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, continuing our special coverage from South Carolina, what we heard from people we met on the streets of Columbia. That's a bit later.

But first, as you know, today is the day we observe the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. If he were alive today, he would be 79, and we can only wonder at what his impact would have been.

As has been noticed so often, this year's presidential race is historic in that it offers an opportunity to break ground on race, gender and religion with candidates in line to be the first of a number of different backgrounds to achieve the nation's highest public office. But that led us to wonder what Dr. King might challenge America to do to live up to its promise.

We're asking, what would Martin Luther King do?

To talk about this, we're pleased to welcome the Reverend Joseph Darby. He is the pastor of Morris Brown AME Church in Columbia. Dr. Myriam Torres, director of the Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies at the University of South Carolina. They're here with me in the studio in Columbia. And we're also pleased to welcome Representative Bakari Sellers, who represents District 90 in South Carolina. I believe he's in Myrtle Beach.

Welcome to you all.

Reverend JOSEPH DARBY (Senior Pastor, Morris Brown AME Church): Thank you.

Dr. MYRIAM TORRES (Director, Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies, University of South Carolina): Thank you.

State Representative BAKARI SELLERS (Democrat, South Carolina, District 90): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Reverend Darby, I should mention, you're also a former leader of the NAACP here.

People say that the mark of a great leader isn't so much what they do, but what they inspire others to do. Is there a leader today who you think is inspiring people to their best selves?

Rev. DARBY: I think so. Let me first correct something so I can go home safely. Morris Brown is in Charleston, South Carolina.

MARTIN: Charleston, of course. Sorry, I'm sorry. Not enough caffeine. I'm sorry.

Rev. DARBY: I think that there are a number of people today. I don't think they should have someone with the individual profile of a Martin Luther King, Jr., but I think within the political realm, within politics, even within the business realm, Dr. King's movement opened up enough opportunities that leadership as a little bit more multifaceted these days.

MARTIN: Dr. Torres, I wanted to talk to you about the whole question of the way immigration is talked about. Illegal immigration is consistently listed as a top issue on the Republican side, but anybody who's perceived as insufficiently tough has suffered sort of political damage. But, you know, there is some sort of dialogue on this. But why do you think that is? Why do you think this issue has become such a polarizing and emotional issue?

Dr. TORRES: I really don't know. What I do think is that this is a very complex issue that sometimes is being seen as very simplistic. It's just we have lots of undocumented immigrants, people say, and we need to get rid of them. And this is a very complex issue that we all need to learn more about. But it is polarizing, and in South Carolina, I think we are living the negative part of it, because we have about 40 different laws that are being studied, are being -trying to be passed in the state House, and all of them are punitive.

MARTIN: And I want to ask the same question I asked Reverend Darby. Is there a leader today who you think is inspiring people to their best selves?

Dr. TORRES: I - you know, we've had important Latino leaders in the country, definitely. I don't see one in South Carolina that we can look after, but we are - we Latinos are looking at any leader that can inspire us, because I think we need a change. And we need people who can look at things in a comprehensive way, especially for Latinos in this state.

MARTIN: Representative Sellers, what about you? Is there a leader who you think is inspiring people to their best selves?

State Rep. SELLERS: Well, you know, a lot of times I look in my local community. I have people like Reverend Darby and my father and others that have kind of molded and ordered my steps. But one thing I want to make clear to all our listeners today is that a lot of times - especially as African-Americans -we get caught up in this Messiah complex and that we're waiting on the next great Messiah. We're waiting on the next Malcolm or Martin. But one thing that they wanted us to know is that it was about grassroots change and working from the inner communities to create the change and create the opportunities that I'm afforded with today. So it's not that we necessarily have to have the next great leader. But what Dr. King wanted us to realize is that we - you know, that thirst for change, it rests on the laps of us all.

MARTIN: I want to talk to you about that, because you're only 23. Is that right?

State Rep. SELLERS: Yes.

MARTIN: Right. And…

State Rep. SELLERS: I'm getting old. My knees were hurting when I got up this morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I don't think anybody here wants to hear it, but that's - but thank you for that. I think many people would argue, you know, that you are kind of the fruit of the struggle. You're young. You're representing people from within the system. And yet a lot of people still look askance at going, sort of, inside to effect changes, some sort of skepticism about whether you can really speak prophetic truth from inside. And I wonder what made you want to run? And do you think you can speak prophetic truth from within the system?

Rep. SELLERS: Well, I don't know about speaking prophetic truth, but I can tell you that being marginalized and a generation that has become marginalized and the people who are rooted in struggle, I mean, in South Carolina, we're talking about 1949 Clarendon County Briggs versus Elliott and - then we have Sara Mae Fleming in 1954, who sat in on a bus, then we have the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968. And we're rooted in struggle. It was my generation. The young people then, they created a change that we have today. So I mean, I just figured it was incumbent upon myself when I see that my generation is, once again, becoming marginalized, doesn't have a voice.

And there's a whole community, and I don't just speak for people who are 18 to 25. I represent a community that just is trapped in that - in what has become cyclical, the poverty and the degradation and the oppression. So I'm just trying to be a voice and yell, and taking scream and be like Reverend Darby when I grew up and try to create some type of change here in South Carolina.

Rev. DARBY: I'll pay you for that (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Reverend Darby, it's been noted that many of the long-established civil rights leaders have not supported Barack Obama's candidacy. Some of them say he's too inexperienced, but many of them were very young when they took positions of leadership themselves. They were as young as Representative Sellers is now. I'm just wondering why you think that is.

Rev. DARBY: I think sometimes when we eat, when we age, we start to take ourselves too seriously and forget how we got to where we are these days. I think some of the leadership is looking at things with more of a pragmatic view rather than the prophetic view. When you have settled into leadership, then it kind of narrows your vision. And I wish that some of them would open their vision a little bit and see the possibilities in people like Barack Obama.

MARTIN: I don't know if you're supporting him or not or whether you've chosen not of sort of getting involved in this, but I do want to - and I don't mean this to be a criticism of him, but there are some who do look at that as a sign that civil rights leadership. Perhaps he's not as in touch with the next generation and their concerns as they might be, and I just wondered if you think that's a fair criticism.

Rev. DARBY: I think it's a fair criticism. And it's a criticism that across institutional lines when it comes to (unintelligible), to age and to leadership and longevity of leadership. One of the problems I have in the church is having people to understand that young people should have a voice. Young people should be active. That yes, you have done some great things, but you're not going to be here forever so you have to cultivate new leadership.

MARTIN: Dr. Torres, speaking of new leadership, do you think Dr. King's message was inspired by Gandhi, in turn his movement - inspired freedom movements -around the world? Not to make you the spokesperson, you know, for all Latinos, but do you think that there are ways in which Dr. King's message inspires the Latino community, or is it just seen as too far removed and too specific to the United States?

Dr. TORRES: Oh, no. I think it is very much alive, Dr. King's message to the Latinos, especially because we are living right now in a moment that is so similar to what African-Americans have lived. I think our histories are very parallel. And we've seen also that, you know, African-Americans in the state are being - are opening their arms to the Latino community - most of them, and that, you know, makes me feel good. And I do think we are looking for a leader that can think of the Latino community as an important community, even though some of us cannot vote, that doesn't mean that we are not important in the state and that people cannot send a message to us and to the future generation whose going to be very important in South Carolina.

MARTIN: But it's also true that African-Americans and Latinos have had friction…

Dr. TORRES: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: …and some communities.

Dr. TORRES: Yeah. I think that that is also true. But sometimes, I think, it is overplayed. Because, for some reason, I think people want African-Americans and Latinos to be against each other. When we have very similar cultures, the more I talk about the Latino culture among African-Americans, we see very, very similarities, many similarities, so I think that is important to take into account.

MARTIN: Reverend Darby, what's your take on that?

Rev. DARBY: Yeah, there has been some natural stress, I think. On the one hand, there's an identification because of a shared history. On the other hand, there's the economic concern and part of human nature that makes all of us leery of those who are not like "us," quote, unquote. I think all the time, there's going to say that one of the things that we're doing in Charleston, Charleston branch of the NAACP, is translating some of our membership material into Spanish, because we decided to intercede in cases where employers are taking grievous advantage of people where there have been housing concerns. And so there's a working relationship that's growing there.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're talking about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the Reverend Joseph Darby, Dr. Myriam Torres, and Representative Bakari Sellers.

Representative Sellers, not to make you the spokesperson for everybody of your generation, but do you think that Dr. King's message, his methods, his way, his world view still inspires your peers, or do you think they think it's, you know, museum stuff, ancient history?

Rep. SELLERS: Well, that's a loaded question. I think that we can be inspired by his message. We can be inspired by the messages of Stokely Carmichael, and Julian Bond, and Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Septima Clark, and all of these heroes and heroines. But we're just not taught that any longer.

I was blessed enough to grow up at the center of the civil rights activist and civil rights leader and be able to grow up around many of the aforementioned names. So we're not taught. And, you know, a lot of times, we're just products of our environment. I always tell people that I'm a product of (unintelligible). And I was just blessed and fortunate enough to have that village. And our job now is to take Dr. King's message and go in these communities and rebuild that village so that every child has the same opportunities that I was afforded with.

MARTIN: What do you think the social justice issues of today are? Do you think that they are the same that he was addressing, even if the legal barriers are clearly not the same? What do you think?

Rep. SELLERS: You know, me and my father get into discussions like this all the time and we recognize that, you know, the movement has changed. The goal of the movement has changed, although the movement is still going on and the struggle still continues. No longer are we fighting Jim Crow and segregation, but we are fighting a lack of equality in public school funding.

We are fighting issues such as creating economic opportunity, in every community regardless of race, creed or color. We are fighting issues such as there are 43 million Americans without health insurance. So there are issues and it's a wide gamut of issues, it's somewhat of a smorgasbord. We no longer have that one, singular issue or that one, as you called it, a legal barrier that we have to overcome. But instead, we have many, many issues to tackle.

MARTIN: Dr. Torres, what do you think the social justice issues that are there that most engage you?

Dr. TORRES: Of course, the employment that was mentioned before for Latinos, how they have taken advantage of. The other thing is Latinos come to this country to look for opportunities to do good. We are not trying, and I also don't want to speak for all of them, but I - sometimes I think many of them don't have a voice, and I would like to be that voice to let people know what the Latino community's about.

They come here to work very hard, very hard. And they are not - they don't come here to commit crimes. Indeed, it's happening like in any other society, but they are trying to look - work hard. And I think they should be treated equally. And many employers are doing so. So…

MARTIN: Reverend Darby, what about you?

Rev. DARBY: I don't think the issues have changed one bit. I think that the rhetoric has changed. In America today, we practice regionally polite racism. It's no longer fashionable to just say, I don't like you because you're different, but it's another thing I'll be able to talk about schools in terms of dumbing down. It's another thing to raise bills like law and order. It's another thing for a company like one of our large companies in South Carolina that say that they came here because they needed a deepwater port, yet they build in Spartanburg, which just happens to be very conservative and very white.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Do you think it's still issues of, what, the basic dignity seeing people as…

Rev. DARBY: Basic dignity, basic…

MARTIN: …truthfulness with each other?

Rev. DARBY: Dignity, equity, economy, and the power and influence, and somewhere between economy power and the influence, that's what people have the biggest arguments.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Reverend, we only have a minute left. I want to give you the final word as I kind of seen you in person here.

Rev. DARBY: Oh, God mercy (unintelligible).

MARTIN: If there is one message you would wish people to think about today on Martin Luther King Day, what would it be?

Rev. DARBY: I would think that particularly in South Carolina and nationwide when we still like to call ourselves one nation under God, Dr. King had a marvelously of applying the tenants of faith to public policy and changing public policy. I think that those of us who consider ourselves to be people of faith still have a moral obligation to apply our tenets of faith and change public policy and not let public policy drive our faith.

MARTIN: Reverend Joseph Darby is pastor of Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston…

Rev. DARBY: Thank you.

MARTIN: …South Carolina. We were also pleased to be joined by Dr. Myriam Torres. She's the director of the Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies at the University of South Carolina. She was here with me in Columbia. We were also pleased to be joined by Representative Bakari Sellers, who represents District 90 in South Carolina. He joined us from WRNN in Myrtle Beach.

Thank you all so much for joining us and happy Martin Luther King Day.

Rev. DARBY: Thank you.

Dr. TORRES: Thank you.

Rep. SELLERS: Thanks so much. Thanks for having us.

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