Roundtable: Voting Rights Act, NABJ Conference

Friday's topics: The future of the Voting Rights Act, and what the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) hopes to accomplish at this week's conference. Guests: Washington Post editor Joe Davidson; Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender; and Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator on the television show Beat the Press in Boston.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

This week, Ed Gordon and I traveled to Atlanta for the National Association of Black Journalists convention. Our Roundtable guests are here as well. With us: Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post; Callie Crossley, social-cultural commentator on the television show "Beat the Press" in Boston; and Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender.

Thanks for joining us, and let me just jump right in. So yesterday we heard from the chairs of the Democratic and Republican national parties. Here's a clip from Howard Dean, Democratic Party chair.

(Soundbite of speech)

Dr. HOWARD DEAN (Chair, Democratic National Committee): It is not enough for Democrats to come and talk about civil rights anymore, and there are too many people in my party who come out and the first thing they do in front of a group of African-Americans is start talking about the civil rights movement. The truth is that there's a whole new generation of African-Americans who were not alive or who were very young children during the civil rights movement. And the truth is that if the Democratic Party is going to compete, we're going to have to start talking about the things the new generation is interested in, which is, frankly, what everybody else in America is interested in.

CHIDEYA: Now Dean and Melman made a point of speaking separately, but in his remarks, Ken Melman, the head of the Republican Party, had this to say.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. KEN MELMAN (Chair, Republican National Committee): Right now, the way it looks--and there's folks from all over the country here--we could have between seven and 10 very serious African-American Republicans running for statewide office. These are folks that understand how serious we are about it and understand how serious we are about inclusion. The president demonstrates his seriousness by the men and women he's appointed, by the fact that this is the most diverse administration in the most important positions in history.

CHIDEYA: He went on to specifically mention Alberto Gonzales and, of course, Condoleezza Rice. Now, Callie, let me toss this to you. The two gentlemen could not bring themselves to speak together in the same room. They had very different speaking styles. Ken Melman was very kind of measured, talking points; Howard Dean, when he spoke more loudly, he lifted his mike higher, which made it sound twice as loud. What do you think that these two men needed to do to talk about reaching the black vote?

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Social and Cultural Commentator, "Beat the Press"): Well, what they were both trying to do and what they need to do is demonstrate some record of inclusion, something that is concrete and that is meaningful. So you have on the Democratic side--I think Howard Dean is right, that there is more to talk about than just civil rights. On the other hand, he can't talk about appointments that the party has made. So often, for black folks' loyalty, they have not gotten the concrete thing in return: the appointments, the support of the party when candidates try to run. So he's got to address the fact that there are some lacks going on there.

As far as Melman is concerned, on the Republican side, they recognize that they've got some history to overcome. And everybody in the rooms, if they're talking to African-Americans, pretty much knows that history. And so what he can rely on now is saying, `Hey, we're bringing up a whole new generation of folks and we're supporting those folks, and we've got appointments.'

So they both have a lack, they both are trying to appeal to African-Americans, standing on the little strength that they have, but both of them got some work to do.

CHIDEYA: Now, Joe, let me turn to you. Howard Dean made a point of saying that all 43 members of Congress who are African-American are individuals who are Democrats. Is that a good thing or a bad thing, given that the Republicans are controlling not only the House and Senate but also, of course, the White House?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (The Washington Post): Well, I think that's it's the reality. To say, `Is it good or bad?'--you know, it gets to the point as to why there are not more black people in the Republican Party. The fact of the matter is, is that black people will go to the Republican Party when the Republican Party presents programs, platforms, policies that will draw a larger number of black people. Now George Bush got more black votes--a higher percentage this time, this last election, than he did when he first ran, but it's--still you can say about 90 percent of the black people do not support him, despite appointments such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and a few others. So the key is developing a broad set of programs and policies that will draw a larger number of black voters. And until that happens, the kind of speeches that Ken Melman is going around the country giving will only go so far, and that's not very far.

CHIDEYA: Now let me get to you, Roland. I know you're going to have something to say about this, because during his speech Ken Melman of the RNC mentioned a certain paper, the Chicago Defender, and he talked about what he called the death tax, the estate tax, and said that it had basically forced the sale of the Chicago Defender. What do you say about that?

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Executive Editor, Chicago Defender): Well, I mean, first of all, John Shinstack(ph), when he died, left the paper to the trust and--for them to do as they so wished. And so he could have left it to his son, could have left it to his granddaughter, but he chose to do so. So to use the Chicago Defender in order to support the elimination of the death tax is, frankly, ridiculous. So, you know, proper estate planning could have taken care of that. So that's really what the issue here is.

The problem that the GOP continues to have is that what they want to do is they want to talk about Lincoln and all these great Republicans who did this, that and the other, but I will always challenge them on when the bigot in the Democratic Party left the party, where did they go? To the GOP. And so that's where Jesse Helms went, that's where Strom Thurmond went; these are individuals who they held up as pillars of the party, and they celebrate them, and yet what do they do? They're still Republican members of the Senate who have not signed on to the lynching apology. There were a few Democrats who didn't do it, but the ones who haven't are still republicans.

Mr. DAVIDSON: But, you know, the...

CHIDEYA: Joe.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Ken Melman, though--he acknowledges that the Republican Party has had shortcomings, and even has said that he apologizes, essentially, or regrets the Southern strategy that the Republicans employed, even long after folks like Strom Thurmond went to the Republican Party. But I think that what it comes down to, really, again, is just: Is the Republican Party going to develop the programs that will attract people? You know, I think that they've done some things. I mean, I think you can give them credit, give George Bush credit for appointing people like Colin Powell, certainly, as the first black secretary of State, and Condoleezza Rice. You have to say they have done some thing. But combined, in total, they have not done enough to substantially increase the turnout of the black voting community to the Republican Party.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, let's be honest. They're really not going...

CHIDEYA: Roland.

Mr. MARTIN: They're not trying to get 20, 30, 40 percent of black vote. No. They're trying to pick off 3, 5, 7 percent, because, see, they know that they can inflict serious damage on the Democratic Party if they peel away that small percentage, because they also have to appeal to their base, which is not black interests.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's right.

CHIDEYA: Now he...

Ms. CROSSLEY: But let me just say that I think that where they're trying to peel it off, if we can follow up with Roland, is around the faith-based issues. And President Bush has arrived in Atlanta this week to speak at Mega Fest. He is not at the National Association of Black Journalists. He has yet to go to the NAACP. He's trying to figure out, `Where is the one area that I can sort of make a connection with folk without talking about some of the policies, without talking about the history?'

Mr. DAVIDSON: But, you know, they've also, though...

CHIDEYA: Joe.

Mr. DAVIDSON: I mean, they are very proud of the fact that they moved from 8 or 9 percent five years ago to 11 percent last year. So Roland is right; this little peeling away they find very significant, even though when you step back you still have to say, `Well, 90 percent of the people didn't support him, approximately.'

Mr. MARTIN: And we've got to be--speak truth to power, and that is the president has been pimping God with the faith-based initiative, because faith-based institutions have always been able to get federal dollars, except they had to abide by one very small, insignificant thing called the 1964 civil rights law. And the only difference between his faith-based initiative and what existed before him was that they don't have to abide by that statute.

CHIDEYA: Now, Roland, let me just jump in here. We've got Mega Fest going on, as mentioned. What is the responsibility of black ministers, like T.D. Jakes, to promote something like the renewal of the Voting Rights Act?

Mr. MARTIN: It...

CHIDEYA: What would you like to see him do?

Mr. MARTIN: It's critical. The vote--the civil rights movement was, first of all, placed in a moral prism, so it wasn't just a matter of just giving blacks the right to vote; we should be able to sit anywhere. It was a moral issues. And so to come to Atlanta and have Mega Fest, a hundred, a hundred and fifty thousand people, and not participate, endorse or engage in the Voting Rights March that's taking place in the same city--I'm sorry, you are doing a disservice, because it's very easy to say, `Let's praise the Lord, hallelujah,' but in '07, you may not have the ability to have voting rights enforced in certain states that have a history of discrimination.

And so, again, if you want--if you're going to allow Bush to come to your gathering, then you need to be in the park marching for voting rights. And if you don't, then you should not be considered an African-American leader in that regard.

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, not only was it...

CHIDEYA: Joe.

Mr. DAVIDSON: ...a moral prism, but it was a religious prism. I mean, remember who the leaders have been of the civil rights movement.

CHIDEYA: Well, that was a point, though, that Ken Melman made, not Howard Dean.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, and this speaks to the issue of T.D. Jakes and whether or not he's going to participate, or whether or not religious leaders should participate in kind of a voting rights march. And historically, they have led the voting rights effort, and certainly we're in the hometown of Martin Luther King. SCLC is based here. So, I mean, I think that the civil rights movement has always been not just part and parcel of the religious movement in this country among black people, but it has been, in a sense, founded, almost, and certainly, by and large, led by the religious leaders in this country.

CHIDEYA: Now, Joe, let me follow up with you. There was recently an article written by Van Jones, who runs something called the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, really chastising liberals, including the Democratic Party, for not seizing onto faith, not necessarily in the way that the Republicans do, but just saying, `Well, hey, if the Republicans are the only ones who own the issue of faith, don't be surprised if folks in the religious community, then, go follow the Republicans.' Do you think that that's a valid criticism?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think it's a valid point. If you read magazines like Sojourners, though, you'll see in--some ways in which the political left is moving--not necessarily moving, but those on the political left who also identify themselves as people of faith are trying to, in a sense, make that more prominent. But I think it's also worth going back to, I guess, the point I just made a minute ago, that we can't forget that many of the political leaders in this country among the black community are also religious leaders. And so there's not necessarily the divide that some people, I think, would like to see. Having said that, I do think that there are solid arguments that people on the left can use, drawing from religious texts, for example, to make their political point, much more so than they do now.

CHIDEYA: Callie?

Ms. CROSSLEY: But the question is, whose faith? And what has been translated to this point now as it's used on the right, anyway, is that faith translates into `evangelic-ism,' that--so that, you know, if you're not being an evangelical, then that's not faith. And so what I think persons on the rest of the spectrum have to demonstrate is that there can be a multifaith perspective. And I think what has happened with people on the left so often is, to appreciate and allow everybody to bring to the table where they are coming from faith perspectives seems as though they're not taking a position or embracing faith, and that's not necessarily true.

Mr. MARTIN: This is not a faith issue.

CHIDEYA: Roland.

Mr. MARTIN: There are only three issues that the people from a faith perspective dealt with: abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research. The problem with the Democrats--they did not put other issues in the moral-faith prism. In Alabama, a Republican governor wanted to change the tax code; he used the Bible, taking care of the poor. Those same evangelicals voted it down. So they were not speaking about their faith on the issue of helping the poor. They were voting their economic interest, not trying to assist them.

CHIDEYA: OK. So we're going to talk about cultural issues, then. That's what they're called, you know?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, what we have to do is force--change the conversation. When the Republicans said, `Well, Christian judges are not being approved, appointed by GOP,' I said to Mr. Dobson, to the Family Research Council, to Concerned Women for America, `Where were you for the Christian judges appointed by Clinton?' See, if it is a Christian issue, it goes above party. But they were not speaking about those same judges who were appointed by Clinton, only by Bush.

CHIDEYA: I want to get to two more topics very quickly. One is this whole issue of the Voting Rights Act; 40th anniversary is this weekend. Now the Democrats are gathering with the support of Reverend Jackson to have a big march. At the same time, the Republican Party has made a point--or, rather, Bush administration has made a point of saying that Alberto Gonzales is going to look into how to renew and reframe this. Is this effectively dead as a partisan issue, Callie?

Ms. CROSSLEY: It shouldn't be. I think it's a matter of how many people are aware that this is about to run out. I mean, we had a conversation, I believe, on this show about a year ago, and the question was: Do people know that this is about to run out? And so it's a question of awareness. I think it can be a bipartisan issue, absolutely.

Mr. MARTIN: OK. Let's...

Mr. DAVIDSON: And...

CHIDEYA: Roland.

Mr. MARTIN: Gonzales spoke to the issue of Section 2, not Section 5. Section 2 speaks about language. He's comfortable in that because that's going to affect Asian, Latinos. Section 5 deals with enforcement. In his speech he did not speak to that, which was one of the points Reverend Jackson brought up. But the march is--this is a broader issue here that goes beyond that.

Mr. DAVIDSON: That's right.

Mr. MARTIN: In Georgia, if you go to Georgia Tech, you can use your student ID to vote.

Ms. CROSSLEY: That's right.

Mr. MARTIN: State school. If you go to Spelman or Morehouse, you can't, because they're private. So it's still significant.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yeah. And now...

CHIDEYA: Joe.

Mr. DAVIDSON: I agree with that and, in fact, I was going to say that it depends what you mean by `support'--how far you go, how far the administration goes, how far they meet the demands of the civil rights community, to determine just to what extent this is going to be a bipartisan issue. I don't think anybody ever expected the Bush administration or Republicans to come out against the Voting Rights Act. That really wasn't going to happen. So the question really is: To what extent do you back these various provisions of the Voting Rights Act? Because it's not as if the whole Voting Rights Act expires anyway, because the whole act doesn't expire. There are just certain sections of it. And so to see how much of a bipartisan issue this will be, I think, depends on how much of it the Republican administration proposes to extend.

CHIDEYA: All right, final question, and unfortunately we don't have a lot of time left: NABJ, National Association of Black Journalists, celebrating its 30th anniversary. And in some sense, if NABJ had accomplished everything it wanted to, it would be out of existence because everything would be equal. In this world right now, journalism parity is kind of at a standstill. Newsrooms are not really hiring a lot more people of color, including African-Americans. Final question for each of you--I'm just going to go down the line: What do you do, Joe?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I think we have to continue what we've been doing, only do it a lot better and a lot more aggressively. You know, I've been to every one of these conventions, and every year I think we talk about the same thing. So to some extent, you might be--say, `Well, then are you just treading water, going nowhere?' Well, the fact is, there has been some progress, but it's been far too little. So I think that what it calls for is definitely new strategies, more energy in some of these old strategies, and really trying to be aggressive when it comes to trying to get more black people and African-Americans in positions of leadership in the industry.

CHIDEYA: Callie, as you answer this question, some people have criticized NABJ for being too cozy with media companies and not being aggressive. How does that factor in to where you see the mission?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, I think that's just not an issue for NABJ; it's probably for all of the minority journalism programs. As they were trying to build, they--not--I don't think it's coziness, but it was trying to develop relationships in which we could then parlay that into better jobs for folks, people moving up the ladder, that kind of thing. But just to follow what Joe has said here, the problem is, is that I think now we have more members now who were not at the first conventions than were, and so the--we have to continue to tell the story. That's why we've continued to say the same things over and over again, because new crops of people are facing the same issues. And so that's what we have to do, is to tell the story and let people know that, you know, this is serious business, and you can't just come in a network; that it's about understanding your responsibility as a journalist and as a black person in media.

Mr. MARTIN: I don't consider the NABJ...

CHIDEYA: Roland.

Mr. MARTIN: ...baby pretty much--group in this organization. So for--what Joe and the 43 other founders did was vitally critical. What we must do now is drive the conversation to not only getting a job, but owning institutions. That's the next shift. I think we have to go into entrepreneurship.

CHIDEYA: All right. I thank you all so much for your time. We just heard from: Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender; Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post; and Callie Crossley, social-cultural commentator on the television show "Beat the Press" in Boston.

Thank you.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES with Ed Gordon from NPR News.

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