Roundtable: New FEMA Deadline, 'N'-Word Teacher

Topics: a new FEMA deadline for ending hotel payments for Katrina evacuees, and a white teacher uses the "n"-word with his black student. Guests: Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington; George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; and Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. On today's roundtable, was Mrs. King's goodbye too political? And is it ever okay to use the N word? Joining us today to discuss these topics and more: from our Chicago bureau, Laura Washington, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Joining us from the Pointer Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, Eric Deggans, media critic of the St. Petersburg Times and George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Association News Service joins us from Maryland.

Before we get to those folks, I want to talk with--and we have him on the line and Rev, I appreciate it--the Reverend Joseph Lowery. You have raised the ire of some yesterday at Mrs. King's funeral. We heard just from, just moments ago from Congressman Lewis who suggested that he applauded you for doing so. In talking about weapons of mass destruction and the like, Rev, you certainly new what you were doing there. Did you have the intention to make, first of all, the President uncomfortable at the time?

Reverend JOSEPH E. LOWERY (Cofounder and President Emeritus, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): Well, first of all, I'm neither Republican nor Democrat. I'm Methodist, and both parties have felt my wrath from time to time. One of them takes us for granted, and the other just takes us, so I wasn't interested in any partisan politics.

I was interested in commemorating Coretta Scott King. We weren't burying a rap artist nor a famous cook. We were burying a woman who gave her life to world peace, racial justice, human dignity, and that's what she was about, and what did they expect us to talk about? I talked about what she talked about. I talked about what she lived about. I talked about what she dedicated her life to, and I don't understand how anyone could expect to attend the funeral of Coretta Scott King and not hear a message about her lifetime commitment to world peace, to eradicating poverty and to eliminating racial injustice.

GORDON: Were you at all surprised that the media took this and ran with it? Was it what you hoped?

Reverend LOWERY: No, I'm too old to be surprised by what you guys do. No, I wasn't surprised. I was a little. And you know, the Bushes didn't seem to take it that way. I shook hands with the President. He hugged me around the shoulder and smiled. His daddy came up and said, this guy's going 23 to one through my presidency and suggested I not give up preaching and go into poetry. And so, it was done in good faith, and I can't retreat. I can't retreat. God help me. I can't recant.

GORDON: Reverend, let me ask you this: as--and you and I have privately talked about this - as we move into the twilight years for many of those who've been on the front line of the civil rights movement--we lost, obviously, Mrs. King and Rosa Parks most recently - what would you like to see the community do, not only to commemorate the legacy of people like yourself and others but to continue the fight?

Reverend LOWERY: Well, I think--I said at the beginning of my remarks that, how marvelous it was the these Presidents and the state governor came to the funeral and mourned and praised, but then I said, in the morning, will the words turn to beads that meet needs, and that what we need to do. We need to move from ceremony to sacrament, to translate praise into policy and practice. I said to the governor, you know, Mrs. King was in state in honor at the Georgia capital where Martin couldn't because of the governor, Les Maddox, who would never have it, but at the same time, in that same capital, they are passing legislation that restricts voting rights, so it's sort of contradictory to have a woman who symbolizes voting rights in the rotunda and then in the legislative corridors, pass legislation to contradict and even defame what her life represented. That - I'd like to see us translate praise into policy and practice, ceremony into sacrament.

GORDON: Reverend, before I let you go, a final question for you. Again, I've always said you are one who doesn't worry about the aftermath. You speak what you believe. Those who followed, leaders of today - do you hope, do you wish that they would do a little bit more of what you and others had done and not worry about the aftermath, be less calculating if you will?

Reverend LOWERY: Well, you can always hope that people who are in the midst of the struggle will speak truth to power and not worry about the politics of it nor the consequences nor the criticism nor the praise but to do what they have to do. It's a calling. I wish I didn't have to enter into this arena of controversy sometimes, but that's what I feel called to do, and as I have to respond and that's what I hope all leaders would do, to be true to their calling and to speak truth to power.

GORDON: Well, you've done that for years. Reverend Joseph Lowery. Always good to talk with you, Rev. Appreciate you coming on with us.

Reverend LOWERY: Thank you so much. Good to talk with you.

ED GORDON, host:

Now, we turn our attention back to our roundtable participants today: Laura Washington in Chicago, Eric Deggans in Florida and George Curry in Maryland.

George, let me start with you. You watched some of the funeral yesterday. For your take: too political or just right?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor-in-Chief, National Newspaper Association News Service): Well, I watched all of it. I thought that people, particularly Joe Lowery, said what need to be said. You can't come there and sanitize and pretend that everything is all right when the Pres-, some of the people there have fought against everything that Mrs. King and Dr. King had fought for. I mean, so I thought it was important that you not do that. And also, they were trying to sanitize the message anyway by not having recognizable civil rights leaders who had spoke, who had worked with Dr. King, not allowed him to share the platform, like Reverend Jackson, who also called Coretta King to let her know that her husband had been killed.

So, having sad that, though, I mean, so I thought it was a good mix, and as Dr. Lowery just said, it was done in the right tone and everything, but I don't want to--you know, everybody clamor about Clinton and his speech and everything--I don't want people to miss something that Jimmy Carter said, not the attacks - I mean, they were necessary. He should have done that.

But there was a moment there he acknowledged that he, a white southerner, would not have been elected or even considered a serious candidate for president in 1976 had it not been for Dr. King and Coretta King, and to me that was a moment like Bill Clinton had said about Ron Brown--you know, had it not been for him, I wouldn't be elected president, and I thought that was a tremendous acknowledgement of the contribution of African-American leaders and the black vote.

GORDON: Yeah, speaking of Daddy King and Mrs. King, you mentioned Jimmy Carter. Let me play something first, and I'll be interested to find out, Laura Washington and Eric Deggans, what you think. Here's Jimmy Carter yesterday at the ceremony.

Former President JIMMY CARTER: The efforts of Martin and Coretta have changed America. They were not appreciated, even at the highest level of government. It was difficult for them, personally, with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated, as they became the targets of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance...

(Soundbite of applause)

GORDON: Laura Washington, a lot of attention played to what Joe Lowery said yesterday, but President Carter didn't miss his chance while having the present President behind him to give him a little slap there.

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Well, you know, Taylor Branch, the acclaimed author of the trilogy on King is in town in Chicago this week, and he has written extensively about the relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and between Lyndon Johnson, and it was very difficult, painful relationship. We had four presidents at the funeral yesterday, but there was not a president at all at Martin Luther King's funeral, so that says both how far we've come, but it also says, the reason why it's so important for us to be political--and I saw nothing wrong with the politicization of that funeral yesterday.

I know, I want to site another white president, Bill Clinton, in terms of his remarks. It was interesting that it took him to make the case, both about the fact that Coretta Scott King was a human being--she was not an icon that we should put up on a pedestal. She was real. She was human, and we should learn from her human frailties as well as her successes. And also the point he made about the King Center and the fact that African-Americans, perhaps, have not--especially wealthy African-Americans--have not put their feet forward on saving and resourcing that center. It took a white president in that environment to say that, so thank God for politics.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. Eric Deggans, one of things for those that like to the political temperature of the nation, at least black America, if you believe the crowd that sat in that massive church, this bodes well for a possible run for Mrs. Clinton. We heard the President talking about present and past presidents, and then we heard someone from the crowd, as she stood next to her husband, future president, meaning Mrs. Clinton. How much do you think that's a barometer of things to come?

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Well, you got to bear in mind that Hillary could not have been at a more friendly crowd. I mean, if anybody was going to embrace her, this crowd was going to embrace her. Polling just consistently shows that she's an incredibly polarizing figure, and as--I couldn't help but watch Bill Clinton give his speech and wish that we could get a third term out of this guy. I mean, the sharpest, smartest, most truthful guy among the politicians to take the lectern that day.

Hillary is going to be problematic because she's so polarizing, and...

GORDON: Eric, you know they're going to be some people who take issue with that most truthful statement, but go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, that day, I'll give them that. But, you know, Hillary is going to be polarizing and if she is a nominee, she is going to be the perfect stick that the Republicans will use to beat her with. She engenders as much negative feeling as she does positive; so I would not take a whole lot from that reaction because this is the crowd that's going to be solidly in her corner, no matter what she does.

GORDON: All right. Let's talk about political polarization, if you will. And one of the things that we've seen over the course of this week is Senators John McCain and Barack Obama going to task over reform for lobbying. Letters going back and forth between the two: McCain suggesting that the young Senator from Illinois is simply using this issue, not as a means of finding bi-partisan help, but certainly as a polarizing effect, something to stick the Republicans with. We are told now that they've kissed and made up and they're going to hold hands with this movement to reform lobbying in Washington.

George Curry, do you buy any of that?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor-in-Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association): I'm waiting for them to sing We Shall Overcome, but I guess that's maybe next week. You know, John McCain, you have to understand, he's a bombastic person. He's a street fighter, and that some people like or don't like about him. And this whole thing did not have to be as public, and this is actually the first time I know of anybody really of stature, really publicly criticizing Obama.

But I thought Obama does what Democrats do in the face of attack: he kind of wimped out. When he said that you question my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics, but it hasn't diminished my respect for you or my willingness to work for you. You know, that's a wimpy response. You know, fight back and say, hey, I meant what I said. And if you meant it, say it.

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Columnist, Chicago Sun Times): Well, I think they are, I think Obama and his people were really taken aback by that response that they got from McCain. McCain wrote a letter in response to a letter that Obama sent him that he felt was inappropriate. I think they weren't ready for that and I also think that Obama has been very carefully crafting this image of being this bi-partisan guy who reaches across party lines, who's above the fray, and he wants to maintain that image.

So I think, George, that's why he backed off. He doesn't want to be perceived as a political street fighter right now. And I think McCain is in a position where he feels he own this campaign finance ethics issue and who's this young whippersnapper coming around to tell him how he should think about campaign finance.

Mr. CURRY: Laura, Laura, I agree...

Ms. WASHINGTON: I think it's a tempest in a teapot and it's going to blow over.

Mr. DEGGANS: I gotta say, what seems obvious here is that when Obama leaked the original letter that he wrote about his approach to this ethics problem, McCain wanted to slap this young guy back into his place.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Absolutely.

Mr. DEGGANS: And so he's taken to the public airways and he's criticized him publicly; and Obama, suitably chastened, has sort of stepped back. This is a lot of inside politics and I'm just wondering what any of this has to do with the issue at hand, which is ethical reform?

Ms. CURRY: Eric, but Obama didn't release the letter, Harry Reed did. And so that's how it got out there. I mean, Obama didn't release the letter.

GORDON: Well, and...

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, I think that...

GORDON: ...one would believe, George, that perhaps Harry Reed is taking a point from your book and that's the idea that we need to leak this; we need to get this out in the media to start some of this, to make it look like we have some backbone. But obviously if, as you suggest, perhaps the messenger needed to be a little feistier.

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, if it's not part of...

Ms. WASHINGTON: I think the question here is what does this really mean for reform? And I think we should be troubled that maybe a tempest in a teapot it may have blown over, but the fact that two very respected, high-profile, bi-partisan figures are bickering over, you know, semantics and over the structure of a committee or of a task force, I think, doesn't bode well for the future of any bi-partisan discussion on this issue.

Mr. CURRY: That's, they have to though, they have to move on...

GORDON: All right. Let me bring this up very quickly, I've got to get this in, because we're running out of time. And I will warn folks that normally we do not use this word, but there is a differentiation that has to be spelled out and I don't know any other way to do it, so we're about to use some graphic language for those of you who might want to turn your radio off just for a second if you will, or turn it down at least.

In Kentucky, we are finding that a teacher used the N-word in it's slang form; and yes there is a slang form even of the N-word and that nigga, N-I-G-G-A, versus nigger. This is his explanation: when he told a black student to take a seat, he said, sit down, N-word.

The teacher is suggesting that he used the slang term and because he used it in that version, he said all the kids use it. He said he was trying to relate to students and thought it was no longer a racial slur or offensive because he put the G-A on it versus the E-R.

Eric Deggans, is this any room for credence here?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, you know, once again, we've got this sort of intersection of a teacher with questionable judgment with our own sort of conflicted history regarding this word. You know, any white teacher in their right mind would realize that using any form of that word towards a student is something that's ill advised, to say the least.

So, this guy has questionable judgment. News reports have delved into his history of discipline and resisting policies of the school administration; it's well known. So, this guy's a loose cannon.

But, apart from that, we sort of have our own conflicted relationship to this word where black folks want to be able to use it with each other, but they don't want white folks to use it...

GORDON: Right.

Mr. DEGGANS: ...against them. And that's a deeper, larger question that is never going to be resolved.

GORDON: You know, we've got to split a minute between you and George.

Ms. WASHINGTON: We can't have a double standard. We can't say what's good for blacks is not good for whites. I think educators should be serving as role models and should be educating young people about why this word is so offensive and its history, not using it.

GORDON: George, we should note very quickly that he's on suspension. He is going to appeal it at the end of the month; until then, he's on unpaid suspension.

Mr. CURRY: Yes, he got ten-day suspension. We're talking about a freshman here, a high school freshman who's a honor student, a football player and apparently did not use the word, according to other witnesses. And you have this teacher who has a history of this, had the same thing, had another student, had to put a sign on him saying I am gay and he didn't follow the school order then.

I mean, ten days is a slap on the wrist. I think when this happens, certainly from a teacher's standpoint, the penalty needs to be severe to send a real message out there. Ten days does not really send that much of a significant message to me.

Mr. DEGGANS: I would make a quick point to say that we...

GORDON: Real quick, Eric.

Mr. DEGGANS: ...we have to learn how to talk about these issues and avoid the hysteria and one of the problems with these instances is that people react so quickly we can't really talk about it.

GORDON: All right. Gotta stop you there. Thanks for being real quick. Laura Washington, Eric Deggans, George Curry: thanks so much, greatly appreciate it guys.

Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault has the latest news from the continent in our Africa Update and the soulful sounds of the Soweto Gospel Choir.

(Soundbite of the Soweto Gospel Choir)

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

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