Roundtable: Sharpton and Thurmon; Rice on Obama

Guests discuss the Rev. Al Sharpton's connection to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond; and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) campaign shows progress. Panelists: Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle; and Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, roots revisited - the Reverend Al Sharpton finds an ancestral link to Strom Thurmond, and an apology - sort of - generations later. The state of Virginia offers its version of an official mea culpa for slavery.

Joining us today to talk about these and other issues are Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist, and Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle.

Hey, everybody, nice to have you.

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Hi, Tony.

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Host, Freestyle): Good to be here.

COX: Well, I guess our first topic would go under the topic - or go under the heading God has a sense of humor. It seems Al Sharpton is a descendant of a slave own by the Thurmond family - the family, of course, of the late Senator Strom Thurmond. It's been all over the news for days now, and the reverend giving his own quote/unquote, "shocked reaction to it."

Let me ask you what your reaction was, Mike Meyers, when you heard this?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Well, this discovery to me is more shocking to Reverend Al Sharpton than to the Tawana Brawley fraud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYERS: It's more shocking to Reverend Al than his calling a white owner of a 125th Street merchant store a white interloper. It's more shocking to Reverend Al than his calling Jews in Crown Heights diamond merchants - more shocking to Reverend Al than defaming Steven Pagones.

This is silly self-absorption. Who cares if Reverend Al is a descendant of a slave owned by the relatives of Strom Thurmond? It may not be a made-up story, but it's certainly a story made for the New York daily knee-jerkers or the New York paternalistic times. It is a story that I don't care about.

COX: Do you find it interesting at all, Laura Washington?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, I do. Michael, you didn't answer the question as to whether or not you were shocked. I take it you weren't.

Mr. MEYERS: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well…

Mr. MEYERS: I'm not shocked by anything Al Sharpton does or says, or is…

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, hey, he didn't do this.

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Or any of his descendants.

Mr. MEYERS: Or any of his descendants.

Ms. WASHINGTON: He was just born. He was born into it - he was born to a certain bloodline. You know, my reaction, Tony, was, you know, be careful what you ask for. As you know, the background of this is that the Daily News, New York Daily News decided to - they'd been looking into the whole issue of genealogy and working with this Web site ancestry.com, and they came up with the idea of let's ask Al Sharpton about his. Let's see if we can trace the genealogy, and, of course, Al Sharpton had to agree to this and provide information.

And he asked, and he found out that, you know, is the person who - I think it was a woman who was with ancestry.com points out, you know, there's really six degrees of separation or less between all of us.

And what it points out to me is that we have this undeniable and permanent link to slavery - all of us - that we will never be able to get away from. I'm sure the last people in the world that Strom Thurmond's family want to be connected to in any way, shape or form is Al Sharpton.

But that is what it is in America - black, white, Latino, whatever - we do have this very close bond that I think is founded in slavery unfortunately, but it's something that is undeniable.

COX: You know, different families, I think, and different individuals come at this issue of connection to slavery in different ways. And so, Jeff, let me ask you. How much do you think about your slave roots?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: I think about them at different times for different reasons. There are times, realistically, when I think more about my pre-slave roots in that I remind myself that although I don't know the exact lineage, there was a time where for 50,000 years, I was not a slave, as opposed to 400 years when I was.

So, that - slavery for me ancestrally is more of a blink in the grand sleep of things. And I think that's how I preserved kind of my sense of self culturally. But I also think of slavery and knowing that my great-grandmother had - on both sides - had some kind of connection in slavery. I think of it when I'm complaining about having to push paper work around for six hours. And then I'm reminded that there was a time where I had to push more than paper work from can't see to can't see.

So that kind of brings me back to center. But I thought that this was just a really, almost funny revelation in terms of how it could be a coincidence. And as a dramatist, I'm reminded that true life is definitely stranger than any kind of fiction you can come up with.

And I was salivating over the story implications that it might be a great movie one day, but I don't know how you would end it. I mean, does Al go to a Thurmond family reunion? Does the Thurmond family give reparations or help Al launch a political campaign? I don't know what will come of it.

But I think it in the long run, it does - yeah - it does remind us, though, that there is a connection to slavery that we have all known, and it's just interesting that it comes at this time when Al is starting to put pressure on the black agenda for the presidential election.

Mr. MEYERS: The movie would star Eddie Murphy in a fat suit, no less.

COX: Oh, my God. Listen, Mike Meyers, setting Al Sharpton as a person aside for a second, I want to put the same question to you that I did to Jeff. How much do you personally think about your slave roots, and is there an emotional connection of pain or pride or a combination? Tell us…

Mr. MEYERS: So unlike Jeff, I was never a slave. Now certainly, ancestors have - were enslaved people. I never regard myself as a slave. And so I don't have that kind of racial identification, and I don't have that kind of personal pain.

Slavery is not in something that I live through, and I was not born into slavery. And that's why I find it - I don't have any patience whatsoever for this racial identity nonsense, saying that I was a slave, and blah, blah boo -I don't have that kind of pain.

COX: No. Because you have - you feel no connection to it at all.

Mr. MEYERS: It's not a question of connection - it's a historical connection. But, you know, I have a connection to lots of people who have been enslaved. I have a connection with Native Americans. I have a connection with Jews who have been put into the ovens. I have connections with people who have been - and I have connection with people who are in slavery today across the globe.

But that's not a root thing. That's not an ancestral thing in the sense that my personal identification is my fact that I'm a human being. I don't like suffering. I don't like enslavement.

COX: Mm-hmm. Laura.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well I - you know, Michael, I think that, I agree with a lot of what you said. I think that the problem with this, that it's been - we see as a shameful legacy. We see that something that we should be ashamed of, and we should be in pain about. And see - well, I celebrate - we overcame that? What other race of people were able to went through what we went through and came here - channel from Africa, where, you know, our families were destroyed - blah-de, blah, blah. We know the history, and yet we've risen above it.

We're going to talk in a few minutes I think about Barack Obama and Condi Rice. These are folks who probably - well, not Barack Obama, but certainly Condi Rice - who had ancestors who were slaves. That's something to celebrate. It's not something to be ashamed of, but I do think that too many of us still do see slavery as sort of an excuse. And we look at the sort of victimization of it, and, you know, we came here 200 years ago and dah, dah, dah, dah.

And I think that that argument is there's just no tolerance right now in this country for that argument anymore, and we need to just put it to rest.

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: I wonder if it has…

COX: Go ahead, go ahead.

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Oh, I wanted something to add real quick, Tony, to that, because Laura and Michael are saying both very valid. My grandfather was a sharecropper. And for those of you who know, sharecropper is what they call slavery after slavery was abolished.

But when I hear the stories of what he had to overcome as a man who had 11 kids, whose wife died and he ended up - none of the kids ended up in jail, on drugs, etc. It instills within me an ancestral sense of pride and strength because I realize that all of the people who died in the middle passage and all of the people who suffered through the horrors of slavery, the people who were able to survive were able to be - able to get descendants that ended up with me.

So I came from the strongest of the strong, so to speak. So to me, that is a sense of pride in terms of what our people have been able to take on in this country.

COX: You make an interesting point. And, in fact, I was going to raise that and direct it towards you, because it seems to me that when there is a personal connection made - as there was in this case with Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond - that it takes the issue of our connection to slavery and it puts in on another plane.

It takes it out of the history books, and you can begin to look at a real person, a real name, a real place, a real time and a real connection. And I think that there's an emotional involvement for people that have that. Would you agree with that?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: I think there's definitely an emotional involvement. I was talking from a historical perspective on the story of the Good Samaritan, from a biblical perspective. And what makes it so that the priest and the Levite could walk by this guy who got hit in the head and is lying in the ditch, and the Samaritan could stop and kneel over? And it's because the Samaritan had experienced discrimination and hatred, so he felt empathy for the guy lying in the ditch. So I think it's the same thing with us.

On some level, we've all experienced discrimination, so we can't stand to see it. There is an empathetic connection to. We can't stand to see it happening to Jewish people. We can't see it happen to anybody else because of directly -directly because of our connection to this country through our ancestry that came through a period of slavery.

So I think if we lose that, we loose some of our empathy and we start telling people to pull themselves by their bootstraps.

COX: Well, let me just say if you're - that you're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya. With me on today's Roundtable, Mike Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist, and Jeff Obafemi-Carr whom you have just heard, host the radio show "Freestyle," talking about slavery.

Let's move on to the state of Virginia, which made sort of an apology for slavery. My question to - officially through the legislature - my question to the three of you is do we care about that at all?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I say one more time that this is a situation which actually is just empty posturing on the part of the Virginia legislature

COX: So that's a no?

Mr. MEYERS: I mean, regretting slavery, apologizing for Native Americans. Ain't nobody giving Manhattan back to the Native Americans.

COX: And you're right about that.

Mr. MEYERS: And nobody is giving out reparations to Al Sharpton, or to Jeff, or to Laura, or to me. Nobody is opening their mansions. Nobody is giving up their estates. Nobody is redistributing wealth that was uncustomarily and invariably built on because of racial discrimination and exclusiveness.

So it's like that movie, you know, the people who go to the drive-in and keep ordering items and the person at the other end of the driveway says and, and, and. Yeah, you got an apology for slavery and, and what more do you - what more is going to come other than just empty posturing.

COX: Well, let me bring the your two colleagues in really briefly because I want to leave enough time to get Condi Rice. What do you say, Laura Washington?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, I think, you know, it is - I agree with Michael. This is empty posturing. Now the reason why this is such a huge debate is a legal one, you know, the states don't want to say those two little words, I'm sorry, because somehow there's a perception that that will open them up to reparations.

But I think Michael is absolutely right. Reparations aren't coming. They never have been coming. If you look at the polls, the recent Gallup polls says nine out of 10 white Americans don't think we're due any reparations. And guess who's making those decisions, the white Americans. So it's not going to happen, so let's move on.

COX: Well in fact let's do that. Jeff, let me ask you to hold on and I'll ask you to respond to the next topic, which is Condi and Rice the - Condi and Rice, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama.

Mr. MEYERS: It might be a (unintelligible).

COX: The mud may have started in the democratic race for president, some of it landing on Senator Barack Obama. But now he's getting some political love from an unlikely GOP source, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Here, she told Fox News - well, judge for yourself.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): I know him. I think he's very appealing and a great person. I - he's on my committee and we've always had good exchanges. I think he's an extraordinary person.

COX: Now the secretary also commented on a Fox poll on race in politics. Here's that.

Ms. RICE: Race is still a factor. When a person walks into room, I still think people see race. But it's less and less of a barrier to believing that that person can be your doctor, or your lawyer, or the CEO of a company, and it will not be long I think before it's no longer a barrier to be the president of the United States.

COX: All right, Jeff Obafemi Carr, two points. First, her remarks about Obama, and secondly, did you hear some code in there about the issue of race?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Yeah, definitely I mean, that first comment about Obama, I just have to say I have never heard such sweetness and such a curliness in the voice of Condoleezza Rice.

COX: Looks like she was smiling. It sounded like she was smiling, didn't it?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: It was amazing, man. As a director, I would say, man, you analyze the intent in that and then she goes back to being the regular Condoleezza Rice for the issue of race. So I thought that that was very interesting why some writers have said she was gushing about Barack Obama.

I think that Barack has obviously affected Condoleezza in some sort of positive way. But going to that political issue, the Gallup poll that said that 94 percent of the people in America would vote for an African-American reminds me of my campus political days when the young sister who was running for campus queen who nobody liked was handing out hotdogs and everybody was eating saying yeah, yeah, I'll vote for you. And then she loses in a landslide.

No one is going to go on record as saying I'm not going to vote for a black person. That's the difference about the stealthiness of racism these days. Who's the last person you knew who stood up and said, yeah, I'm racist. I'm never going to vote for a black man. I think that this issue is a smokescreen also because there have always been black people in recent years who have been accepted in the mainstream that the many people in America would vote for or support or hire because they don't have anything creative or new to say and they would preserve the status quo.

So in that case, I don't think race is an issue. But it's going to play out differently when you actually have Barack Obama in the heat of battle.

COX: I got about a minute for you, Mike Meyers, so we can squeeze Laura Washington in before we have to get out of here.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I would say we are breaking barriers, and Condi is right in that regard. I mean we do have more appointed black officials than we've ever had in this administration. We have a black governor of Massachusetts, albeit decorating his wife and his officers with taxpayer dollars. But, you know, there is racial progress. You can't deny that. Whether or not somebody will vote for a black person to be president we'll soon see, because Barack Obama is running against Hillary Clinton.

COX: Absolutely.

Mr. MEYERS: I think Condi's comment is more related to that than anything else.

COX: Laura Washington, I've got about 40 seconds for you to answer this question for me. How much of what Condoleezza Rice said was coming from a GOP secretary of state, and how much was coming from a black woman?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, first of all, it's very fashionably and politically correct to love Barack Obama. She talks about how much she enjoyed Obama on her committee. I've seen Obama grill her on her committees. That wasn't true.

Secondly, Republicans would love the Hillary-Barack and Republicans would love to see Barack really get elevated, and that's where the GOP stuff is coming from. They want to see that guy in the hot seat because they think that he is very beatable, so that's why they love him so much right now.

COX: All right. From our New York bureau, Mike Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle" at Spotland Production in Nashville, Tennessee, and Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist at our Chicago bureau. Everybody, thank you very much. Good points today.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Take care.

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Thank you.

Mr. MEYERS: You're welcome.

COX: You're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. An NBA favorite is lost and a NFL player collapses and dies. In our sports segments, some questions about testing an athlete's condition. And author Lalita Tademy on her family and an American massacre.

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