Democratic Nomination Fight Continues

Sen. Barack Obama swept the North Carolina primary yesterday, while Sen. Hillary Clinton took Indiana with a small margin. Jerry Mitchell, reporter for Mississippi's Clarion-Ledger newspaper, and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry discuss what the results could mean for the next leg of the race.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News, broadcasting today from WJSU at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Obviously I sound a little different than I normally do. We're having some technical difficulties, we hope to fix them in the course of the broadcast. But until then let's just do our best, shall we? We have a great show for you. Just ahead, they were fleeing chaos and war in Sudan and found their way to Mississippi where they forged an unlikely friendship with an improbably supporter, a former first lady. The first lady and the lost boys, we'll have that story next.

But first, the race for the White House. Voters went to the polls in North Carolina and Indiana yesterday. Senator Barack Obama won North Carolina by a substantial margin, while Senator Hillary Clinton edged her way to a win in Indiana, winning by just two percentage points. Where does the race go from here, and is this race teaching us anything about race in this country?

Joining me to talk about this is Jerry Mitchell. He is a distinguished investigative reporter with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. He's here with me in Jackson, Mississippi. And from my usual perch at NPR's Washington, D.C. studio is William Raspberry, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and a Mississippi native. And I welcome you both.

Mr. JERRY MITCHELL (Reporter, Jackson Clarion-Ledger): Good morning.

Mr. WILLIAM RASPBERRY (Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist): Good morning.

MARTIN: Hello. Mr. Raspberry, a long night, particularly for the Clinton campaign. But in the end, a split decision, which most of the polls and the pundits had predicted. Has this changed anything at all in the Democratic presidential primary - the dynamics of the race?

Mr. RASPBERRY: I don't see how it has. You know, we've been watching this thing very closely for a long time. The bottom line is that at every important juncture he seems to either hold or widen his lead on her. And it's kind of desperation time for the Clinton camp, it seems to me.

MARTIN: And Jerry - and we know that politics isn't your usual beat, but what's interesting to me is that 60 percent of white voters in both contests voted for Clinton. Ninety percent of black voters voted for Obama. Obama won 51 percent of men in Indiana. She won 51 percent of women. He won 58 percent of men in North Carolina. She won 55 percent of women. So I'm wondering, Jerry, is this one big identity-politics party?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, that would be a good way to put it. I think that, you know, I think as - Obama's kind of in a sense is not as well known a commodity, you know, and so what's been interesting is actually some of his numbers have been creeping up in terms of both - among black and whites both. So, we're just going to have to watch as we go on and the country gets more and more familiar with Obama. You know, is that going to be a plus or is that going to be a negative? We'll just see.

MARTIN: And Jerry, you covered race issues for a long time here in Mississippi, and I wanted to talk about that in a minute. But 70 percent of those who said Reverend Wright, the whole Reverend Wright issue - which I want to talk a little bit about - was either somewhat important or very important, voted for Clinton. Do you think that this issue just lingers on into the fall?

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes. Do I think it will? Yes. I mean because I think it's pretty obvious that Obama's going to be the nominee, and I'm sure the Republicans aren't going to let the issue go away. So I think it's kind of interesting to me that Wright is, in a sense, he kind of symbolizes - and this is stereotypes now - the angry, black man, you know? And so therefore Obama, I don't know that he has that perception, but yet he's connected to Wright. And so, therefore, there's a certain amount of fear, I think, within certain amounts of white America of the angry, black man, so to speak.

And so I think he kind of fits into that category. And so, therefore, there's, ooh, you know, there's this angry, black guy, and you know, what do we do? You know what I mean. And that's what a lot of things - you know, a lot of times we talk about prejudice, but I think that what really drives these things sometimes when we're talking about race, is actually fear. And so that's what I see. That kind of exploits the fears that perhaps whites have. That's just my opinion.

MARTIN: Bill Raspberry, what do you think? What do you think this Jeremiah Wright thing is all about? And I do want to point out that in North Carolina, for example - in both North Carolina and Indiana, Obama won the churchgoers. The people who said they went to church weekly, occasionally, and never - majorities in North Carolina - voted Obama. In Indiana - this is from the cnn.com exit polls by the way - in Indiana, the folks who went to church weekly voted Obama, the folks who went to church never, voted Obama, which is interesting. So, Bill Raspberry, what do you think this Jeremiah Wright thing is all about?

Mr. RASPBERRY: At the risk of being - seeming disloyal to my longtime profession, this is a story kept alive by the media. As a matter of fact, any candidate who tried to keep it alive would find the issue backfiring on him or her. This is - I mean, I don't mean to say that the controversy wasn't at some point real, but when you ask whether going forward it will still matter in the electorate, it will matter only if the media continue to keep it alive.

And when I heard that you might want to talk about it, I almost said, no, I don't want to do that. It's over. That story's over. And what it's remaining useful as is for people who, for whatever reasons, don't like the idea of voting either for Obama or for a black guy, but who need cover for their own consciences. And this is a perfect piece of cover for them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with former Washington Post columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner William Raspberry and the Clarion-Ledger's investigative reporter, Jerry Mitchell, about the Democratic presidential primaries. Bill Raspberry, talk to me a little bit more about this whole issue. One of the things that happened as a result of the Jeremiah Wright issue is that Barack Obama gave the speech which has really been hailed as one of the most significant political speeches in years.

One of the things he said is that - he said people need to move beyond race, but they still need to acknowledge race. He says that this is racism - the real effects of racism, not a figment of people's imagination. Kind of a tricky, high-wire act there. But I wanted to ask you, as a person who's written a lot and thought a lot about these issues, can you do both? Can you acknowledge race and move beyond it at the same time?

Mr. RASPBERRY: I think you have to.

MARTIN: Do you think the country wants to?

Mr. RASPBERRY: I think you have to. And does the country want to? I believe the country does want to. But with race, as with so many other issues, we are very two minded on the question. We can be led beyond race or we can be led to wallow in race, if you will, depending on what the people who purport to lead us, sort of, urge us to do. Obama was not secretly black before the Jeremiah Wright controversy. We knew what he was. America knew what he was and were willing to, sort of, sneak past it.

Then our politicians said, no, no, we're going to wallow in it for a while. And that was what the Jeremiah Wright thing was very much about. We're always available to be led to our better selves, and it seems to me that's in part what Obama's been trying to say. How successfully, I don't know.

MARTIN: Jerry Mitchell, a lot of your recent work has been about acknowledging the past. You have done some very important work on racially-motivated killings that occurred in the civil rights era, and many of your articles have led to the opening, and in some cases successful prosecution, of cases that happened, sort of, long ago. I know there are those who say, let sleeping dogs lie. Why do you think that this kind of acknowledgment of the past is important? Why do you keep at it?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I keep at it because in a number of these cases justice hasn't been done. I mean, I think it's a matter - justice in a sense is a color-blind thing. And I think what made these unpunished killings from the civil rights era so heinous was not just the fact that the guys who did this got away with murder at the time, it was the fact that everybody knew they were getting away with murder. And it was just commonly known these guys were getting away with murder.

And so, it was kind of injustice at its height. And we as a society have to stand for justice. It's part of the essence of a democratic and free society. And so that's why these cases are important. And I do think they help to - help us, even though you're going back and addressing something from the past, but I think it does help in terms of relations, race relations, and helping to move forward, as well.

MARTIN: How? Tell me about that. We have about a minute or so left. Tell me, you think acknowledging the past, in your view, does help you move forward. How do you think it does that? Because some people say, oh my God, you're ripping a band-aid off a scar.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, it's like Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers, put it this way. It's like you have a wound that's infected. And so the wound is never going to get better until you go back and clean that wound out, until you clean it, and then it can properly heal. And so that's what's happened with these cases, I think. These were things that were infections and wounds that never really healed, and so by going back you're actually able to address that.

And it's an important discussion. I agree with Mr. Raspberry. I think that it's something that we have to go back and discuss. We also don't want to wallow in it. I think that there's a balance there. But we have to acknowledge the past. I mean, we do that in many other ways and don't think anything about it - like, say, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., which is an amazing, moving place - and we go back and acknowledge something that happened an ocean away. Yet sometimes it's very difficult for us to go back and acknowledge what happened in our own back yard.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Bill Raspberry, do you feel that this political campaign, in which race has been so much discussed - and in some ways not to your liking - is this helping us talk about race in a more productive way or not, in your view? Very briefly.

Mr. RASPBERRY: It's doing both things. As Jerry mentioned, Mississippians, on a variety of levels, were complicit in the lynching, murders cover up. It's important that they be complicit in the new way of looking at and trying to retrieve justice out of this thing. It's a question of which direction we allow ourselves to be led in. And I'm afraid we're available to be led in either good or bad directions. Jerry happens to be leading Mississippi in a very good direction, at this point. And Mississippi is showing a willingness to go along with it.

MARTIN: Bill Raspberry, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Mississippi native, former Washington Post columnist. He was in my old haunt in Washington. Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, he was here with me in Jackson, Mississippi. I thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

Mr. RASPBERRY: It's a pleasure.

Mr. MITCHELL: Thank you so much.

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