Obama: History in the Making

What is the historical significance of Sen. Barack Obama's success? Offering their perspectives are Bryan Monroe, editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines, and Dr. Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and former chair of the Civil Rights Commission.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Barack Obama entered the annals of history last night and he took a unique place in African-American history as the first to become a presidential nominee. We wanted to hear what this moment means for some African-Americans and we found these voices in St. Louis.

Unidentified Man #1: I think it'll be good for the country, you know, show that everybody is created equal and anybody can be president of the United States.

Unidentified Man #2: This country has supported Barack Obama. It's not only black people who are supporting him. He's gotten overwhelming support across the country.

Unidentified Woman #1: I think he's going to be the president for real.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible) history.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah. It's a change - it's time for a change.

Unidentified Woman #3: It (unintelligible) is.

Unidentified Woman #2: It is time for a change.

Ms. NOLA RHODES(ph): Well, he'll inherit the mess that the Republicans have left. And you know, he'll have to govern and, you know, we've got a war that he has pledged to stop. And, you know, he'll have his work out for him, but I think he's up to the task.

Unidentified Woman #4: I remember before the '60s and I think this may be what King saw when he went to the mountaintop. This is where a lot of people suffered and died for. Schwerner, Cheney, (unintelligible) - they must be smiling. Medgar Evers, this is what it was all about.

SIEGEL: Those names of people who died in the Civil Rights Movement were listed by Nola Rhodes. We also heard the voices Keith Brookins(ph), Robin Bois(ph), Valencia Jeffreys (ph) and Jericka Johnson (ph) and Michael Greene(ph) - all African-Americans who were at City Hall in St. Louis earlier today.

More now on this subject. Joining us from Chicago is Brian Monroe, who is editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines; and in Washington D.C., Dr. Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and former chair of U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Welcome to both of you.

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (University of Pennsylvania): Thank you very much.

Mr. BRIAN MONROE (Editorial Director, Ebony and Jet Magazines): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: First, Dr. Berry and then Brian Monroe, how significant is it for each of you that we have a black nominee for president?

Dr. BERRY: Well, I think it's significant for everyone. It's a signal achievement no matter how you look at it - whether a guy comes squeezing across the finish line or runs all the laps far ahead, however you do it. It's the first time its been done and whatever Obama does, whether he wins the presidency or doesn't win it, or whatever he does after that - this - he has made history, and so it does signal a change.

SIEGEL: Brian Monroe?

Mr. MONROE: You know, it is indeed historic, but historic almost seems a small word for what's happening right now. It's interesting. Last night we kept our kids up a little bit late to see this speech. I have a 7-year-old and a 6-year-old, and my 7-year-old, who is tying to wrap her brain around what was happening, said, Daddy, does that mean Barack Obama is the next president? I said almost, he's the nominee of the blue team. And she goes, okay, well, that means he's going to be president, right? And I said maybe, hopefully, we'll see.

In that process, watching how some of this for my children is almost not a big deal, and for it to be not a big deal is something significant.

SIEGEL: How significant a measure is it of race relations and progress toward racial and equality in the country, Dr. Berry?

Dr. BERRY: Well, that I think I'd have to give a more confused answer because I'm a historian, unfortunately, and so I'll just have to say that on the one hand the kind of campaign that Obama ran until he ran into the Jeremiah Wright controversy, transcending race, not talking about race, making people feel comfortable that he wouldn't talk about race, it makes it hard to answer that his campaign signals a change in race relations. We'll have to see what kind of campaign he runs going forward, and we'll have to see what he does when he becomes president, so - before we can answer that question. And maybe he ran the only kind of campaign he could run in order to win.

SIEGEL: Brian Monroe, when we add you in the program a few months ago, you talked about the schism in the black community between the civil rights old guard and the younger generation. Do you think that Barack Obama has bridged that divide or can do so?

Mr. MONROE: I think he is bridging that. It's not, definitely not a done deal, but watching last night, for instance, when Maxine Waters, who was very much a supporter of Hillary Clinton, came out and came out in support of Barack Obama just before the polls closed, and then Congresswoman Kilpatrick in Michigan did the same thing; in fact, she even hinted that if Senator Clinton is going to try bully her way onto the ticket as a vice president candidate, that wouldn't be such a good idea. I think he is converting a lot of them, but some of them were initially not too happy because he didn't do the traditional, you know, make the phone call, kiss the ring process.

Dr. BERRY: But Bryan, I don't think that that was it entirely. I think that part of it was that he did not address, because of the style of his campaign, the kinds of civil rights issues that some of the quote, "old guard"...

Mr. MONROE: Oh, no question.

Dr. BERRY: ...wanted addressed. And so they had a hard time - people had a hard time understanding that he's not going to talk about these issues because it'll drive some people away. And I think for politicians they make their decisions and switch and do whatever they like based on political judgments. But many of the civil rights people have principled beliefs about social change. And as happy as they are to have somebody who's black be in office, they worry too about what the person would do. So their attitude is principle. It's not just we want you to - somebody wants you to kiss them or kiss their ring or something.

SIEGEL: Well, not to put to find a point on it, but you are of different generations. And Dr. Berry, you remember a country where perhaps most - I'm not sure - but a large number of African-Americans couldn't vote. There would be some bar to them voting if they lived in the South.

Dr. BERRY: Right, that's correct.

SIEGEL: To go from that in 50 years, let's say, to a black candidate for president, it's a pretty - that's a pretty big change...

Dr. BERRY: Well, that's what my mother says, who's 93 this year. As she's seen all this change, of finally being able to vote, and then finally being active in the party - the Democratic Party - and being a precinct captain in her precinct and all the rest of it, and all of the mistreatment that went on. And for her, she doesn't care what Obama says, does, stands for, or anything else. She doesn't really know much, but she says, boy, isn't this great. Finally, you know, it has happened. So for everyone, it's an enormous achievement.

SIEGEL: And for members of your generation as well, Bryan Monroe.

Dr. BERRY: Right.

Mr. MONROE: Oh yeah. It's interesting. My father, who grew up on a farm in Laurinburg, North Carolina, and he would take us around and show us the places where he and his brothers could hang out and where they couldn't. And you know, and then he went into the Army and ascended to a position of a two-star general in the Army and retired recently, but he was in Gulf War I. And seeing his life - lifetime, that this just could not have happened until now. And everything that's happened up to this point really had a purpose. You know, whether it's Jesse Jackson's campaign or what has happened in the Civil Rights Movement, each thing built upon the other to get us to this point.

SIEGEL: Well, Bryan Monroe, editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines; and Dr. Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and regular contributor to the NPR show NEWS AND NOTES, thank you very much.

Dr. BERRY: Thank you.

Mr. MONROE: Thank you.

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