Race And Politics: A Movement, And Frustration

As part of our Race & Politics series, we've invited two of our listeners to talk to Host Liane Hansen about how race has affected their political positions. This week, Betty Parker, of Pleasant Hill, Tenn., and Hubert Smith, of Jacksonville, Ore., discuss their contrasting views of race in America today and the changes that have taken place since the civil rights movement first began.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

We now turn to you for your thoughts on race and politics. This month we've been inviting listeners to be part of our discussion about how race is playing out in this election. We just heard about the dreams of the civil rights movement. Now, we're going to hear about one man's disappointment with it. His name is Hubert Smith, and he's our first guest today. He's a white man, and he joins us from Ashland, Oregon. Welcome to the program.

Mr. HUBERT SMITH (Caller): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: Hubert, your feelings about the civil rights movement were obvious in the comment you posted on our Web site. Would you mind reading just a little bit of it?

Mr. SMITH: I will.

(Reading) We organized, we marched. I was a public television producer and did shows with black activists. It wasn't a particularly dangerous or strenuous effort, but we were optimistic. Not anymore. Today, what do many black kids get? A chip on their shoulders and nothing but a long list of grievances. Black politicians insist on their Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks Boulevards, but ignore those black kids or defend them when they mess up.

HANSEN: Thanks for reading that, Hubert. You said you were once a bit of an activist for civil rights, and now you sound disillusioned. What happened?

Mr. SMITH: I think an opportunity was missed. The assassination of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, of course, were watershed events and greatly disappointing to a lot of people. And I think at that point the challenge was to make something out of their legacies. And rather than do that, black leadership - the supposed voices of the black community - and to a large extent many black persons squandered that legacy.

HANSEN: What did the black leadership do that disappointed you so much, Hubert?

Mr. SMITH: Well, they have promoted the victim mentality and the perpetual grievance mentality. They have, I think, tried to instill the notion in the black community that because of wrongs, terrible wrongs, that were done to them over the past two centuries, they should remain angry in perpetuity and needy in perpetuity.

HANSEN: Hubert, we'll get back to you. We want to bring in our second guest, listener Betty Parker of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. She wrote in to our Web site to tell us why her mother, a fifth generation Southern white woman, would have supported a non-white candidate for president. And she joins us from Knoxville. Betty, welcome to the program.

Ms. BETTY PARKER (Caller): Thank you.

HANSEN: Would you mind reading some of what you wrote?

Ms. PARKER: I'll be happy to.

Ms. PARKER: (Reading) My mother turned 21, then the age required for voting in 1928, and she voted for Herbert Hoover. Not because she agreed with him, but because he was not Catholic. Shocked by her mistake as the Depression unfolded, she vowed never again to consider religion or any other such factor when casting her vote. Without the New Deal's Social Security, she and my father in old age would have faced dire poverty. Without the Great Society's Medicare, they could never have afforded medical care that helped each to live past age 90. Without the civil rights movement and legislation passed under President LBJ's leadership, she would have grieved that African-Americans were denied a life of dignity.

HANSEN: What do you think Barack Obama's candidacy would have meant to your mother?

Ms. PARKER: Well, I think she would be thrilled. She had a strong sympathy for the situation of black people. She knew among her own circle of friends that African-Americans among them had not had good opportunity for schooling, had had no reason to hope that they could rise in the world. I know she would have been thrilled that we might have a man of the caliber of Barack Obama, who is of course African-American, but first of all a very brilliant and gifted politician.

HANSEN: Hubert, I understand you're a registered Republican, and you are disillusioned with black leadership in the country. A hypothetical: If the Republican nominee were black, would you vote for him?

Mr. SMITH: Oh, yeah, of course. In fact, there are many conservative black Republicans. They just don't seem to get the notice that some of the so-called leaders like the Jacksons and the Sharptons do. And it's unfortunate because I think that sort of leadership needs to be supplanted with voices of reason like Bill Cosby. Even when Barack Obama spoke out about black young men supporting their children, Jesse Jackson made a terribly crude remark about that and accused him of talking down to black people. And that ethic I think saps the strength of a lot of persons in the black community. It's very disappointing.

HANSEN: Betty, you're a lifelong Democrat, I understand, and you are excited about the possibility of a black candidate breaking the glass ceiling here. What if that candidate was a Republican?

Ms. PARKER: Oh, well, I'd be very much interested in him. I probably would not vote for him unless I was really desperate about the Democratic nomination. But I would be excited. I would be pleased. I think that one problem that Hubert refers to or implies in his statements is that blacks have not had enough role models, particularly male role models. And they have not had strong father figures. And so I think on either side of the aisle to have a responsible and gifted black president will, perhaps, just in the fact that he is a role model and shows that he can do what he has done, will have a bit of an effect. But the basic problem is the weakness of the family structure, I think...

Mr. SMITH: And I'm perfectly willing to see Senator Obama become president, and I'm perfectly willing to cheer for his success. And, by golly, he just may do a number of wonderful things. On the other hand, I believe in the American system, and I don't believe any single president can either move it forward to any great degree, or mess it up to any great degree. I think the checks and balances are in place. What do you think?

Ms. PARKER: Well, I agree that to expect miracles of Barack Obama is to be unrealistic. I do feel that the present administration has done a better than average job of messing things up. But other than that...

Mr. SMITH: This might be a discussion for another day.

Ms. PARKER: I think you have some good points.

HANSEN: Listeners Betty Parker of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, and Hubert Smith of Jacksonville, Oregon. They posted comments on our Web site to let us know how race is affecting them in this election. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. SMITH: You're welcome. It was a pleasure.

Ms. PARKER: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can read more comments like the ones Betty and Hubert sent us, and contribute to our conversation on race and politics by visiting npr.org/soapbox.

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