Obama Candidacy Reminiscent of Civil Rights Struggles

Sen. Barack Obama's nomination represents a significant moment in American history, and it was especially meaningful to the civil rights leaders who fought for equality for African-Americans. One of those leaders, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, attended Obama's nomination acceptance speech in Denver. Clyburn describes the experience and its significance in history.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

Michel has been talking to many people at the Democratic Convention. And last night, shortly after Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech, he spoke with a key member of the Democratic party, Congressman James Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the house of representatives.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Congressman Clyburn, thank you so much for joining us.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): Well, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I just have to ask you what is going through your mind right now.

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, my mind's a little clear right now. It wasn't when Obama came out. After watching the video, it sort of brought back so many memories, a lot of my own, growing up, my mom happen to have died from cancer at the age of 54. I thought about the kind of home environment I grew up in, and I can relate to so much that he talks about on that screen. But at the time I was growing up, of course, I had no idea that I would even be able to live out my dreams, to serve in the Congress. I never thought I would live to see the day when an African-American would be accepting the nomination of one of our two major parties to be President of the United States. And so, when he walked out on the stage, I lost it for a moment. It was a very emotional time for me.

MARTIN: What was some of the highlights of the speech for you? And I don't know if you can do this, but if you could separate out how you heard it as a man with your history, a man who knew Martin Luther King Jr., a man who was a civil rights leader, in your right, who walked this very difficult path from the person who now has to win a political campaign in November. I'd like to hear both perspectives.

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I thought he had to do two things tonight. One he to do something for the people and here in this audience people came from all over this country to be a part of this effort, and so he open up the campaign, open the speech, talking to them and then he went into laying it out for the American people exactly what they could expect from him and administration headed by him. I thought he did that very, very well. I thought he give due respect to Senator McCain but let it be known as Bill Clinton did last night as I think Biden did last night, I mean your friends however of view of the future of this country totally different, and so I thought he did that well.

He stayed away from the historical part of the speech until the end, and he talked about the dream speech as people call it , though personally I am tend to focus on the part of that speech that lead up to the closing. Talking about the dream was Martin's closing for the speech, a closing that he had done 25 or 30 times before and almost didn't do on that particular occasion. He talked in that speech about this - the urgency of now and I thought that part of our theme of this week has been the whole issue of time for a change, and I thought that that part of that speech that they would have been great to close with.

MARTIN: There are many Americans who as you pointed out still don't know Barack Obama very well on this campaign, you know, throughout the course of the year. What do you think voters learned about Barack Obama tonight?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I even got a bit of insight into his background tonight. I mean I've read about it, but tonight I think that video - the rest of the country were watching that video and able to see how he grew up, where his value system came from. I think that they will come away with a little better understanding of who and what he is. He emphasized stuff in that video that he had never emphasized before. And I think that he also think laid out for the American people, the economic conditions that we currently have and how he would approach that. So, I think he did a real good job of laying that out tonight, and I suspect that more people were looking in and listening than ever before, and so I think he did tonight exactly what he needed to do.

MARTIN: A speech like this you're always addressing multiple audiences. I mean people in the Democratic party, your base, your most fired up supporters are going to want to hear you really take the fight to the other side, you know, call them out sharply as possible. But there are other people who are perhaps in the middle, undecided, who don't always appreciate that kind of conversation. How do you think he handled the tone of the speech? I mean, some might consider it a little bit risky to take the fight to John McCain as directly as he did.

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, it might have been risky, but it was necessary. I don't believe for one moment that the people who are interested in his candidacy, or interested in him in anything but a fighter. Most people who follow politics and want to be involved in politics would like to know that this guy is going to fight for me. He's not just going to let people roll over him. He's not going to just let the big corporation just have their way, that he will in fact fight for me. So, I think that was necessary for him to do what he did.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: And we need to pause here for just a moment and when we return, Michel Martin will continue her discussion with House Majority whip James Clyburn about the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: I'm Cheryl Corley. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin has been in Denver all week covering the Democratic National Convention. Just ahead, voters who've yet to decide on who to support for president. But first, here's the rest of Michel Martin's conversation with South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip.

MARTIN: This is the final night of the convention, but the early days of the convention, one of the story lines was this on-going tension, if you want to call it that, between supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton, who was the longest standing other presidential candidate, and the supporters of Senator Barack Obama. Do you think that those tensions have ease over the course of this convention? Do you think that the party is united now?

Rep. CLYBURN: I think the party is united, but I tell my caucus all the time, we have a very diverse caucus in the House, and I tell them all the time, is one thing to be united, it's something else to be unanimous. So, I do think his party is united. That doesn't mean that every single person in this party will be lining up with Barack Obama. There will be some Democrats who will be voting for the Republicans as always happens. So, I don't think that just because you may go out and find one or two people who may express dissatisfaction that you will call that disunity.

MARTIN: One of the sources of tension over the course of campaign was the concern that race had become an issue in the campaign and in the primary campaign, in a way a lot of people were, in both campaigns were unhappy. Do you think that race will be a part of the fall campaign?

Rep. CLYBURN: It's in the part of every campaign that I've ever been involved in all my life, and it will be a part of this campaign. The question is, will enough voters get beyond race? I think so. I certainly hope so. I know Barack Obama hopes so, but to think that race will not play a role. Well, there was the survey, there were five percent of the American people said, under no circumstances will they vote for a black person, and then when asked, 19 people of them said, I've got some friends, I know who won't vote. So, the question is, will that be five percent or 19 percent that will not vote for him. If it's on five percent, I think it'd be fine, we'll have enough other people to get beyond that. If it's 19 percent, it might be problematic.

MARTIN: And what does he do about that 19 percent if indeed there is that...

Rep. CLYBURN: Don't do a thing about it. There's nothing- anything you can do about it. You have to perform lobotomies or something of that sort. And you can't do that in campaigns. I mean, what you do is lay out your proposals, talk to people, try to excite enough voters to go out and vote for you. If you'll waste all your time trying to convert those people, you will lose the campaign, big time.

MARTIN: How do you like your chances in November?

Rep. CLYBURN: I love it. I love the chances in November. I think that we've a real good chance in November to really win this thing, and I feel good about it.

MARTIN: We've been doing a series all week of what does it mean to have an African-American president. We've been asking people from a variety of background, you know, scholars, cultural figures, poets, people like that. What do you think it means? Would you take a crack at that question? What do you think it means, it would mean to have an African-American president? Some people think it shouldn't mean anything.

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, it would mean a whole lot. It would mean that fourth and fifth graders all over this country who never thought, even when they were told, never believed, it will now as teacher in a school and telling young people study and stay in school, you can be anything you want to be. I didn't believe that when I said it. This man's election will make all of that real. It would do more for fourth and fifth graders than any school teacher will ever do.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask you, to end where we started out, when you think about this night, five years from now, 10 years from now, what do you think you're going to remember?

Rep. CLYBURN: I'm going to remember him walking out at the beginning of that speech. I'm going to remember that and maybe more than anything else. I'm checking it out trying to think of something - you know, the rhetoric sound good to me, I've watched his speech and listen to it very critically, and I came away thinking he did what he had to do. But the thing I will remember more than anything else, was him coming out there and accepting the nomination to be President of United States.

MARTIN: House Majority Whip James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, joined us here in Denver. Mr. Clyburn, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CLYBURN: Thank you so much for having me.

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