Obama Supporters Could Help Fix Communities

Now that Barack Obama has been elected president, there is hope that something can be done about poverty, the jobless rate and lower performing schools in minority neighborhoods. Roger Wilkins, a civil rights activist and author, and Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, talk with Steve Inskeep about how multi-racial people who volunteered for Obama's campaign can help solve problems in poor communities.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next we'll explore a word that Barack Obama took as a slogan: change.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

That concept is familiar to Roger Wilkins who's lived through decades of change.

Mr. ROGER WILKINS (Civil Rights Activist; Author): I was born in 1932, the year that Franklin Roosevelt was elected for the first time. The country was segregated, and the unemployment rate was - for everybody - was enormous.

MONTAGNE: Wilkins is an African-American author and former Justice Department official. He's been present for some of the highest and lowest moments of the civil rights era.

Mr. WILKINS: When I think of the life that my father led - my father died in '41 - the exclusions that he as a journalist faced. He could never get past working at a black paper. There was nothing wrong with that, but he wanted a bigger world. And even as a little kid, I understood that he was being squashed back into a box that was way too small for him. The life I've lived is one that he could not have imagined. And I look at my own grandson, and I think the life he's going to live is a life that I cannot imagine in terms of opportunities, in terms of freedom, in terms of being welcomed into the society without the pressure of feeling like he's a strange person and an intruder.

MONTAGNE: We brought Roger Wilkins together with the civil rights historian Taylor Branch. Branch has his own memories of growing up as a white kid in segregated Atlanta in the 1950s.

INSKEEP: This week's election means a lot to both men, yet Wilkins has a list of some things that the election did not change.

Mr. WILKINS: Virtually everything. The poverty rate has not changed. The unemployment rate has not changed. The lousy schools that so many poor black kids are consigned to have not gotten better overnight. And the number of black males being sent off to prison after they've gotten out of these schools where they haven't learned anything and are illiterate, that hasn't changed. What has changed is that a lot of people are really excited and joyous and want to help.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that even though Barack Obama has not on the campaign trail spoken excessively about some of the problems and issues that you mention, that just the fact of him being an African-American is going to cause people to think about them and want to get more involved in them?

Mr. WILKINS: Exactly. And they're people like my neighbor here in Washington, a white woman, widow, in her 70s who just was at the Obama headquarters day and night. And I asked her one day, why are you working so hard? And she's a Southerner. And she said, because I want to be proud of my country. Well, I think there's a lot of that attitude out there, and I think it can carry over that these people who volunteered in the campaign will be willing to volunteer in whatever kinds of efforts that the Obama administration develops.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about a related point to Taylor Branch. I wonder if that feeling of wanting consciously to change on this subject was part of the reason that an African-American was the first Democrat in some years to win a number of Southern states.

Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH (Pulitzer Prize-winning Author): Well, I think that the voters subliminally associate race relations with periods of hope. Therefore, this campaign was not explicitly about racial issues, but the fact that he was African-American is associated with hopefulness about tackling impossible problems and taking seriously the public agenda once again.

INSKEEP: Why are race relations associated, do you think, in people's minds with periods of hope?

Mr. BRANCH: Because so many people in America associate new freedom and establishing new beachheads about what freedom really means - all through American history it's been associated with race relations. Is the dream of freedom compatible with slavery? No. Is it compatible with segregation? No. And those periods have been periods of hope. We need a period of hope again. Now, I still think, though, that in a strange way, we are the reverse of what we were in the 1960s.

In the 1960s, people showed how much they were willing to sacrifice. They had sit-ins and freedom rides. They suffered terribly. They created a citizens movement. And then we got a political transformation in the Voting Rights Act and all sorts of other things that are still echoing in our society. Now, we've kind of done the reverse. We've had the political transformation at the top. Now we have to see if we have the citizen's movement that can really combine with it to do something historic.

INSKEEP: I'm listening to what both of you are saying, and I wonder if it can be condensed to a statement. It sounds like you were saying the election of the first black president is really just a giant symbol, and the substance of the act has yet to come.

Mr. WILKINS: Well, you don't work that hard to put your hands on the levers of power if you don't believe that you're going to make very significant change. So I wouldn't say that what has happened is simply symbolic. I would say that what has happened is the first step in a very serious effort to change this country, led by a very, very serious and able human being who will collect similar people to help him do it.

INSKEEP: Taylor Branch.

Mr. BRANCH: I agree with that. I think that you're correct to call it a symbol. It's a symbol with tremendous energy and brains behind it, but it is by no means yet fulfilled. This is a first step. That's why to me it was so moving that Barack's speech quoted, almost verbatim, from Martin Luther King's speech the night before he was killed. "I may not get there with you but we as a people will get to the promised land." Well, that's what Dr. King said in a moment of despair when he knew violence was tearing the movement apart, and he was expressing hope anyway. Barack chose to quote from that right at the beginning on his first night as president-elect. So this is a period fraught with history. It's great symbols, great energy, but it's - as of now, it's still potential.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Civil rights historian Taylor Branch and professor and author Roger Wilkins sharing their thoughts on the election of the first African-American as president of the United States. It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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