Remembering The Civil Rights Struggle

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History will be made Tuesday when Barack Obama becomes the nation's first African-American president. For a lot of people who grew up during the struggle for civil rights, this is a historic moment.


Today's inauguration gets our news analyst Juan Williams thinking about his childhood. Juan is a few years older than the president-elect. And in 1961, when Barack Obama was born, Juan Williams was a kid growing up in largely segregated public housing in Brooklyn.

JUAN WILLIAMS: I'd be on one corner, and there'd be Black Panthers telling me, you know, if you want to be a black man, you got to join the Panthers, you got to fight the man. And on the next corner, you had people there from the NAACP talking about all their activities and why don't you come to our meetings?

INSKEEP: That was New York City through the 1960s, a city that had been a destination for a huge migration of African-Americans. Juan Williams recalls a few giants of his youth, people like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.

WILLIAMS: People like Thurgood Marshall, who had been a chief lawyer for the NAACP, and then, of course, onto the Supreme Court. Shirley Chisholm, who was a congresswoman from Brooklyn in the early '70s, then goes on and she runs for president. She is one of Barack Obama's predecessors in terms of black people who were asserting the idea that a black person could be president of the United States.

INSKEEP: And it must have been tremendous pressure for them, because they're one of the few black voices on the stage, that they're compelled in some sense to represent an entire race, rather than just represent their own political viewpoints or their own congressional district.

WILLIAMS: That's right. And what you're seeing in that phase of black politics is that black politics is all about being spokesmen for the black race, a race that was still suffering the consequences of slavery and legal segregation. And this black leadership that's emerging today, that's much more about being a politician representing each and everyone in his or her district and just by happenstance happens to also be black, much in the way that you think of a politician who was Irish-Italian or Jewish simply happening to come from one ethnic or racial group.

INSKEEP: I'm curious because Shirley Chisholm lived for a long time and because you went on to become a journalist around Washington, did you ever get a chance to meet her?

WILLIAMS: No, I never met Shirley Chisholm in person. You know, it's for me - when I see people like the Little Rock Nine, who'll be there, you know, on the inaugural stand, I see people who I think of as living examples of those who struggled and made history. The Tuskegee Airmen - they were in World War II - they're the people that really, I think, forced President Truman's hand in terms of desegregation of the military.

INSKEEP: Which is interesting because that happened in 1948, just over 60 years ago, and you realize that so much has happened in the lifespan of one person, that somebody could show up at Obama's inauguration that remembers that earlier event or played a role in it.

WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. I think there will be people there who remember everything from Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson, or you stop and think about giving the benediction will be Joe Lowery, who created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr.

And of course, it's all - you know, to me, I remember the first time coming to Washington and learning about how people like Thurgood Marshall, you know, even when he's working on cases at the Supreme Court, had no place to eat lunch. They'd have to go over to the Union Station because that was the one place where black and white people could sit down and get a sandwich together. And you think to yourself, my God, wait a second that was in '50s, that's in the '60s. How could that be? But that was the reality. And when you think about being told that the U.S. Capitol itself, the White House - built by slaves. The Mall that Barack Obama will be facing tomorrow, that was a slave market, if you look back at the history of Washington, D.C.

INSKEEP: And then on Sunday we had that president-elect standing on the steps, of all places, the Lincoln Memorial.

WILLIAMS: The man, the great emancipator, the man who freed the slaves, the man who put in place the 13th Amendment freeing the slaves in 1865. And, you know, I was reminded on the day that Barack Obama won the general election, and you saw young people flock to Lafayette Square, it reminded me of nothing so much as the slaves or former slaves who rushed to Lafayette Square and to the White House, when they heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, to celebrate.

It reminds me of, you know, the lines from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," when it talks about silent tears, you know, weary the rode we trod, harsh the chastening rod. You stop and think, you know, Obama doesn't talk much about race, but he can't stop the history from absolutely surrounding, saturating this moment where I think words cannot express the power of seeing someone black raise his hand and take the oath of office - unbelievable.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Juan Williams. We'll have live coverage of all of today's festivities throughout the day continuously live from 10 o'clock, 7 o'clock Pacific. You can also watch video, find pictures all day long at npr.org.

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