From Selma To Today: The Significance of Obama

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The inauguration of Barack Obama demonstrates to the world how the U.S. has confronted a deep-rooted history of racial division. Rep. James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip from South Carolina, and Rep. Bob Filner, a Democrat from California, talk about the nation's progress since the time of their service in the early civil rights movement.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Howard University Band performs at today's inaugural parade. We dropped by one of their dress rehearsals.

But first, we recently met up with two men who played crucial roles in the civil rights movement. One is a black American, one is white. They both fought for racial equality, spent time in jail for that fight, and both went on to become members of Congress. Bob Filner has represented California's 51st District for nine terms. James Clyburn is the House Majority Whip, and he served nine terms representing South Carolina's 6th District. And because they both taught history in the past, I asked Representative Filner how to put this moment in historical context.

Representative BOB FILNER (Democrat, California): Well, it's an incredible story, Mr. Obama's own story. But I think, probably James would agree with me, that when we were working in the '50s and '60s or even when we were both elected into Congress in 1992, we doubted this day would ever come, that there would an African-American president. We didn't even think a party would nominate anybody.

So, this is a tremendous quantum jump. I mean, the excitement is so palpable everywhere you go. I mean, in black communities and Latino communities and white communities, and around the world. But you look at any other measure of our coming together and you find lots of problems, whether it's incarceration, you know, rates by race, or who heads the Fortune 500 companies, or whatever you want to measure. We've still got a long way to go.

MARTIN: Congressman Clyburn, how do you think you would teach this? And I'm mindful of the fact that you taught at a segregated high school in Charleston, South Carolina. You taught history there.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (House Majority Whip; Democrat, South Carolina): In Charleston, Yes, I did. Taught on Charleston's East Side. It was the most densely populated area in South Carolina, very low income. Students, most of them came to school without breakfast, and we all knew it. And I used to tell them all the time that they could grow up and be anything they wanted to be. They needed to stay in school, they needed to study, they needed to play by the rules, and they could be anything they wanted to be.

The only problem with that is that I really didn't believe it when I was saying it. And I've been telling everybody that, when I put this election within the context of the '50s and '60s, when I was active in NAACP Youth Chapter, when I remember the Brown or the Bigsby(ph) Elliott families, when they were challenged in segregated schools in Clarendon County.

When I think about this day and those days, I just think that we have really begun to live out the true meaning of that little phrase in the preamble in search of a more perfect union. This is a great, great step toward building a more perfect union. And I think that the impact of this day on high school and even elementary school children. Last week, I was in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, with some second graders. And usually, when you get ready to take a picture with 105 second graders, you tell them to look at the camera and say cheese. On this particular day, the teacher looked at them and says, now, look at the camera, now, altogether now. And all 105 of those kids were saying, Obama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. FILNER: Great.

Rep. CLYBURN: That was a very cogent moment for me. But I believe that this inauguration says to each one of those little second graders, that you can grow up to be anything you want to be.

MARTIN: If we could go back to the '50s and '60s that you talked about, that each of you raised for a minute. Congressman Filner, you were a freedom writer. You were part of the - you were in activist groups that rode buses in the segregated South to challenge the laws and customs that enforced segregation. I wanted to ask you, why did you get involved? I mean, you were a white student at an Ivy League school, Cornell University. Why do you think you were drawn to this?

Representative FILNER: Well, very particularly, the first bus that went to test these laws of segregation was forced off the side of the road in Anderson, Alabama - this is in May of 1961 - and set on fire. And that - there was an iconic picture of this Greyhound bus on fire with people inside almost beaten to death.

And I said, that is not America, or that's not the America that we should be having. And I got on the bus virtually the next day. But I had been brought up by parents who came from low-income communities and saw the different treatment of their black friends and white friends by the cops. And that influenced them.

My dad volunteered to be in World War II and he was in the first groups that went into the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. And he would - it very much affected him. He said, you know, this is what happens with racism. This is the ultimate extension. This is racism practiced against Jews. But we have to battle racism against everyone because, if one group is discriminated against, you know, you're next. And I put it in the context it's my responsibility to be there.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that, but I don't want to let that go without giving people a sense of what it is. You did sacrifice, both of you. You talked about that experience, your experience in Ted Koppel's documentary for Discovery Channel, "The Last Lynching." And I think, you know, people talk about being a freedom writer. And I think maybe they think this was, like, a one-day experience. You spent two months in a Mississippi jail for your participation. I just want to play a short clip of what some of that experience was like. Here it is.

(Soundbite of documentary "The Last Lynching")

Rep. FILNER: They put us on a bus, three or four or five of us, whoever happened to be there at that moment who had responded to their call. And we didn't know exactly where we would end up. We didn't know, one, if we'd end up alive. Two, what state we'd end up, whether they would arrest us, beat us up, or send us home. We'd - nobody knew. So, we ended up in Jackson, Mississippi. We got off the bus, we walked together, black and white, into the white waiting room, which was illegal. There was a big mob outside waiting for us. People had, you know, clubs and axes. I mean, they were not in a pleasant mood.

MARTIN: Well said. We talked about whether you actually envisioned the stand. I'm just wondering if you can take yourself back to that moment when you saw that, and think about what you're thinking and feeling now.

Rep. FILNER: You know, I'm sure it was, like for Mr. Clyburn, it's very emotional in that we were delegates to the National Convention, and we helped to put Mr. Obama over the top. And yet, 50 years ago, and I mean 50 years is a short time in history, we were fighting and sitting in jail for simple things like getting a cup of coffee together, or having the right to sit in a classroom. And so, to come that distance in your own lifetime, is incredibly emotional.

And you know, I was able to give a - one of our inaugural tickets to a 100-year-old lady in my district, an African-American lady, who in 100 years has seen us go from, you know, an incredible rigid segregation to Barack Obama being inaugurated as president. And she wanted to be there. I said it's going to be zero degrees, and she's going to be there. It means so much to so many people because, in their own lifetimes, they have come from this rigidly segregated way, this incredible violent environment for many people, to a day that, again, the whole world is celebrating.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with members of Congress Bob Filner of California and James Clyburn of South Carolina. He's the House Majority Whip. Both of them were participants in the civil rights movement, and we're talking about what the inauguration of Barack Obama means to them and for America as we go forward.

Mr. Clyburn, we spoke back in June of 2008 when you first endorsed Barack Obama, and I was asking if you thought that race would play a role in the course of the election. And this is what you told me.

Rep. CLYBURN: I remember how the country received Martin Luther King Jr. when he first came onto the scene. I remember how this country responded to Rosa Parks, when she refused to give up her seat on that bus. So, I think that all of us would be naive to say that race will not play some role in this campaign, but it will. And the question is, can we transcend that? I do believe that Barack Obama's candidacy will transcend that. I think we have tremendous opportunity.

MARTIN: Well, you turned out to be right about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you so much. But let me say something about Bob Filner. Bob, I don't know if you feel comfortable talking about this, but I'll never forget when we got here together back in 1992, we were getting organized to run this congress, you and I ended up on the Veterans Affairs Committee together, the committee you now chair. The chair of that committee was Sonny Montgomery when we came on there, and I'll never forget some conversations you and Sonny Montgomery had about your first confrontation, the first time you all met, down there in Jackson, Mississippi. I think that, in and of itself, tells a lot about this Inauguration Day.

Rep. FILNER: You know, when I first met the chairman of the Veterans Committee, I didn't know what to say to him. He was a legend here, and I was - my first day here, and I sort of blurted out that, Mr. Chairman - I had once been a tourist in his state. And he said, what do you mean? And I said, I took a Greyhound bus in your city, police chief showed me around your city jail, and your...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. FILNER: Hinds County sheriff showed me around the county jail, and I spent several months in your state penitentiary. He said, what date did you do that? He knew what I was talking about, and I said, June 12th, 1961. He said, I was the head of the National Guard that arrested you. I thought my career was done, you know, I'm an outside agitator.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. FILNER: But then a few days later, when we had our first meeting, Jim, he said, I was the first - he says, this here is the distinguished gentleman from California, Bob Filner. He said, we've been close friends for 35 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. FILNER: And what I learned about that is first, you know, relationships in Congress are more important than politics. But can you imagine, and only in America could this happen...

Rep. CLYBURN: Absolutely.

Rep. FILNER: That the exact same spot, 40 years before, a white patrician segregationist, I - sort of middle class guy from New York, and John Lewis, son of sharecroppers in Alabama. All three of us at the exact same spot. And three - and 40 years later we're all Democratic members of Congress. That's not true for everybody, but it can only happen in America.

Rep. CLYBURN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So, what's next? What needs to happen next to take this struggle forward, for which both of you worked so hard and sacrificed so much? What do you think Mr. Clyburn?

Rep. CLYBURN: Barack Obama becomes president of the United States at a time when people are very anxious, a lot of people are downright afraid. He got elected because he engenders so much hope. And I was kind of interested to listen to him a couple of days ago, use South Carolina's motto in his speech, which is, while I breathe, I hope. People see so much hope in this candidacy and I think, if our feeling is right, we have to work hard to make him successful, not just because of him, but it has to be because of the American people.

Rep. FILNER: You know our colleague John Lewis always says we may have come over here on different ships, but we're on the same boat now.

Rep. CLYBURN: Right.

Rep. FILNER: And I think that probably would be Barack Obama's mantra also.

MARTIN: When people serve our country in uniform, it is customary to thank them for their service. In some ways, shouldn't we thank you, too, for your service - for what you did to bring the country to this day?

Rep. FILNER: I don't think so.

Rep. CLYBURN: I think we all...

Rep. FILNER: I think we're just doing our job around and we saw it, and it's our responsibility, as James said. I mean, you know, we're responsible for our brothers and sisters, and that's all we were saying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What do you think Mr. Clyburn?

Rep. CLYBURN: I dreamed a whole lot when I was a child growing up in Sumter, South Carolina sitting around the breakfast table, listening to my father who was a fundamentalist minister, pray or (unintelligible) the land, and the people over in Clarendon County. I remember Brown versus the Board of Education, I remember where I was on the day I heard about that decision. When I think about all of that and those people who were so much a part of helping me come to the United States Congress, I thank them. I do believe that this inauguration is a vindication for all that Martin Luther King Jr. stood for, all that Mrs. Briggs and others like her stood for, and I thank them for having such strong, strong shoulders that I can stand upon.

MARTIN: James Clyburn is the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives. He represents South Carolina's sixth district. Bob Filner represents California's 51st district in Congress. They are both veterans of the civil rights movement, and I will thank them even if they would wish that I would not. Mr. Filner is here with me in the Washington D.C. studio. Mr. Clyburn is on Capitol Hill. Gentleman, thank you both so much.

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you.

Rep. FILNER: Thank you for making this so clear.

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