Civil Rights Leaders Witness Emotional New Chapter

A roundtable of leaders from America's civil rights movement reflects on the broad implications of a first black president. Former U.S. ambassador and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr., a former presidential candidate, react to the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, it's estimated that over one million people swarmed the National Mall to be part of the inaugural festivities. Our producers captured some of the moments and memories of just a few of those visitors.

But first, America turned a new page. Barack Obama became the country's president, the first African-American to hold that office in this nation's history. So, we decided it was appropriate to catch up with some of the people who marched and worked to bring that day about. Yesterday, we caught up with three icons of the civil rights movement to find out what the day's events meant to them.

We talked first with Andrew Young. He's the former mayor of Atlanta, a former ambassador to the United Nations, he was a key aide to Martin Luther King Jr. He watched the activities yesterday here in Washington, but not out in the cold, and I asked him how he was feeling after watching the inauguration. And he compared his feelings with an earlier memory.

Ambassador ANDREW YOUNG (Democrat, Atlanta; Former Ambassador to the United Nations): I was marching with Howard University's ROTC, and it was a time when I could not go to the restaurants down there, and when the movies - theaters was still segregated. And it really has - when the president mentioned 60 years ago that his father could not eat in a restaurant, and - but what I - I was moved by mostly - and I came back to the hotel because I'm a little too frail for the crowd nowadays, and so I got a chance to see them cut to Selma, Alabama and to Memphis, Tennessee and to Harlem, and to Kenya.

But maybe most moving to me was to see the classroom that he studied in, in Indonesia, and we really have a president for the whole world, where the whole world is looking to American leadership and where they heard the values that have brought us thus far on our way, as Joe Laurie said, and where I think that he made a mighty step in the direction of restoring America's global leadership today.

MARTIN: As a person who has worked so hard for equal opportunity for all Americans, seeing an African-American attain this position, seeing this man attain this position, what is your job now?

Ambassador YOUNG: Well, I tell you, it doesn't really change because our call was to help America deal with the problems of racism, war, and poverty. Now, he touched on all of those, and that's his ministry and his mission. Our job is to rally the American people in support of these things, as we have been doing all along. It's going to take another 60 years before we can feel good about the level of life and service that exists for children in Indonesia, in Africa, as well as in Harlem and in Selma.

MARTIN: And finally, Ambassador, as a person who has so long been involved in this fight for civil rights and human rights, is there something possible with an African-American president, this president that was not possible before now?

Ambassador YOUNG: I think, with no criticism, but I think we've got to see him as more than an African-American president. His Asian upbringing is very influential, the fact that he is sensitive to the globe in a way that no president we've ever had is. It's in his cultural DNA. So, I think many more things are possible.

MARTIN: And finally, I'm sure you're tired of being asked this question, but I still would like to ask you one more time. Did you think you would see this day in your lifetime?

Ambassador YOUNG: Well, you know, I thought not. But then I saw a film, just a week or so ago, that was done when I first came to Congress in 1972. And there I said I definitely thought we would - I would see a president of African-American descent in my lifetime.

But here, lately, I have not felt that - in fact, I must confess that I did not believe that Barack Obama could be elected. Not that he was not the best, there was never any question of that, but it was a question of would America overlook his race and judge him by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. And thank God we did.

MARTIN: Andrew Young. He is the former mayor of Atlanta, former United States ambassador to the United Nations, and now he is a global consultant, consulting on matters of trade and human rights. Ambassador Young, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ambassador YOUNG: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: And now to Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., a former presidential candidate. Both men have been social activists throughout their adult lives. Both men braved the frigid temperatures to witness history being made yesterday. I started the conversation with Mr. Bond, and I asked him to share his reflections.

Mr. JULIAN BOND (Chairman, NAACP): Well, I was thinking a moment ago that my feet are freezing, my ears are about to break off, but my heart is as warm as it ever has been, or has been in a long, long time.

MARTIN: What is it that is warming your heart? Can you even describe, given how much time in your life you've spent fighting for opportunity - equal opportunity in human rights?

Mr. BOND: Well, I think both myself and Reverend Jackson and thousands and thousands of other people have worked for equality and justice. But I don't think we were working so that a black person could be president. At least that wasn't my thought. I saw and supported Reverend Jackson when he ran twice, Shirley Chisholm when she ran, Al Sharpton when he ran. But I don't think I ever thought that victory would eventually be the prize. What happened was just a culmination of hundreds of years of effort by the American civil rights movement and just, you know, I saw Reverend Jackson crying at the part when he clinched the nomination, and I was crying on the National Mall.

MARTIN: Reverend Jackson, you - as Mr. Bond just mentioned, and you and I talked about the fact that you were so filled with emotion on the day that Barack Obama claimed the nomination, the fact - on election night when he claimed the presidency on election night. Can you describe your feelings right now, just moments after he's taken the oath of office?

Reverend JESSE JACKSON, JR. (Former Presidential Candidate; Civil Rights Activist): Today was so cold, and I cried till my heart bled with joy. It is a great achievement for the civil rights struggle, to its legislation, litigation, demonstration, as with the accomplishment of Barack Obama as much for America coming on to its depth with more maturity. We are going to another phase since Chicago's altermen bought the great engagement party.

Today was the big wedding, now the marriage has been consummated. And there are challenges in this marriage, and the groom and bride must stick together. We must talk realistic, laying out the fact that we're in a deep economic crisis and exploding foreign policy collapses, and so we're going to need to have a sense of unity, (unintelligible) victims sacrifice and turn the corner. I think he raised the right challenges for us today.

MARTIN: Reverend, and - a final question to each of you. What is your job now, after having fought for much of your lives to open the door of opportunity, now that this man has walked through this - what for many people was the final hurdle? Reverend, what is your job now? How do you see your role now?

Reverend JACKSON: No. Our job is maintain (unintelligible) on civil rights. Our missions defend - protect and gain civil rights made by a court since trying to challenge Section Five of the Voter Right's Act, to move the enforcement that courts do sign the minutes of affirmative action. The courts do sign (unintelligible) equal protection under the law in these urban centers. We have (unintelligible) closing jobs leaving, drugs and guns coming. We have much work to do. We have to have a trend in the White House, which can assist us. My work is not yet done.

MARTIN: Julian Bond, what is your job now?

Mr. BOND: Well, as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we've never thought our job was the advancement of one colored person, but rather the advancement of all. And until the day when we can say that's been achieved, as happy as we are about this day, as happy as we are about the election, we know our job is far from done. We have much, much more to do, and there are going to be times, I'm guessing, when we're going to say, President Obama, we don't think you're going the right way.

MARTIN: Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BOND: Thank you.

Reverend JACKSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: I spoke earlier, of course, also with Andrew Young and I spoke to each of those gentlemen just a few minutes after Barack Obama took the oath of office and concluded his inaugural address.

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