MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The nation is marking the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington this week. Tens of thousands of people traced the paths of civil rights leaders and foot soldiers in the nation's capital this weekend. On Wednesday, President Obama will speak from the Lincoln Memorial just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other speakers did back in 1963. We are marking these events with a series of conversations this week. Later today, we'll hear about what many are calling the civil rights battle of our time - education. We'll speak with former Education Secretary Rod Paige.
Now, though, we want to reflect on the role political activism played and is continuing to play in the march toward equal rights. To do that, we've invited two prominent political thinkers. Michael Steele is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He's the former chair of the Republican National Committee. Donna Brazile is currently vice chair of Voter Registration and Participation at the Democratic National Committee. She's founder of the consulting firm Brazile & Associates. She ran the presidential campaign of former presidential candidate Al Gore, and they're both back here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us on this important occasion.
MICHAEL STEELE: Excellent to be here.
DONNA BRAZILE: Thank you.
STEELE: Happy 50th.
MARTIN: Thank you, in many ways. Donna Brazile, you were tweeting this weekend about the anniversary, and in one of your tweets, you reminded us that you worked on the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington. You were 22 years old and you were the youth coordinator, and I wanted to ask about your experiences then and now.
BRAZILE: You know, it was a remarkable time in my life. I graduated from college in 1981 and I had a job to come to Washington, D.C. When I got here, Coretta Scott King recruited me to serve as the national youth coordinator for the 20th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington. Along the way, I worked with Stevie Wonder and others to make Dr. King's birthday a national holiday. I was a national mobilization director.
Michael will remember this period of time, back then we had to come into the movement as young people, youth, and Eleanor Holmes Norton approached Mrs. King and she said, she's too young, and I said, well who are you, you were young back in 1963. I was eventually, I guess, promoted to serve as a national coordinator. Walter Fauntroy was our leader, one of the national conveners. I was also a national convener representing the United States Student Association, but it was a remarkable period of my life because I was a very young activist and organizer from the deep South, and Mrs. King gave me that opportunity to serve.
MARTIN: Did it feel like an important occasion? Did it feel like something important for the country - important to do? Oftentimes events - as they are occurring - don't feel as important as they do in hindsight. Do you remember what it felt like?
BRAZILE: Oh, my God, do I remember? In fact, I shared with Bernice King the program, all of the activities that we sponsored in conjunction with the 20th anniversary. It was very important because in addition to fighting for Dr. King's holiday, which we eventually - it was passed in Congress and President Reagan signed it. We were fighting to free South Africa, we were fighting for the renewal of the Civil Rights Act of 1981, we were fighting at that time for nuclear disarmament. So it was a continuation of the march that started absolutely - well, 20 years prior to that, but also a march that was even conceived back in 1941.
MARTIN: You know, our producer, Amy Ta, went to the Mall on Saturday to talk with some of the thousands of demonstrators and once again pointing out that this - you know, young people have always been central to these kinds of public events. I just want to play a clip from Alecia Williams from Virginia Beach.
ALECIA WILLIAMS: I'm actually here in place of my parents, who grew up during the civil rights movement. They're both in their 60s. At one time my father was actually banned from going to school for an entire year because they wanted to integrate the schools in the South. And, you know, being here lets me know just how far we've come in terms of the changes that have occurred, you know, since he was my age. And I just want to carry on the legacy and definitely carry on the movement because, you know, the issues here in this country are not yet dead.
MARTIN: So Michael Steele, I'm going to go to because you weren't here on Saturday for the march. I'm not judging that decision but I am wondering...
STEELE: ...Well, I was out of the country, so it's kind of hard...
MARTIN: Is that because - but is that because you feel that your role in advancing these issues isn't contingent upon marching. I mean there was a time that as a person of your stature - would have not wanted to not be there and I wonder, is it because you feel that these kinds of marches just don't play the same role they used to?
STEELE: No. Actually I think you're making a connection that has no bearing on a family decision that, you know, we had to be away. So having said that, the fact of the matter is these marches still have some weight and carry some value to them. But I think you're going to see, going forward, a very different kind of response and reaction to how we engage. When I look at the millennial generation and there are a couple of articles out today talking about how this generation connects and how they build the social networking - you didn't have a million people on the Mall this past weekend. You're not going to have a million people on the Mall on Wednesday. But you're going to have well over a million people connected to these events. And so while I was in Canada, I was still connected. I had it up on my iPod and my iPad and following it. Can't wait to get that bill from my carrier.
MARTIN: But I think what you're saying is social engagement doesn't necessarily require your physical presence now.
STEELE: It doesn't require your physical presence because your voice is still very much a part of the conversation if you want it to be - to whatever extent you want it to be. And so your physical presence, while it's always great for the folks there in the room or on the ground, you're still - and I think we saw this with this weekend's activities - you're still able to reach a million more people who engage in a way that is very personal for them.
MARTIN: I just want to play another clip - Donna, I'll go to you on this - from Paul Heideman, who attended the march. He's a 28-year-old young man from New York.
PAUL HEIDEMAN: In some ways it's a culmination, in some ways it's a beginning of a process that's been building, I think, over the last, you know, more than a decade - of anger at racism in the United States. And that's been really, I think, brought to a head by things like the verdict on George Zimmerman, which I think for a lot of people was, you know, basically a reiteration of Dred Scott, right, a black man has no rights, a white man is bound to respect.
MARTIN: That's a pretty harsh statement if you think about that. I mean, you're talking about something from the 18th century as opposed to a legal verdict in that case, which was very traumatic for a lot of people. But, Donna Brazile, how do you hear that? I mean, how do you hear that? And what do you think that says about the current, kind of, state of play around these issues?
BRAZILE: Well, the legacy of racism in America is still alive and well. We've done well over the last 50 years. We've done well in terms of civil rights, equal justice under the law. At the time of the 1963 March, we didn't have a civil rights law on the book...
BRAZILE: ...We didn't have a voting rights law on the books. But what we continue to witness is the persistence of the criminal justice system to somehow or another dismantle, disrupt and derail the lives of young African-Americans, especially African-American males. And the Trayvon Martin case, I can tell you as somebody who was - I walked among some of the participants and they were very young. It was an intergenerational march on Saturday and there were a lot of young people with homemade signs saying, justice for Trayvon. Trayvon, I think - the case, the nationally publicized case, really brought back to reality the notion that our criminal justice system is still not fair.
We have a lot of work to do and as we continue along this path of becoming a post-racial nation, I think something that Dr. King envisioned, we must be reminded from time to time that our work along the area of education, justice, and even equality - we still have to put our hands into it, and our minds and souls and spirits and see if we can come up with a more perfect union.
MARTIN: Michael Steele, how about you? How do you hear that? I mean, obviously as a political leader you're in the hope business too. I mean, both of you are, you're in the business of believing that your work and the work of others joined together can make things better. But when you hear a comment like this does this put you in a hopeful frame of mind? Where are you in your sense of where we are in the issues that are at the central core of the march?
STEELE: I think where we are is a few miles further down the road than where we were in 1963, but not by much. When you look at the - particularly for African-Americans, and then I took from that statement this underlying sense of yeah, people talk about progress, but a young black kid was still killed carrying, you know, a bottle of tea and some Skittles, profiled, identified. You know, I don't necessarily, you know, conflate this into an Emmett Till situation, but similarly and somewhat ironically, you know, back when Emmett Till was killed it really was one of those moments that sort of catalyzed, for a lot of people, what would then grow into a civil rights movement. And I heard in the comments that - and certainly saw online - comments that were reminiscent of that in the sense that this - it has a galvanizing aspect to it. Young people see this.
They see themselves reflected in this individual in some way, and so when they hear this conversation about progress, while they're totally disconnected from, you know, the water hoses and the "for white only" signs, they experience a different kind of racism, a different element or aspect of it that they sense that we may not necessarily recognize. And so I think that they - their voices are going to be very prominent in sort of defining this next alliteration of the movement. I note - and Donna Brazile brought a prop in today to show us, which I think is profoundly historic and important for what it says - two things. One, we still have a dream, and I think that that is so profoundly important given the work that someone like Donna Brazile did back in those days to organize, to recognize today that she's still able to help this generation fashion that dream. But below that, it talked about jobs.
And today in this environment, jobs are still the driver for a lot of young black folks, sitting at 12, 13 percent unemployment rate in the black community, as part of the national conversation that's not being had. So I think that when you listen to these comments I think that's sort of the elements beneath it that kind of drives it.
MARTIN: So much more to talk about and what Michael is referencing is you actually brought a poster from the 1983 march and a poster from today, the weekend's march, and jobs is prominent on both of them. So much more to talk about and I'm sorry that we don't have time to dig into all these important issues today, and I hope you'll come back and continue these important conversations. Michael Steele is former chair of the Republican National Committee. Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for the Al Gore presidential campaign and a prominent official of the Democratic National Committee. Both here in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.
BRAZILE: Thank you.