DAVID GREENE, host:
Barack Obama's rise to the presidency is strongly rooted in battles for racial equality in the U.S. And during the past month, in anticipation of his inauguration, we've looked back at the modern civil rights movement, from the landmark Brown versus Board of Education decision, to civil rights activists forcing the government to confront segregation, to the powerful legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. NPR News analyst Juan Williams has written several books on civil rights history, and our series of conversations with him continues today with a look at the growth of African-American political power. Hi, Juan.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Hello, David.
GREENE: Just for some perspective, pre-Barack Obama, has any minority or woman candidate ever really come close to winning the presidency?
WILLIAMS: Short answer, David, no. But it's an interesting list, nonetheless. I mean, if you think about it, the closest that anyone ever came was Jesse Jackson Sr. His son is obviously in Congress now. But you think back to 1988, he ran in '84 and '88, and he came in second in delegate count in '88, and gave quite a speech at the 1988 convention in Atlanta.
(Soundbite from 1988 Democratic Convention)
Rev. JESSE JACKSON, SR.(American Civil Rights Activist): As a testament to the struggles of those who have gone before, as a legacy for those who will come after, tomorrow night, my name will go in nomination for presidency of the United States of America.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
WILLIAMS: There are others that are on the list that, I think, you will find interesting. You can't forget that Shirley Chisholm became really, the first black candidate in the modern era for president, 1972. A black woman from Brooklyn, New York. And then you've had people ranging from Alan Keyes on the Republican side to Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun. Sharpton and Braun both ran in '04. Don't forget Doug Wilder. And also, don't forget Eldridge Cleaver. Remember, the old Black Panther, he ran in '68, as did the comedian Dick Gregory.
GREENE: So you've been thinking about all this. Is there one election that we look to that signaled the start of modern black politics?
WILLIAMS: Well, actually, Liane Hansen and I were talking about the amazing moment that's represented by the passage of the '65 Voting Rights Act in Congress, and how much went into it, how difficult it was to finally get the Congress to say yes to that. And then once you get past that moment, then I think you quickly come to 1967, and the election of Carl Stokes as mayor of Cleveland, then the eighth biggest city in the country. But that really signaled a moment - oh my gosh, you know, you could have an African-American as an executive in the country. And Stokes had been in the Ohio legislature. But right after you see Stokes elected, then you get black mayors. Tom Bradley in Los Angeles comes in '73, David Dinkins in New York in '89. And of course, Doug Wilder is governor of Virginia in '89. Now, you're at a height for blacks in Congress, about 43, Latinos in the Congress today at 31, women in the Congress today, 91. You know, we shouldn't go through this whole conversation without mentioning the closest any woman has ever come to winning the presidency was Hillary Clinton in 2008.
GREENE: So certainly a historic moment, not just for Barack Obama. Well, if we look sort of broadly over the years, when did minorities start to gain this presence in national politics?
WILLIAMS: Well, let me pull out my historian's hat here for a second, David. Frederick Douglass obviously had this amazing relationship with President Lincoln going back into the middle 1800s and the Civil War. And then, of course, Booker T. Washington was a powerful force in terms of his relationship and guidance for presidents about race relations in the country as you come to the start of the 20th century.
But in the modern day, you have people who are not elected, like a man named Louie Martin, who had been a newspaper publisher in Michigan and becomes a key policy adviser in the Kennedy administration in 1960. And then you start to see presidents in the early '60s naming people like Thurgood Marshall as solicitor general, then later to the Supreme Court.
But it's LBJ - President Johnson, who named Robert Weaver as the first black Cabinet secretary in 1966. It's hard for this audience today to appreciate what an amazing moment it was. I mean, this had been blocked, stopped, everybody tried to halt it, and then finally you get Robert Weaver as the head of Housing and Urban Development in the country.
And in Congress, of course, you had blacks in and out, especially after Reconstruction. But Adam Clayton Powell in 1945 really became sort of the signal figure of having a black person in the Congress, in the House of Representatives, as a power player. Ed Brooke became sort of the first black senator of the modern era, in 1967, senator from Massachusetts for two terms.
So if you stop and think about it in those terms, that's when you start to see black people playing on the national stage. And yet it wasn't until '72, really, that you had Shirley Chisholm really making an impression that a black person could run for president.
GREENE: And then we come to the 2008 campaign. And speaking of amazing moments, I mean, we have this figure, Barack Obama, and his quick rise, and everyone talking about how he can potentially be the first black president, except really him. And I was struck during his campaign that - he did give in Philadelphia that one day a really heartfelt speech on race. But after that, he didn't really emphasize it that much in the campaign. Why was that, and does his victory really signal a break with much of civil rights history and the kinds of campaigns with black politicians that we've seen?
WILLIAMS: Well, David, I think that's the question that we have to come to next week. You know, the whole issue of, is he a break with this legacy, this tremendous history, or is he some kind of new adventure, new arm, reaching out into history? And I don't think there's any question that Barack Obama represents so much of women, minorities breaking into American politics at the highest level, but is he a break with much of this history? Let's talk about it next week.
GREENE: We certainly will. We've been talking to Juan Williams, NPR News analyst. He's the author of "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years." It's the companion volume to the acclaimed PBS series. He's also written a critically acclaimed biography of Thurgood Marshall, "And My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience." Juan, thanks for being here.
WILLIAMS: My pleasure, David. Thank you.