SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. While the nation and the world are focused on President Barack Obama's inauguration, halfway across the country, another political milestone has been reached. For the first time in U.S. history, two African-Americans lead both chambers of a state legislature, and it's happened in a state with a very small black population. From Rocky Mountain Community Radio, Bente Birkeland reports from Denver.
BENTE BIRKELAND: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, James Meredith, Thurgood Marshall, Terrance Carroll, certainly you're familiar with the trailblazing accomplishments of the first four Americans, but Terrance Carroll?
Unidentified Woman: I - and say your name.
Assemblyman TERRANCE CARROLL (Democrat, Denver, Colorado): I, Terrance Carroll.
Unidentified Woman: Do solemnly swear.
Assemblyman CARROLL: Do solemnly swear.
Unidentified Woman: That I will uphold the Constitution of the United States.
Assemblyman CARROLL: That I will uphold the Constitution of the United States.
BIRKELAND: Terrance Carroll, the son of a sharecropper's daughter who grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., was part of history earlier this month. One of only two black lawmakers in the Colorado state legislature, Carroll was sworn in as the state's next speaker of the house, the first black in Colorado to accomplish that feat. The other African-American in the legislature, Peter Groff, is the president of the state senate. Never before have two blacks led both chambers of a state legislature. The history has not gotten past Carroll or Groff.
Assemblyman CARROLL: You can't help but notice that you really do have a large responsibility, not just for this chamber, but also for your community, and not just the black community in Colorado, but, you know, for the entire nation. And that's a lot of weight to bear.
State Senator PETER GROFF (Democrat, Denver, Colorado): We're standing on the shoulders of a generation that went straight from the streets of protests into the halls of power. We grew up in the halls of power, and so we look at solving issues in a completely different way, not from a racial standpoint, but from a standpoint of what's going to be best for all Coloradans.
BIRKELAND: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, African-Americans make up only four percent of Colorado's population. And while Groff acknowledges it's unusual Colorado would be the first state in the country to have two black legislative leaders, he says it also makes sense.
State Sen. GROFF: There is less of a racial legacy in Colorado than compared to Alabama. We didn't have to go through slavery, reconstruction, and then Jim Crow for decades and then try and work our way out of that. So it speaks more, I think, to my colleagues and to the state than it does to us.
BIRKELAND: And it helps that Democrats have been making political inroads. Two years ago, they expanded their margins in the state legislature and gained control of the governor's office. Last fall, they picked up a U.S. Senate seat and a House seat. Coloradans also voted for Barack Obama, turning the state blue for the first time in three presidential election cycles and only the second time since 1964. John Straayer is a political science professor at Colorado State University. He says the selection of Groff and Carroll should be placed into this broader context.
Professor JOHN STRAAYER (Political Science, Colorado State University): Their ascendancy to positions of leadership also parallel the advance of the Democrat Party. Prior to that with the Republicans in control, obviously Democrats like Groff and Carroll would never advance to leadership positions. It is historical. It's also very understandable given their capabilities.
BIRKELAND: Both have law degrees and are good friends living just 10 blocks from each other in Denver. And they have similar leadership styles - even-tempered, smart, and well-liked. Carroll, the great-grandson of a slave and raised by a single mother with a third-grade education, says he's especially proud of how far he and his country have come.
Assemblyman CARROLL: Then when you have time to reflect about where you started and where you are right now, you know, I just kind of pinch myself and say, really, am I right here about to do this right now?
BIRKELAND: The state's busy legislative session won't give Carroll much time to reflect on his role in history, but when a woman sang an anthem about African-American hope and patriotism during his swearing-in ceremony, there was no mistaking it.
(Soundbite of song "Lift Every Voice and Sing")
Unidentified Vocalist: (Singing) Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us...
BIRKELAND: For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver.