Civil Rights Leaders React To Obama's Win Barack Obama's election comes on the shoulders of civil rights leaders who fought long and hard — and in some cases lost their lives — for equal rights. The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and Myrlie Evers-Williams talk about his historic victory.
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Civil Rights Leaders React To Obama's Win

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Civil Rights Leaders React To Obama's Win

Civil Rights Leaders React To Obama's Win

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.

President-Elect BARACK OBAMA (Former Senator, Democrat, Illinois): This is our moment. This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids, to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace, to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that out of many, we are one.

MARTIN: That was, of course, President-elect Barack Obama, speaking in Chicago last night. This election has been heralded as an historic moment for the nation. But it is a transcendent event for the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, who fought for African-Americans to win basic rights and respect in this country.

We're joined by two important figures from that moment. Myrlie Evers-Williams, former chairman of the NAACP and the widow of murdered civil-rights activist Medgar Evers. We're also pleased to have the Reverend Jesse Jackson with us. His own runs for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984 and 1988 made history. Thank you both so much for being with us today.

Ms. MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS (Former Chairman, NAACP): Thank you. It's my pleasure.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON (Civil Rights Activist): Thanks for having me. Hope is being kept alive.

MARTIN: Reverend Jackson, I hope it doesn't embarrass you, but we were all watching the coverage last night, and we all saw tears in your eyes. Why the tears?

Rev. JACKSON: Well, on the one hand, I saw President Barack Obama standing there looking so majestic, and I knew the people in the villages of Kenya and Haiti and mansions and palaces in Europe and China were all watching this young African-American male assume the leadership to take our nation out of a pit to a higher place.

And then, I thought about who was not there. As I mentioned, Medgar Evers, the late husband of sister Myrlie. There's Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, two Jews and a black killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi. And Jimmie Lee Jackson. So the martyrs and the murdered whose blood made last night possible. I could not help but think this was their night.

And if I had one wish, if Medgar or if Dr. King could have just been there for a second in time, it would have made my heart rejoice. And so, it was kind of the dual thought of his ascendance in leadership and the price that was paid to get him there.

MARTIN: Myrlie Evers-Williams, Reverend Jackson alluded to the price that has been paid. Your late husband, Medgar Evers, was assassinated in the driveway of your home in 1963. He died in your arms. For some, 1963 may seem a long time ago. How do you connect these two moments in our country's history?

Ms. WILLIAMS: You know, I have been connecting the moments for quite some time, ever since President-elect Obama came on the political scene and running for president. And last night was an absolute joy. I shed tears. I boo-hooed, and I had to get control of myself. And I realized it was a sense of pride in seeing this young man who had transcended race, who had moved into this position that brought us hope.

I thought about all of those people who had paid with their life that we could be at this point where we are today. And it was bittersweet. I have not slept all night, I have just been so excited. And it's been as though a movie were being replayed over and over and over again. And I have a sense that all of those people who gave so much, in some way or the other, their spirit was rejoicing last night as well.

I also feel that it was the connection that so many of us in the Civil Rights Movement wanted to make with our young people of today, our new leaders who are coming along to fill that gap between the generations. And it's just an absolutely joyous, joyous time.

MARTIN: Speaking of that joyous time, Reverend Jackson, many people remember your rousing speech in Atlanta at the Democratic National Convention in 1988, when your name was placed in nomination. Let's play a short clip.

Rev. JACKSON: As a testament to the struggles of those who have gone before, as a legacy for those who will come after, as a tribute to the endurance, the patience, the courage of our forefathers and mothers, as an assurance that their prayers are being answered, that their work has not been in vain, and hope is eternal, tomorrow night, my name will go on nomination for presidency of the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Now, there were those, of course, who said then that America is not ready for an African-American president. I'd really like to know, did you think, when you ran, that America was ready? And did you honestly believe, when this election began, when this election year began, that America was ready now?

Rev. JACKSON: You know, America has grown and is a work in progress: August 28th, 1955, Emmett Till lynched in Mississippi and the state, in many ways, approved. It didn't pursue the killers.

August 28th, 1963, Dr. King speaking in Washington about the unfulfilled promise and the dream. We see the dawning of that day August 28th, 2008. President Barack Obama is nominated in Denver, Colorado. We see America changing and growing because the Civil Rights Movement never stopped tearing down walls and building bridges. What Medgar Evers did and Dr. King did in the marches were to tear down the wall.

Now, the walls are torn down, and you see bridges being built. So long as there are walls, Michel, on the other side of the wall, there's ignorance and fear and hatred and violence. We got killed for the simplest of things: the right to vote, going to a toilet. I was arrested using a public library. But now, the walls are down. Our kids are now in - when Mississippi State plays Vanderbilt in a football game, you know, when Georgetown plays University of Alabama, you see us now pulling down walls, building bridges, and this is the moment that this generation inherits.

MARTIN: Myrlie Evers-Williams, what about you? Did you honestly think you'd see this in your lifetime?

Mrs. EVERS-WILLIAMS: I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Did you think that you would see an African-American president in your lifetime?

Mrs. EVERS-WILLIAMS: You know, I knew that that would happen, that the day would come, but I wasn't sure that I would live long enough to see it. I have with me, and I carry this with me - it is a poll-tax receipt that has Medgar's blood on it. And it's not to be sad and to stay in the past all of the time, but it's a constant reminder that we have to move forth. And listening to the Reverend Jesse Jackson, I recall so well when he said the words at that Democratic convention, be patient with me. God is not through with me yet. I don't know if he remembers saying that or not?

Rev. JACKSON: Oh, yes.

Mrs. EVERS-WILLIAMS: I remember saying - hearing that and crying and knowing that one day, this would come. I am just so thankful that I have lived long enough and been able to participate in this change and see where we are today.

I saw this wonderful picture of President-elect Obama as he was playing basketball, and he had the tip of this basketball - I mean, the basketball on the tip of his fingers. And I said then, as I introduced him to a group in Oregon, I said, this is a man who has the strength and the determination and the wisdom and the foresight to be able to lift us up, as he did that ball, and take us into the future. And I saw the ball as, not just America, but the world itself.

And, you know, I have come to the conclusion that I can embrace now fully the Pledge of Allegiance and particularly the part that says, one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all. And it's quite a transformation, and it's very difficult to explain. I am so proud, so pleased, and I could not help but just think about Medgar and say, yes, here we are, and we are moving forward. And to see all of the faces of those young people and the different ages and the different races and whatnot, I said, this is what my country is all about.

Rev. JACKSON: You know, Michel, I must say, it's not just the African-Americans are changing, white America is changing. I mean, Medgar was ready. Mississippi wasn't ready. Dr. King was ready. America was not ready. When we see a readiness where all white - more whites and blacks and browns are going to school together and playing ball together, in the Olympics together, working together. So, these ancient walls of fear and ignorance are coming down.

This past year, when I saw President Barack and Senator Clinton campaigning in Mississippi and saw men voting for Hillary Clinton and whites voting for President Barack Obama, it was clear they both were being used as conduits in which a new - a moment where America was expressing itself.

And that voting rights act was so critical to all this stuff, which was always Medgar's point. We went to Selma in '65, blacks couldn't vote, but white women couldn't serve on juries. White women couldn't serve on juries. They couldn't vote either, really. Then, by 1970, 18-year-olds got the right to vote. Then by '74, another suit in Mississippi, you could vote on the college campus, as opposed to absentee. By 1975, bilingual voting. By 1984, we pulled down the threshold and got in something called proportionality and then the physically disabled. So, we have been fighting for 43 years to democratize and make our system more humane, and the result of it is this awesome election in which President Barack Obama has been elected.

MARTIN: Reverend - forgive me, Mrs. Williams, just for one second. Reverend, I wanted to ask you, though, an underlying foundation of the Civil Rights Movement has been that people on the outside have to keep the concerns of people of the outside, the left, out in front of the people in power. What's your job now?

Rev. JACKSON: Well, in some sense, to play the role of conscience, to play the role of supporter. Dr. King fervently supported Kennedy over Nixon. We still had to march for the public accommodations bill. He supported President Johnson over Goldwater. We still had to march for the right to vote. Now, when Mr. Barack Obama gets to Washington, there'll be competition for his attention. And so, the Civil Rights Movement must make its presence felt and the labor movement and the women's movement.

You know, how we were celebrating the day system early, yesterday, while we were in big excitement, the FCC passed a $30 billion merger while everybody was out of town. The Washington Post reports that the Bush forces are now into re-regulating in a different way, consumer - in the environmental protection laws will cost $100 million a year for some time to come. Banks are buying other banks, as opposed to investing in home - loss of homes.

So, we're really focused on President Barack Obama's first 100 days. President Bush's last 100 days, he's giving away the store. So, the civil rights struggle for fairness and inclusion and even playing field just continues.

MARTIN: Myrlie-Evers-Williams, what do you think? What's your job now?

Mrs. EVERS-WILLIAMS: Well, it is one of the same that it has always been. I've always been a positive thinker, and I have tried to rise above the anger that certainly has been a part of my life. And I hope that I will be able to work along with everyone else who believes that we are moving forward and be sure that we keep these issues before the public but embrace, if you will, the interaction between our younger people and my generation.

It is as though we need to continue to talk and to build on understanding the past and connecting it to the future. And I see a major role to be played there, not with anger, not with bitterness, but with determination to work together to move forward.

MARTIN: Reverend, there's been a lot of talk about the way in which this country would have had to have changed to allow this moment to occur, particularly the ways in which white voters - white citizens have had to change. What about African-Americans? Is there a way in which they have to change now?

Rev. JACKSON: Well, in some sense, continue to reach out. Two years ago, the Bears played the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl game. I saw two white women going on Collins Avenue with their children and their husbands with Tony Doniger (ph) jerseys on their backs - a black coach from Indianapolis. Then I saw two blacks jogging on the street wearing Brian Urlacher jerseys - the white linebacker from Chicago. One hundred million people saw the game. There were people choosing uniform color, not skin color, and direction, not complexion.

So, even these athletic events that take place on Saturday and Sunday, even they are part of reducing fears and redefining what's important to us. So, I'm delighted that we're becoming more socially secure with each other.

Now, the challenge, of course, is the unfinished business of dealing with the issue of poverty, middle-class sinking and poverty, basic spending. In these deep, dark ghettos and barrios, plants are closing. Jobs are leaving. Drugs and guns are coming. Why can whites and blacks find such common ground in Ohio? I think because when the plants close, and the lights go out, we all look similar in the dark, and we search for light. Where we come from, Barack had and has that light.

MARTIN: And Myrlie Evers-Williams, what about you? Final thought from you. Is there anything about this that changes you, changes the way you think about this country? And is there any other way in which you think African-Americans might need to change?

Mrs. EVERS-WILLIAMS: Well, I think we will probably look at ourselves in a much, much more positive way. And there is something that I think we must realize, is that President-elect Obama is the president of all of Americans, and that we will not be receiving special treatment.

But certainly, certainly, we know that we must work together as a whole, and that is a major job. I saw that look of hope on the faces of the people gathered in Chicago last night, and I hope it transcends into the future. And it's still a major job to be done, and the president-elect is going to need the support of everyone to be able to accomplish the goals which I think most of us in this country want to achieve.

MARTIN: Myrlie Evers-Williams is the former chair of the board of the NAACP. She's also the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. She joined us from California. The Reverend Jesse Jackson is the founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. He's a former candidate for the Democratic nomination for president himself. He joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rev. JACKSON: Thank you.

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