MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Back now with Day to day. The first African-American president in the history of the United States. Let's discuss the historic nature of this moment with civil-rights historian Taylor Branch, and you're Martin Luther King, Jr.'s biographer. Do you know, did he envision, could he have envisioned the day when the United States would elect a black president?
Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH (Civil Rights Historian): I think he could. Dr. King was all about miracles. He spoke constantly about miracles, and, of course, the thing that you hear, though, in his voice is that those miracles were always colliding with his realism about how gruesome the politics of race were then. I mean, yes, I think this is - this is an extreme, but it's within the bounds of his vision.
BRAND: Well, let's listen now to a moment from the speech last night that Barack Obama gave in Chicago at Grant park.
President-Elect BARACK OBAMA (Former Senator, Democrat, Illinois): The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.
BRAND: Taylor Branch, what resonances do you hear there in that speech between Barack Obama and the sermons that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, it's almost a verbatim quote of Dr. King's last sermon, the night before he was murdered, in which he said, I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but we as people will reach the promised land. But, of course, Dr. King's speech was filled with foreboding because the movement was - of the 1960s - was being eclipsed by war and hatred, some of which would kill him the very next day. Whereas, Barack's speech is about the birth of hope at a different era.
BRAND: Well, let's talk about that. We saw in the headline today in the New York Times writing that his election sweeps away the last racial barrier in American politics, quote, "with ease." What do you think of that? And what does it say about the state of race relations in the United States now?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I think that it says that a lot of people are much more nervous about race than Barack is. The Times quote is nonsense. They're inserting race into a race that Barack did not make overtly racial. I'm not trying to obscure the fact that this a great milestone in race relations, but it certainly was not an explicit achievement or accomplishment in race relations for the everyday lives of millions of Americans, and I think Barack Obama would be the first to tell you that. So, I hope we don't get into a tailspin in politics here, where everybody jumps in to pronounce this the racial promised land on the basis of this election.
BRAND: Well, tell me, though, you've spent your career studying civil rights and race relations, what do you make of it? What do you think of it personally?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, I am thrilled to tears. The resonance of it for me is enormous because of the breadth of change. And when you reflect that Barack Obama was born in August of 1961 at the height of the freedom riots in Mississippi, at a time when 600 young people were going to jail simply for sitting next to somebody of a different race on a bus.
So, obviously, this is an enormous achievement that he could be able to do this, but the country has other problems and larger problems, and, as Dr. King and the civil rights movement was confronting problems we didn't know how to with, we have similar problems here today. And in that sense, it's a beginning. Barack Obama is leading us to confront new challenges for democracy in our time.
BRAND: Historian Taylor Branch, the author of most recently, "At Canaan's Edge: America In The King Years, 1965-1968." Taylor Branch, thank you very much for speaking with us today.
Mr. BRANCH: Thank you.
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