A Civil Rights March To Inauguration Day Begins Between now and the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, we'll be exploring the civil rights milestones that marked the path to the White House.
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A Civil Rights March To Inauguration Day Begins

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A Civil Rights March To Inauguration Day Begins

A Civil Rights March To Inauguration Day Begins

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From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. Between today and the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, we're going to be exploring the civil rights milestones that marked the path to the White House. NPR's news analyst Juan Williams, who has written and commented extensively on civil rights, will be with us over the next few weeks to discuss these historic events. And Juan is in the studio. Hey, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: We're going to be going into detail about the milestones for the conversations we're going to have. But can you give us a bit of an overview? I know in Toni Morrison's new novel, she actually goes back to almost pre-slavery days. How far back will we go?

WILLIAMS: Let's start with what I think of as the moment that's widely accepted as the beginning of the modern civil rights era, Brown v. Board of Education. 1954, the federal government goes from being supporters of segregation to being opponents of segregation, willing to enforce laws that say that we all have to be treated as equals in American society without regard for race and, of course, with specific reference to the classroom and children.

And then going forward from that moment, the great march on Washington in '63, King speaking of having a dream, King winning the Nobel Peace Prize. You also have Fannie Lou Hamer at the Atlantic City Democratic Convention in 1964 complaining about the all-white Mississippi delegation and insisting that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which included people of color, should have a role, and making a scene and embarrassing President Johnson.

Then you come forward to, of course, 1964, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, the - really the beginning of black politics with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And then we come forward yet again, and you go through things like - well, Dr. King's assassination, Robert Kennedy's assassination, and you begin then to understand what's going on in the cities, white flight as well as the beginning of black politics and concentration of minority populations in big cities.

I'd say the next step is then you come back to someone like Jesse Jackson, Jesse Jackson making himself the heir to Dr. King, but in a political sense, running for president in 1984 and 1988. And remember his saying that he wasn't really running for president. He was running to make sure that people understood, and in specific Ronald Reagan, that a rising tide didn't lift all votes. There were some votes that were broken and at the bottom, and all that rising tide did was bury them further below.

HANSEN: It has been an interesting path. You know, you mention Jesse Jackson. Of course, Shirley Chisholm's name immediately comes to my mind as well...

WILLIAMS: Who ran for president in '72.

HANSEN: Absolutely, yes.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. You know, and we're going to get into this as we go forward in these conversations, but I just wanted you to have a sense. And, you know, it even goes into the late '80s. You stop and think about things like Willie Horton being used in the '88 presidential campaign.

Or you think about what goes on in terms of the death of someone like a Thurgood Marshall, and Bill Clinton standing up in the National Cathedral at that funeral, and saying, you know what? Without Thurgood Marshall and the Brown decision and, of course, then the Voting Rights Act, well, he wouldn't have been able to become governor of Arkansas because he would have had to play segregationist politics. And he wasn't willing to do it. And, of course, you wouldn't have had a substantial black vote in terms of the Democratic Party to boost him as a white Democrat from the South. It's an incredible story. But, of course, really, the culmination is Barack Obama and the power of not only the black vote, but white voters willing to cross over and support a black American for president of the United States.

HANSEN: This signals almost a cultural shift, one that has been coming gradually. I mean, you would agree it's a little naive to say that Barack Obama's election means that racism no longer exists in America?

WILLIAMS: Oh, I would - it's beyond naive to me. It's a lie, you know, but I think some people might find it convenient because they would rather deny such a difficult subject. It's often one of the - it's almost discourteous, Liane, in some quarters to bring up the continuing fact of racism in American society.

But I will say this. I remember that Pew did a poll just last year, and NPR participated in it. And one of the key findings was, you know what? Among African-Americans, there is now an acceptance to the idea that there is no such thing as one black America.

In fact, there are two. And what you have is poor people, people who are denied educational opportunity, economic opportunity, or don't take advantage of those opportunities, who see themselves as quite separate from the Barack Obamas of this world, who see themselves as a distinct class.

Now, you're going to hear that from the poor, but you will not hear that from middle class to upper income blacks because they're a little embarrassed. The don't want - they don't want anyone to say that you've forgotten where you come from, but what you get is that there's two distinct groups. And so, even in terms of who or what black America is at this moment, it's a different place.

And think about it. Who and what white America is vis-a-vis black America, vis-a-vis Hispanic America, vis-a-vis immigrants who are coming to these shores in increased number, it's all a very different place, and so much of it is represented in Barack Obama, biracial, son of an immigrant from Kenya, white mother from Kansas. In that way, he's almost like - well, I think someone said the other day, like a Rorschach test. You see in him what you want, but he really does reflect the whole notion of a diverse and rapidly changing America at this moment.

HANSEN: Juan Williams is an NPR news analyst, and he's also the author of "My Soul Looks Back In Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience" and "Eyes on the Prize," the companion book to the widely acclaimed PBS series on the civil rights movement. Thanks a lot, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Liane.

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