Civil Rights Battle Marches On In Era Of Obama In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about his "dream." In President Obama's inaugural address, he spoke of the need for all people, regardless of background, to pull together. How will the new administration deal with civil rights?

Civil Rights Battle Marches On In Era Of Obama

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is News and Notes. I'm Tony Cox. Many see parallels between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama: their oration, their vision, the color of their skin and their desire to see change. In the '60s, Dr. King talked about his dream. In Mr. Obama's inaugural address, he spoke of the need for all people, regardless of background, to pull together.

(Soundbite of President Barack H. Obama's Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009)

President BARACK OBAMA: We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth, and because we have tasted the bitter swill of Civil War and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass.

COX: Has that day come to pass? Some say no. And how will the new administration deal with the issue of civil rights? Joining me to discuss this is Dorothy Cotton - she worked closely with Dr. King for 12 years as the education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - and Eva Paterson; she is the president of the Equal Justice Society, a national organization working to change laws on equal rights. Thank you both for coming on.

Dr. DOROTHY COTTON (Former Education Director, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): You're welcome.

Ms. EVA PATERSON (President, Equal Justice Society): You're welcome.

COX: Let me begin with you, Dorothy. Do you accept the notion that by his election alone, President Obama has changed the way civil rights is viewed?

Dr. COTTON: I think I have to say yes to that. He has changed the way civil rights is viewed. He has changed it just by virtue of the fact that massive numbers of people in this country and other countries are so energized by his candidacy, and I think that has to have an impact on how we see civil rights. I think that people now will think in terms of civil rights as knowing that and understanding that they can - as the civil rights movement's theme song says - we shall overcome. They see now that we can, indeed, overcome. So, there's a new consciousness in the land, and not just on our piece of the land, there's a new consciousness abroad.

COX: Let me bring Eva into the conversation to ask you to respond to, how do you think African-Americans in particular see a change, if in fact they do, with regard to civil rights under the election of the new black president?

Ms. PATERSON: I think it's a very complex situation. I was out on the streets of D.C. for the inauguration, and I've never seen so many happy black people in my life. So, there's a sense that we are not as stigmatized as we have been in the past. But in my discussions with other civil-rights activists, people feel - and I agree with this - the challenges are still there and that we still have to work to overcome some of the segregation and some of the discrimination that people of color experience.

COX: Well, Dorothy, 40 years ago when you talked about civil rights, you were talking about housing, voting, employment, things of that sort. Today, when you think of civil rights and we talk about it, what are we talking about now?

Dr. COTTON: Well, we are talking about the rights of all people to have, you know, access to the same - oh, I hate to use the word goodies - but the benefits of living. The right of people to live in dignity, it is a basic human right, a civil right. There are many ways that we could describe that. In no way would I ever say that things are all settled and that we have reached the Promised Land, but we have made a giant step and I'm convinced that it's an evolutionary process that we are constantly evolving. You know, we could go back - well, we could go back many generations.

Well, let's just, you know, look at slavery. There were slave uprisings. And we could come on up to Reconstruction. We can, you know, come on up to fighting just for the right to have access to public places, which is what we were doing in the '50s and '60s. And I ran a program called citizenship education for Dr. King's organization. And people had to be - they had to un-brainwash themselves because this sense of being less than other people was so hardwired into the culture, into the psyche of black people. And what was hardwired into psyche of white people was a sense of superiority. While all of that had to be torn down, that still does not mean that we have reached the Promised Land. It means that we have put some more cracks in that wall of segregation, separation, American-style apartheid. And I think as a journey...

COX: Well, let me bring back Eva in to talk about that journey and the evolution that you make reference to, Dorothy, because there was a new - renewed activist in some communities since the emergence of Obama and even before, and I'm reminded of the most recent protests in the streets around - across the United States have been around the issue of gay rights. So, who is going to carry the civil-rights mantle from this point forward, Eva?

Ms. PATERSON: I think it's very important to go back to the days of Bayard Rustin, who was Dr. King's aide and I'm sure Ms. Cotton knew him. And he talked in terms of the grand coalition. He talked in terms of a civil-rights movement that was very broad, that encompassed rights for people of color, but also dealt with labor rights. And I now think that marriage equality is part of that as well. That is certainly a controversial topic in the African-American community. I will be in L.A. this weekend speaking at a conference that talks about having marriage equality as part of the civil-rights movement. So, I think if we follow the notion of Dr. King and Bayard Rustin, the civil-rights movement is a broad one. I think that it is also totally embodied by Obama, who brought so many different people to his campaign, as Ms. Cotton talked about at the beginning of this program. So, my personal vision of civil rights is a broad one.

COX: Let me ask the both of you because you - we've made a reference to the new president and his role vis-a-vis civil rights. Do you think, either of you, that the new president will get a pass on this issue? Dorothy?

Dr. COTTON: I don't think he'll get a pass. There might be - oh, what's the word that's often used? You know, he'll have a kind of a honeymoon with the people for awhile. But there are also people waiting in the wing to attack him to see what he does that they will consider, quote/unquote, "wrong," and I know that there are people waiting. There are people still - I think it's a very, very small minority. I came out of the hospital - well, a quick personal note here - and the head nurse who was treating me for a wound said she talked to somebody the day before who said, I'm never going to let a black man tell me what to do. And I'm talking about something that happened in the last five days.

There are other people out there who still carry that hatred, that bitterness, that xenophobia, if you will, and they will be waiting. And I'm sad to say that some of - these are not all black folks - excuse me - these are not all white folks who feel that there's just little pockets of people here and there who are suspicious and who are saying, can he really do it? And rather than saying and feeling and responding to President Obama's invitation to be a part of this new place to which we have come, instead of saying, I am going to help, I am going to be a citizen leader, a citizen politician, I am going to play my role, I'm going to accept this invitation; instead of doing that, they are waiting in the wings to catch him wrong and - but obviously, that is not the majority of people. Otherwise, we would not have seen that fantastic turn out on the Mall the other day. But there are pockets of people out there, and I think maybe they'll disappear, I hope.

COX: Well, you know, it seems as if, Eva, the new president has to walk a tight rope with regard to the issue of civil rights, not forgetting upon whose shoulders he stood, by his own admission...

Ms. PATERSON: That's right.

COX: And yet at the same time reaching out to the entire fabric of this country.

Dr. COTTON: Right.

Ms. PATERSON: That's exactly right. I was reading a piece about Karl Rove and how he encouraged Bush to govern. And basically, their whole MO was divide and conquer.

Dr. COTTON: Absolutely.

Ms. PATERSON: To serve the people who voted for them. Obama is going to be the president of all the people.

Dr. COTTON: Absolutely.

Ms. PATERSON: And I think that's in his DNA, it's certainly in Michelle's DNA, and I applaud that. He also, though, has asked us all to participate, and to me what that means as a civil rights activist is if we think he's not doing something, we should let him know. Now, we know he's going to listen. We know Bush did not listen, but we know Obama will listen. He will not always do what we want. We're not always - he's going to disappoint us in some ways, but we know that he does care about civil rights given his background. And so, it's a very interesting place for us to be as activists; we want to support the brother, but we also need to be true citizens and to speak up.

COX: It seems to me also that the young people, as we bring our conversation to a close, are a major part of how this issue of civil-rights activism will look over the next four years. Would you agree, Dorothy?

Dr. COTTON: Ask your question again.

COX: I'm talking about the involvement of young people, how that will help to shape the conversation.

Dr. COTTON: Oh, I think young people are energized in a way that they have not been before, and that is absolutely fantastic. But one thing I want to say before we close here that I also want us to get away from almost, well, identity politics, is the way we've talked about it in the past, but sometimes people get locked into just their own identity or the identity of a particular group. And if President Obama is not serving their group as they see it - as they think it ought to be, then they are critical. They do not see the broad, you know, his - the broad spectrum of his understanding and his belief and his outreach and his vision. They're just thinking about their interests, for example. And so I don't want people to - there are a few who still just want to think of him as the black president. But what excites me is, yes, but his mother was a blonde, blue-eyed woman from the Midwest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That's makes it a different story entirely...

Dr. COTTON: So, what about that part of his being?

COX: Absolutely. Unfortunately, our time has run out and we'll have to end our conversation there. But thank you both very much for participating. It was very interesting.

Ms. PATERSON: Thank you.

Dr. COTTON: Thank you.

COX: That was Dorothy Cotton. She worked closely with Dr. King for 12 years as the education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And Eva Patterson, she is president of the Equal Justice Society, a national organization working to change laws on equal rights.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Just ahead, from Twitter to tax returns, we live online. Even our national defense depends on cyber security. But just how safe are we? And what should the new administration do to protect us in the digital age? A look at cyber crime next.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is NPR News.

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