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Examining Activism On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One moment last week illustrated how America's present is touched by its past. On Friday, President Trump read out a proclamation honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King. As he finished, a reporter asked, are you a racist? The president didn't answer then, but when asked again on Sunday, he said, no. He's under pressure for saying in a meeting that he wants fewer immigrants from Haiti and Africa and more from countries like Norway. Two Republicans in the meeting deny the president used a specific expletive but did not deny the general thrust of his remarks. So where's that leave African-American civil rights activists on this Martin Luther King holiday? We have two guests, African-Americans, who represent two traditions of activism. One of them is Joshua Dubois, who is a faith leader who led President Obama's White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Good morning, sir.

JOSHUA DUBOIS: Good morning. Great to be with you.

INSKEEP: And we're also joined in the studios here by DeRay McKesson, whose activism came through social media and the streets after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Thanks for coming by.

DERAY MCKESSON: Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Do you think you're making progress? DeRay, you can start.

MCKESSON: Yeah. I think since the protests started in Ferguson three years ago - or four years ago now - you know, we've changed the conversations at the national level about criminal justice since civil rights. There's now a national conversation happening about it in a way it didn't happen before. We know, though, that the conversation is only the beginning of the change. The systems and structures have to change for change to be lasting. I think that's one of the lessons from the civil rights movement that changing the language is part of it but changing the systems and structures has to be the win.

INSKEEP: Changing the language, meaning what people talk about and the way they talk about it.

MCKESSON: And how they talk about it. You think about police violence - you know, a third of all the people killed by strangers in this country is actually killed by a police officer. And that data, that - those stories weren't being told at a national level until the protests started. And that is about storytelling and about what's acceptable to be done in public. You think about even identity, the trans community - we're talking about so many things in public, which is an entrance into changing systems. It is not in and of itself, though, the system change.

INSKEEP: Joshua DuBois, do you feel like you're making progress?

DUBOIS: You know what? There are a number of wonderful things about the Trump administration, in my view, but one thing that's important is at least the issues are now on the table. We cannot deny that we still have major challenges related to race in this country and the last year has shown us that. And so, I think the fact that we're finally able to see with clear eyes that we still have real challenges is progress in and of itself.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting it can be good even though you disagree with President Trump - can be good that he raises race and that he talks about ways that provoke racial discussions?

DUBOIS: Well, I don't think the specific policies that he's advancing or the way that he's raising these issues is good at all. But I think it's good that, to some extent, the scales have fallen off our eyes and we see that although we've made certain progress in terms of policies and laws and in terms of where we are with the human heart, the gaps between different communities in this country, we still have a long ways to go. I think that, in and of itself, can be good because you can't fix something unless you know that you have a problem.

INSKEEP: Do the techniques of Martin Luther King, which we can all see in the old black-and-white videos - peaceful protest, appealing to people's consciences - do those techniques still work?

MCKESSON: Absolutely. I think that they do. You know, the question for now is what - how will technology change the way that information can spread? You think about in the past - so they went to public meetings. That is how everybody organized. You think about the Montgomery bus boycott. It was a professor, Jo Ann Robinson, who printed 35,000 pamphlets and passed them out. That's how the boycott started.

INSKEEP: Had to have them printed and passed out - OK.

MCKESSON: That's crazy, right? Now, you know, I can talk to a million people at the drop of a hat. We could organize all across the country and all across the world really quickly. So the question for me is, will technology allow us to do something different using those same sort of core principles knowing that nonviolent direct action sort of forces the state to respond in a specific type of way? You think about Rustin. Rustin wrote about the challenge with violent action...

INSKEEP: Bayard Rustin, you're talking about.

MCKESSON: Bayard Rustin. You know, the challenge with...

INSKEEP: Martin Luther King ally.

MCKESSON: ...With violent action was that the state always sort of takes violent action and uses it back on the people, which is one of the reasons why they thought (ph) about nonviolence as such an important strategy. So I think that so many of those things are important. I think that the economic focus of the civil rights movement has to be more centered today now than ever.

INSKEEP: I want to ask you both if social media has been entirely positive, though. You're exactly right, DeRay McKesson, that you can organize tons of people in a way or you can get people's attention. But everybody gets on social media, everybody gets outraged about the latest outrage, and then something else happens and the attention flips to the next thing. Is this really working?

DUBOIS: Yeah. I think there are some real challenges with social media, certainly, and particularly when we've lost some of the basic moral guardrails in our conversations. People can not only get on social media, but they can say absolutely anything as we see evidenced by our president almost every day, it seems. And so the sense that there are some basic principles of our discourse that we should all abide by, that seems to have fallen to the wayside and that's something that I think would be wise to return to.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about one other thing because this is a moment when President Trump has been fiercely criticized and he and his defenders have responded, in part, by blaming Democrats. And they have said, actually, Democrats will talk a game on DACA or whatever they want to talk about but they don't actually want to fix the problems of people of color. They just want to rile people up at election time. Do either of you have faith in the Democratic Party at this moment? Deray Mckesson, you can go first.

MCKESSON: Yeah. I do have faith in the Democratic Party. I think that, you know, we know the party is not as strong as it should be. We know the party doesn't always do what's best for everybody, but it is certainly better than the Republicans. And we also know that there's a platform that is ready to be implemented when the Democrats take back Congress, which will be exciting, hopefully, in 2018, this year. So yeah, I have faith. You know, I was on the transition team for the DNC. I feel like there're things starting to change and I have a lot of faith in all the young people running across the country for office.

INSKEEP: Joshua DuBois, you get the last word. We got about 40 seconds here.

DUBOIS: I would absolutely agree. I have faith in the tremendous work of the last eight years of the Obama administration and a lot of hard-working folks in the Democratic Party today who want to make sure that immigrants are protected, that people people who are living in poverty who have the resources that they need (unintelligible)...

INSKEEP: Although, let's remember, the Obama administration was a time of protest that gave rise to people like DeRay McKesson.

DUBOIS: It was, and that's a good thing, ultimately. That tension has led to certain progress in this country and the - and platform for tremendous activists like my friends, like DeRay and others. But, you know, again, the Trump administration has brought these issues to the forefront, and that in and of itself is cause for optimism because at least we can do something about them now.

INSKEEP: Joshua DuBois, faith leader who counseled President Obama, thank you very much.

DUBOIS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we're also joined in the studio by DeRay McKesson. Thanks to you for coming by. DeRay McKesson, among other things, is the host of the podcast Pod Save the People.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMITH & MUDD'S "MR COATS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.