Skip to main content

5 Questions with Juan Williams

Political analyst and author Juan Williams, whose Martin Luther King keynote speech was postponed because of bad weather, will speak about civil rights at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 3, in Stewart Theatre.

The Fox News commentator is the author of the books Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965; Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary; and Enough.

Without giving too much away, what is the focus of your upcoming talk, “American Leadership: Stories of Inspiration and Power Behind Proven Leaders”?

If you’re a student at NC State today, you didn’t know Dr. King—you’ve never known the living Dr. King. The idea is to try to introduce people to the idea of what it would be like if Dr. King walked in the door as a living person and as a reality in their lives as another flesh-and-blood person that they had to deal with. Not the icon, not the hero, but a flawed, real person who was asking questions and was trying to understand life in 2011.

What do you think Dr. King’s impression would be of race relations in 2011?

I don’t think it’s possible to answer that question because he’s not alive. But I think it’s possible to allow students at NC State to begin contemplating how they think Dr. King would view race relations today. So if they have the experience of talking, walking, even arguing with Dr. King, they might then come to a conclusion for themselves about what they think Dr. King’s attitude toward race in America today would be. But the key for me as a speaker is to try and get them to the point where they feel engaged with Dr. King.

Now that we have elected an African American president, some people say that we are living in a “post-racial” age that has moved past the need for affirmative action programs and civil rights activism. Do you agree?

I think we are in a post civil rights movement of the mid 20th century age, so if they’re talking about the era during which we had the Brown decision, the Montgomery bus boycott, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act, Fair Housing Act, the riots, the Freedom Summer experiences with young people going into Southern states—if you think about North Carolina you think of the lunch counter sit-ins—so I think that’s what people mean by “post-racial,” that they don’t literally mean that we are beyond race, but they mean in the best sense that we’re past the moment when it was about ending the laws of segregation.

We’re now in an era when we have to deal with, in a way, more complex and less direct issues. It’s no longer about the back of the bus or the lunch counter. It’s about, well wait a second, why is it that we have an achievement gap in the schools? Or why is it that the black kids sit together at the lunch table? Or how do you understand the fact that the athletes are disproportionately black at NC State? What difference does it make in terms of everything from the music you listen to, the popularity of rap among white kids to which movie stars make your heart go pitter-patter? And how your parents react.

All of these and the fact that the model of American leadership is the president and for the first time in our history is a black man. What does that say? Is that a threat to some people? What does it mean that most whites in the country now are disapproving of President Obama while most people of color are approving? These are real issues. What does it mean that we have such a high poverty rate among people of color and what does it mean that we have such a rapidly aging society among people who are white? It’s a different set of issues, but to say post-racial, I think some people say that or might hear that we’re beyond race, [but] I don’t believe that.

What do you think is the biggest civil rights challenge facing the United States today?

To put it in singular terms, it would be education. On the theory that I have that every child deserves the opportunity to move up the ladder of upward mobility and you can’t do that without an education in this country. It’s just impossible. So you have to be able to read, write, do basic math, you have to get credentialed in terms of a high-school diploma, you have to learn how to work with other people, gain experiences that come with being hopefully not simply a high school graduate but a college graduate and preferably a graduate student in this country.

So education would be the lifeline—the most important issue, because if you look at the dropout rate disproportionately people of  color, especially black males, dropping out of high school and if you look at unemployment, again disproportionately, people of color, disproportionately male. So what we’re dealing with here is oftentimes trying to repair people who come from broken families and all the rest. But what we as a society can do, apart from emphasizing the importance of families, is to say ‘You know what? We don’t care what background you came from or what happened in your family but we’re going to do the best we can to educate you.’

You’ve written a biography of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Why do you say that he had a more profound and lasting effect on race relations than either Martin Luther King or Malcolm X?

My argument is that from Thurgood Marshall’s perspective that if you really want to change the structure of a society, you change its laws. That you can listen to a Dr. King speech or a Malcolm X speech and be inspired, threatened, whatever, but when you went back home you went back to let’s say segregated schools, segregated and inferior schools—separate and unequal schools, separate and unequal job opportunities, separate and unequal enforcement of the law by local police based on your skin color. All of that would still be upon you even if you went home and said, ‘Boy I just heard the greatest speech ever.’

But if you went to court, as Thurgood Marshall did, in mid-20th century and said ‘We’re changing the laws. We’re going to say now that you can go to your local public school and we’re going to begin the process of ending segregation in public schools.’ That’s a permanent step that’s going to be in place for all time, not just a one day moment of inspiration. That’s a structural change in education that we are still dealing with at this moment in American life.

If you say we’re going to have civil rights laws that say that you cannot hire or fire somebody on the basis of race, you can’t discriminate against somebody in terms of a restaurant or housing or a hotel in terms of public accommodation—I can go on in terms of the Civil Rights Act but you know it—that’s a structural change in who we are as Americans. If you change the law that protects everyone’s right to vote, you are opening the door, then, to black mayors, black councilmen, black school board members and ultimately to a black president. That is a structural change to who we are as Americans, and I don’t think there’s much argument about the idea that the leading figure in the effort to change American laws to being equal without regard to skin color is Thurgood Marshall.