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New York Times Columnist Bob Herbert on Al Sharpton’s Ancestral Link to Strom Thurmond, Sean Bell, and the Clinton-Obama Race

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New York Times columnist Bob Herbert joins us in our firehouse studio. He is the author of “Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream,” a collection of his columns from 1995 to 2004. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bob, we would like to, in the time we have left, talk to you a little bit about some of the stuff you’ve been writing about at the Times. And I’d like to ask you, recently, in today’s paper, for instance, you write about the amazing revelation that the Reverend Al Sharpton has connections way back in his line of relatives to Strom Thurmond’s family, that the Daily News revealed on Sunday. Talk about that.

BOB HERBERT: Right. Well, kind of amazing. I put in the column: “Just when you thought the news couldn’t get any weirder.” Right? You know, so it turns out that Al Sharpton’s great-grandfather, I guess, was owned by relatives of Strom Thurmond, that, in fact, Sharpton knew that his family had Florida connections, but he didn’t know until you guys at the Daily News decided to bring this stuff forward, which was a great story, by the way. He didn’t realize that his ancestors had been taken from South Carolina to Florida. And the reason was that there was this woman, her last name was Thurmond-Sharpton, who had actually — her husband had died. She was a widow. And he left debts, so those debts had to be paid off. So, relatives of hers in South Carolina sent a family of slaves south, so that they could be sent out to work to pay off these debts. And the slaves who were sent south were the family of Al Sharpton’s great-grandfather.

I think the most interesting thing to me about this stuff — I mean, the biggest news value seems to have been the Thurmond-Sharpton connection, I mean, I understand that — but, to me, the most interesting part is that it’s just his great-grandfather who was a slave, which means that, you know, slavery is within striking distance. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s your great-grandfather, it means that you can almost reach out and touch it. As Al Sharpton told me, he knew his grandfather. And this was his grandfather’s father. I knew my great-grandfather. Many people know their great-grandparents, you know, so slavery is still that close to us.

And the other thing that I tried to point out in the story is, Sharpton had said, you know, that sort of the dehumanization really comes home to you when it’s your relative that’s involved, and that’s fully understandable. And he said that that had not been that clear to him until this occurred. And I think there’s a lot of things about slavery, which is such an uncomfortable topic, that’s not that clear to most Americans. One is that it’s not in such a far distant past, as we tend to think. We’d like to relegate it to the past, but it’s not that far back. But the effects of slavery are still very much with us.

And I pointed out that in a book that I had recently read that is fantastic called Inhuman Bondage, how the commodities produced by the slaves, things like tobacco, coffee, chocolate, cotton, these were popular commodities, and people just really wanted them, just simply because they existed. And that was the beginning of sort of like this global mass market that we’re so familiar with now, that you had these commodities, that people wanted it, and because you had this free labor you could provide it in enormous quantities.

And the other thing, of course, is that the horrible legacy of slavery is this racism that is very much still with us. I mean, even though the slaves were freed after emancipation, they were at the bottom of the caste system. They were vilified. You know, we’re doing this story about Gary Tyler today. So that racism, which I contend is still widespread — a lot of people like to think that that’s gone, as well — that racism is one of the worst legacies, obviously, of slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Strom Thurmond, it came out after he died, had a black daughter that he never revealed.

BOB HERBERT: Yeah. I mean, you know, the devastation to families that slavery, racism — that post-slavery period — the devastation to families, the agony, the pain, very often the deaths that resulted, and it’s a horrendous story. We really need to know more about it. And people would like to turn away from it, and that’s understandable. I think we need to know more about it, because that would help us understand how we’re affected by it now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So the question would be, will Al Sharpton go to the Thurmond family reunion next year, to further the discussion, the debate?

BOB HERBERT: Al seems to be a little troubled by this. Generally, he’s a little more sure of himself when he’s speaking. He has been more thoughtful and more respective on this particular story.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Sean Bell for a minute. The grand jury is still in process right now, not clear whether the police officers will be indicted or not. Sean Bell is the young African-American man who was gunned down by police in a hail of police bullets just hours before he was to be married. You’ve written about him.

BOB HERBERT: Yeah, I mean, it’s ridiculous that this investigation is dragging on as long as it has. I mean, it indicates that, you know, as far as I’m concerned, that they are less interested in justice. And I don’t know what justice would be. I mean, you know, let the grand jury go whichever way it goes. But I think they’re less interested in justice than in getting the police officers off.

I think that this is another story that tells us something about police training, this horrendous overreaction, so we have another tragedy on our hands. I want to know why so much of an effort was put into essentially trying to catch underage drinkers. I mean, we have this huge undercover operation with backup cops out on the street and that sort of thing.

And then, you know, it leads us to the recent revelations about how many people are stopped and frisked in this city. And I guess that since 2002 the number has gone up fivefold. You have more than half a million people in 2006, just one year, who were stopped and, in many of those cases, frisked by the police officers. Only a very small percentage of those stops lead to arrest. What’s going on here? And it’s not little old ladies and middle class whites who are being stopped by the police, it’s overwhelmingly blacks and Hispanics. And I just think that this is an outrage. It’s humiliating. I mean, you have to like put your hands up against the wall. People are patting you down. They put their hands anywhere they want to. And it’s something that I think more attention needs to be paid to.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You’ve also written extensively on the war in Iraq and on the dance of the various Democratic candidates to carve out a position that appears to be in opposition, but is not quite clear what that opposition is. Could you talk about that?

BOB HERBERT: Yeah. It seems to me that the Democratic Party, in general, does not know what to do about this war. I mean, it’s clear, looking at the polls, that the proper position is to be against this war and to beat up on the Bush administration. Some of us understood that this was a war that needed to be opposed from the very beginning. But even, you know, let the Johnny-come-latelys come lately. At least now, let’s have a plan for moving forward. And that’s what I really don’t see. And I think the Democratic political candidates are essentially trying to determine — I guess it’s understandable — but they want to determine what’s in their best political interest. But when you have people dying in combat and being killed, then I think that that’s the point where you need to turn away from politics and look at what’s in the best interest of the soldiers and Marines that we’re sending into the field, and then, of course, overall what’s in the best interest of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

BOB HERBERT: Well, this is really interesting. I mean, one of the things that strikes me is that Barack does not have to win this race, whereas Hillary does have to win it. You know, it’s unlikely that she’s going to get another crack at the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you never know. I mean, McCain is much older than her.

BOB HERBERT: That’s true, but I just get the feeling that this is it for the Clintons. I mean, if it was a different candidate, other than Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was running for the first time, I wouldn’t make that statement. But I think she needs to probably win it this time around. But Barack hurts her in a lot of ways. He’s a fresh face. The Clintons are no longer the fresh faces on the block. He’s a threat to the black vote, which has always been crucial to the Clintons’ political chances. So it’s a real interesting fight.

AMY GOODMAN: In your column, you call the Clintons the “Connivers.”

BOB HERBERT: Yeah, you know, I thought that —- I was a little outraged by the way the Clintons have geared up to money up Barack Obama, so -—

AMY GOODMAN: How have they done that?

BOB HERBERT: Well, in the first place, behind the scenes, I mean, they’re really putting the squeeze on people who would like — the first point, I think, that needs to be made is if you’re going to start the presidential election this early, really early, then the one benefit that you could get out of that is that voters will get to see the candidates over an extended period of time. What the Clintons want to do is come in there with a very powerful machine that they have and shut this debate down as quickly as possible. So if Barack or if someone affiliated with his campaign makes a comment critical of the Clintons, the Clintons come back gangbusters and assert that this is the politics of personal destruction. Well, that’s not true. What we want here is a very public debate. So I think that the steamroller tactics of the Clintons are to be regretted.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, Bob Herbert, for being with us. Bob Herbert is a columnist with The New York Times; again, has written three columns recently on the case of Gary Tyler, and you can get more at the website freegarytyler.com.

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