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From the Archives: Former Congressman Kweisi Mfume on Fighting for What's Right.

President of the NAACP -- Kweisi Mfume. He was a five term U.S Congressman for Maryland, and former Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1996 he was appointed the head of the NAACP. He wrote a memoir, "No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream." (Ballintine Books). (REBROADCAST from 8/21/96)


Other segments from the episode on July 18, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 18, 1997: Interview with Kweisi Mfume; Interview with Carl Sagan; Review of the film "Contact."


Date: JULY 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071801NP.217
Head: Kweise Mfume
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The NAACP just wrapped up its 88th national convention. On this archive edition of FRESH AIR, we have an interview with the group's president Kweisi Mfume.

At a time when the NAACP's relevance is being questioned, Mfume is determined to reach out to young people. I spoke to him last August after the publication of his memoir "No Free Ride," which tells his own coming of age story.

He grew up poor in Baltimore, and when he was a teenager he ran numbers, shot craps and belonged to a gang. His memoir describes the revelation that inspired him to leave that life, return to school, and then enter politics.

He started his political career in 1978, when he won a seat on the Baltimore City Council. He was elected to Congress in 1986, became head of the Congressional Black Caucus in '92, and president of the NAACP early last year.

Mfume told me that the most valuable lesson his mother taught him when he was growing up was to fight back.

KWEISI MFUME, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE: Well, there's an instance in the book where Big Neil (ph), who was the bully in the neighborhood, chases me home from school one day. I had been, for one reason or another, able to escape his wrath for several years, but I must have been about 10 or 11 years of age.

And I just couldn't make it back to the house. He caught me there, short of my doorstep and we began fighting -- or I should say, he began fighting and I began defending myself.

Big Neil was a real big guy who took a great deal of pleasure out of beating up on those of us who were smaller, as I was, and younger, as I was at the time.

GROSS: You were nicknamed "Pee Wee."

MFUME: I was, and I was a "peewee." I was very small and frail, and quite frankly, out of my league. He hit hard. He was mean. And he got pleasure watching other people bleed.

But there we are fighting and tussling on the ground, and I miraculously just kind of break loose and dart straight toward my door and get to the door, and see my mother, and start feeling safe that I've arrived at my sanctuary.

And she grabs me, shakes me, turns me around, and tells me to go back out to fight. And it was a strange moment for me because my mother was my best friend, and one I thought would at least try to protect me, but in this instance, she was going to fight me if I did not go back out and fight Big Neil.

And I stood there looking at her as she was shaking me, and recognized something in her that I had not seen before, and that was anger at my sort of cowering away and walking away from something that I should fight for -- and that was my own dignity and my own respect, even at that age.

And so I got back into the fight, and we proceeded to fight each other until we neither -- neither of us had any more strength and we kind of fell out there. And my mother kind of picked me up, dragged me in the house, but was appreciative of the fact that I had fought back to defend myself -- not to take advantage of someone, but to defend myself and defend my honor.

And for me, it was the first true lesson about fighting back and why it was important, not just in the society, but in terms of life. And it was something that meant a great deal to me at the time.

GROSS: You describe your father as a brooding hulk of a man who rarely uttered a kind word to you and often hit your mother. When he left the family when you were about 12, you described it as an answer to your prayers. I guess for you, an intact family wouldn't have been the best thing.

MFUME: Well, it would have been. It's just that at what price.

GROSS: No, with this particular man.

MFUME: Yeah, we'd have to ask ourselves: at what price?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MFUME: No, not with him. You know, my father, who I realized at a later point was not my father, on the night of my mother's death -- but he was very brutal to me for a number of different reasons, most of which had to do with the fact that I was not his son.

He knew that, but I did not know it at the time -- and was verbally abusive and physically got carried away in those times and in those moments that he drank. So the answer to my prayer was that that be removed -- that that not be a part of what I considered to be our home, our household.

GROSS: You really praise your mother in your memoir and talk about all the strength that she passed on to you. She died when you were 16, and -- but even before she died, you started getting involved in trouble and getting involved with friends who helped lead you into trouble.

For example, when your mother was still alive, you had a friend who, on a dare, tossed a lit match into the car of a Jewish couple -- a couple that ran a store, extended credit to your mother, gave you jobs when you needed the money -- a couple that your mother considered friends.

What was your reaction when you were standing there watching your friend set this couple's car on fire?

MFUME: I had real mixed emotions. The Potash's (ph), who had migrated to this country -- David Potash who was a survivor of the Holocaust lived in our neighborhood and ran a store on the corner across the street from my home.

They, like many others in the neighborhood, were not so obsessed with what a person's religion was at the time, but rather they were part of the community. They lived over top of the store. I played with their son Sammy, and we grew up together. They gave me my first job. They extended family credit to my mother, because they knew that she was working to take care of four kids.

They were a part of the community and in many respects part of the extended family. And having been taken into the confidence of the family as I was, many times when Mr. Potash would bring us in and close the door, and I would be there -- the only black person in the home at the time -- sitting with his son and his daughter, listening to him talk about the stories of the great Holocaust and watching tears in his eyes, and seeing him tremble sometimes and almost unable to speak as he talked to his own children about why it was so important that they understood the magnitude of that tragedy, and to allow me to be a part of that was special.

So now, here I am, 15 years of age, and my best friend buddy -- my best buddy, Gary, who is always pushing the envelope, finds himself in front of their car, an old Plymouth that Mr. Potash loved and shined every day, on a dare by someone else, tossing a match into their car.

And here I am, standing there trying to quickly talk him out of it, but recognizing at the same time that it's too late -- the match is flying through the air; it lands in the Plymouth; a little while later, there is smoke; and we all look at each other and run.

By the time we stopped running, though, Gary and I have a confrontation because I realize that he doesn't understand just what he's done and who he has done it to, and what the long-term consequences are. But by the time we get back to my house, the police are there. You know, they come and knock on the door.

They want to see me. My mother opens the door. She is terribly upset now, because she has seen the fire that took place at the car. There are the Potash's outside on their steps with their night clothes on -- Mr. Potash wringing his hands, wondering who could have done something like that in this community?

And here am I, being led out to a police car at age 15, doing something I hadn't done at all. And there's Gary, who is the person whose done this, in the car, in the backseat, smiling.

GROSS: You said you had mixed feelings about this. What was the other side of your feelings?

MFUME: Well, the other side is that when you are out in the street like that, and you are part of the group, if you will, or the gang or the mob, you don't try to inject any sort of logic to what's going on. You don't try to be the voice of reason because that's oftentimes interpreted as a weakness.

And so you look what is taking place, and in some instances, you join it yourself. That's just part of the street culture. So the mixed feelings had me on one hand feeling like a part of the group, looking at this as just another act taking place; but the other side of me -- the real side of me -- recognizing that there are faces behind this and that those faces are my friends.

GROSS: Well, you were arrested, sent to juvenile court. You got off with a reprimand 'cause it was your first run-in with the law, and your mother was working really hard behind the scenes to get character witnesses and get you to publicly apologize and all of that.

But that run-in with the law, your mother's horrified reaction at what had happened -- didn't keep you on the straight and narrow. You got deeper into trouble as you got older, particularly after your mother died and you were on your own.

MFUME: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What was the allure of the street life to you?

MFUME: Well, it was a very tough neighborhood there in West Baltimore. It was a neighborhood they would eat you up and spit you out if you couldn't conquer it or be a part of it in such a way that you helped to control it.

And what you learned, as I did, living on the street at a very early age and running with all the wrong people at the time, was that you have got to conquer your environment. You can't let it conquer you.

It's the same regrettable lesson that many young people are learning on street corners today. After my mother's death, the anger that set in with me personally at the fact that God, who I had always been told cared about us and would never do anything to harm us, had taken my mother; had left four children -- three of my sisters aged 14, 13, and 10 at the time; caused our family to be split up; and thrust me into manhood long before I was ever ready to even think about it.

So all those emotions were there, and looking back at that, for me, I had every reason, I think, to drop out -- every reason I thought I needed to drop out -- and so I did. I became the environment that I was a part of. I learned to conquer it in my own way because I had to survive in those streets.

And I am blessed, in many respects -- not lucky, but blessed -- that what took place in my life in the summer of 1971 that helped to turn me around did so, so that I might be here today. Along the way, however, I became a teenage parent with five sons, all of whom are adults now and are good citizens and are good children for me, as I get older.

But it was difficult in those days, and different also, to look up with five mouths to feed, no skills -- I was a high school dropout because I had dropped out immediately after her death to find jobs to take care of my sisters.

No hope for the future and no real idea of where I was going -- I was poor, black, and in real trouble.

GROSS: On this archive edition of FRESH AIR, we're featuring an interview recorded last year with Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Kweisi Mfume, and he's the former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, now the head of NAACP.

Before we get to the transformation that got you out of the street life, I want to talk to you about your biological father. On the night that your mother died when you were 16, a friend of the family who was known to the family as "Mr. Charles" confessed to you that he was really your birth father.

MFUME: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he was somebody who you had always looked up to as a kid because he had so much respect in the pool halls and in the neighborhoods. He was a numbers runner.

MFUME: He was.

GROSS: So, what kind of role model was he to you?

MFUME: Well, it's relative. Not only was he a numbers runner, but he ended up using drugs and became addicted and, in many respects, almost lost his own life in those streets because of a behavior that had taken place in his life. It came about also through the need to conquer the environment that he found himself a part of.

But in terms of a role model for me, I can only speak of the times that we spent together, which were not that many. He was introduced after we had moved back into the city -- this was after my stepfather who I thought was my real father had pretty much deserted us and left us in a small enclave in Baltimore County. We moved back into the city, on the west side of town, and we're living there really trying to make ends meet.

My mother, because of the poverty that we were in, ended up moving us five times in a few years, from one house to another, because there was never enough money to pay the rent or keep the gas and electric on.

But here enters Mr. Charles, who I am introduced to as a friend of the family and who is a genuinely kind individual -- not just to me, but also to my sisters of whom there is no biological connection -- and especially to my mother.

The first man that I see now in my house is someone who is treating her with respect and with dignity; who cares for us; who has a sense of humor; who tries to provide; who mysteriously kind of comes and goes for several years there; and someone who I develop a great deal of attachment toward and fondness of, and oftentimes would quietly wish to myself that if I had a father like that, then being a son would be a lot different than it was for me.

So it was rather startling the night of her death that he would come there, as he did, and finish for me the stories that she had begun telling me three months prior to her death, about what I should know about life and myself and my own history; about my family and about my responsibilities.

GROSS: How did you support yourself? When your mother died, your stepfather had already abandoned the family. Your biological father wasn't taking a lot of responsibility for you.

MFUME: Yeah, I indicated earlier I had to drop out of school, which I did two weeks after my mother's funeral. My biological father provided whatever he could, then, for my sisters and myself, but it was clear to me that I had to do something, because one of the promises I made to my mother, sitting there those evenings listening to her talk before her death, was that I would always look out for my sisters and that I would never let anything happen to them.

So I took jobs shining shoes on the weekends for those persons who were going or coming from church. I carried groceries on Saturdays and Fridays. I got a job in a factory -- I lied about my age and said that I was 18 when I was really 17 so that I might be able to get a work permit.

I worked the evening shift, pushing bread through a slicer at a bakery in town. I did anything else that was legal at the time to try to make some money. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to be able to send money to my grandmother, who was looking after my sisters, and enough for me to live on.

I was then living in the house that my grandfather had bought some time ago, in a small room on the second floor with an uncle or two who lived there also.

GROSS: Well, after a lot of legal jobs, you also turned to illegal ways of making money, like running the numbers.

MFUME: That's right.

GROSS: What was -- which felt better to you? Running the numbers and making more money? Or having legit jobs and making less?

MFUME: Well, I tell you -- coming home from running the numbers all day long, I didn't have blisters on my hand as I did working in the factory and I didn't feel half as tired. I don't know if I felt like I had done anything, however, because I was always raised to appreciate work, which is why I've always kept a job in my life.

GROSS: And there's something else about that period of your life: You were carrying a gun for a while. Why did you start carrying a gun? And did it make you act in ways that you never would have acted?

MFUME: No, it did not, but I ended up carrying a gun because I had to find a way to defend myself.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MFUME: And everybody else was carrying a gun. It's not that different, regrettably, from the way things tend to be in some neighborhoods today.

But I had to defend myself. I was a small -- physically, a small young man. I was in a real tough neighborhood where every day, you were treated either by the people who were a part of your group, a part of your gang, a part of your mob; or by those who were not.

And in some respects, being able to do that said to people that they ought to think twice about challenging you on something. And so, I did what most other guys did in that neighborhood who were part of that gang and a part of those streets, not because I wanted to do it, but I certainly wanted to be able to protect myself.

GROSS: What was the turning point for you? There seemed to be like one flash moment that got you to think: I gotta leave the gang; I gotta leave the streets.

MFUME: Well, it was the summer of 1971, the middle of July, and I write in the book about how that night was like other nights that had preceded it in that neighborhood: the ambiance in the street at sunset; the fact that children are leaving the street and, if you will, the older children are now coming about -- the toughs, those who really control the corners.

How I had looked forward to the nightly activity, which was gambling out on the corner, playing the "dozens," and again, controlling my own turf and running with my own friends. And how I dashed out of the house after throwing some pomade, "Dixie Peach" hair grease in my hair, put on a red shirt and ran outside, stuffing my 10s and 20s in one pocket, my ones in another, and my dice in another.

And I had red dice, green dice, and white dice. I had learned how to gamble in that respect and had learned also the ability to make a dollar out on the street corner. So it was a regular night. I get to the corner.

It's the regular crowd and we go through the regular ritual. People are drinking wine. It's a place known as "Heinken's Corner," (ph) because Heinken's liquor store straddles that corner, as it still does today. And it was a strange corner.

I watched -- the first person I'd ever seen shot by a police shot on that corner. I'd watched one guy that I knew kill his brother on that corner. I learned how to play dice on that corner. I learned the "dozens" there.

It was a corner that in many respects held for me a lot of memories -- all twisted, all dangerous, and all very, very risky. And it was the sort of corner that we gravitated to because it said to the rest of the neighborhood, and those who came through that area that this was our turf.

But being out there that night, listening to all that was going on and being a part of it, something strange and very inexplicable came over me because I felt extremely cold in the middle of July. My legs became rubbery.

I felt myself now up against a wall that I had previously been looking at, almost sliding down it -- unable to really talk in any discernible way. My thoughts were clouded. My mouth was parched.

And I was undergoing a strange sense of not being here -- almost felt like I was dying and had no control over it. And as those moments raced on, I, in some respects, went into another state -- one that I had a great deal of difficulty writing about in this book because I have never in my life experienced anything like that and I don't know if I ever will again, but I know that I felt the death angel near me.

And in the middle of all of that, was able to blink my eyes and fight through all of that haze and confusion and see before me, in many respects, the image of my mother's face, looking at me: first, in a very awkward manner, as if she were ashamed at what she was looking at; and then later looking back at me, and smiling and offering to me the kind of love that I remembered so much that she gave to me.

And I felt extremely embarrassed at that moment, believing that if I am really dying, then the worst thing is not to die, but to have died and let my mother down the way I did. And then it all disappeared, and reaching for her, she wasn't there.

I just continued in that state and kind of slowly came out of that, and realized that all that was going on -- the ambiance that was there before was still there. And people are hollering at me and asking me what's going on, and I'm trying to fight my way back to my feet.

But when I got up, I don't know what it was, and I never will know, but I knew at that point I could never continue with what I was doing -- that I had to walk away from that corner and walk toward a new life.

GROSS: Kweisi Mfume is the President of the NAACP. Our interview was recorded last year after the publication of his memoir No Free Ride. We'll hear more of the interview in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Kweisi Mfume. Last year, he left his seat in Congress and his position chairing the Congressional Black Caucus to head the NAACP. The NAACP wrapped up its annual convention yesterday.

Our interview was recorded last summer after the publication of Mfume's memoir No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream. When we left off, he was telling us about the turning point that made him realize he had to walk away from gang life and start over.

GROSS: Well, it's one thing to leave a gang and to be resigned to leave the street life; it's another thing to find a new life for yourself -- a new way of making a living; a new way to live.

MFUME: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What was your first step in that direction?

MFUME: My first step was, like the first step that had preceded it: I had to find a way to defend myself. You just don't walk up to a gang and say: "OK, here's my letter of resignation. I'm giving you two week notice. Thanks, but I'll see you later."

Because we had taken a vow, if you will, to stay together until death separated us. That's what held gangs together -- that kind of sacred trust and a willingness to do anything for the other person.

And so what I found then is that I had to defend myself almost daily from persons who were part of that gang; who were heretofore those who would protect me -- they were now challenging me.

And whether they had chains in their hands or baseball bats or whether they had knives, they would come after me every time they saw me on the street because they thought that I had forsaken them, number one -- I had forsaken the trust that I had been a part of -- and that I was turning soft or perhaps even cooperating with the police against them.

And so I carry today a lot of scars -- in my head, on my hand, the back of my neck, on my legs -- from those fights of trying to defend myself against two and three guys at a time who really were trying, in some respects, not just to break my spirit, but to kill me if they could because I had done the unthinkable.

Fortunately, after several months of that, they just kind of left me alone. I guess they got tired of watching me lying on the ground in my own blood, crawling in a gutter trying to get myself to a pair of steps or to rush into somebody's house, that I might be able to be treated for the way I was bleeding.

And they just kind of left me alone. They either thought that I was crazy, because I always fought back and I never seemed to go back on my word to myself that I was walking away. Or they thought that I was on to something that was clearly much more powerful than that corner. And they were right.

GROSS: What politicized you?

MFUME: 1968 did it for me. I'm a product of the 1960s. I watched the turmoil. I watched the expressions of change. I watched all that was going on in this country as it wrestled with its own conscience -- with its own real meaning.

And in 1968, two months after the assassination of Dr. King and of all the riots that occurred in cities around this nation; two months after the birth of my first child; and two months, really, before the assassination of Bobby Kennedy -- I had an experience on that same street corner with a gentleman who was later to become the first African-American member of Congress from the State of Maryland by the name of Parren Mitchell.

The Vietnam war was raging. The president had just stepped up our commitment to send troops, I believe, into Cambodia. There were a great deal of protests all over the place.

And here is this man that I bump into on my corner, on my turf, passing out literature and talking to those of us there as if he knew us or as if he were not afraid of us, asking us to get involved.

And if we really wanted to change things and to change the community, that we really had to change the system, and that he wanted to be a member of Congress to do that.

GROSS: Right. And you insulted him.

MFUME: Well, I insulted him because I thought he was insulting me and my intelligence. He was on my turf and he was on my terms, at that point. And I said to him: "old man" -- and he couldn't have been any more than about 47 at the time -- but it was relative. I was probably about 19 myself. I said: "old man, do you know what you're doing? Do you know whose ground you're standing on and do you know what can happen to you out here?"

And he just looked at me as if he were looking through me, and didn't seem to blink, but began again to tell me about why it was important to change politically the things that were around us that we might be able to change ourselves, and ultimately change our nation.

And that dialogue continued, and it got more hostile on my part. And he noticed a gun; he noticed my anger. And he said to me, insultingly, that as long as I was there selling, as we used to refer to them as "wolf tickets;" talking bad; and really not saying anything -- that I was more of the problem than I was of the solution. And when I grew up, that I should come and see him or see someone who was prepared, really, to fight back and to do it in a real and meaningful way.

And he suggested, by giving me his card, that I come and talk to him later and be a part of this movement -- this part of change.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you ever take him up on his offer?

MFUME: I did. I don't know why, but I did. I can't explain why I did. I knew if that had gone on much longer, that something else would have ensued on that corner. But he left and, you know, I went back to being my own non-productive self.

But a couple of weeks later, I found myself standing at his headquarters asking to see him. And he sat down and talked with me, and explained to me why it was important that particularly young people my age got involved, and what it meant to fight back -- not just to stand there, but to fight back.

And that how, again, he wanted to be the Congressman and how Hubert Humphrey was running for president, and I heard about Mr. Humphrey and had a great deal of respect for him in my own way because he seemed always tell the truth, and not be overcome by the challenges of his time.

So I passed out literature that summer for Parren Mitchell, and passed it out for Hubert Humphrey. That was the closest I had come to a political campaign -- whenever I could and in my own way, because you know, I still did not want to give the impression that I was selling out to a larger system.

GROSS: Now, this story has a really interesting ending, because eventually when Parren Mitchell was elected to Congress, when he left his seat, that's the seat that you won. Right?

MFUME: That's correct.

GROSS: Now, another story that you tell in the book -- I want to get to this. The book opens with 60 Minutes following around -- following you around in your old neighborhood, and they're doing a story on you.

And you kind of take on the role that Parren Mitchell took on for you. You know, there's tough kids -- you know, gangbangers on the street corner -- who are looking at you as the man. You're the establishment. You're the old man now.

And you talk to one of the tough kids and give him your card and say "look me up sometime," you know; "you should go back to school," "I can help you." He continues to insult you, throws your card on the ground.

MFUME: Pulls out his gun and sticks it up against my head, as he leans in and tell me that I'm on his ground and "old man do you know what you're doing?" It's almost 25 years to the date that I had that same experience with Parren Mitchell, and it was very ironic.

GROSS: So he never called you back, though, right?

MFUME: He never called me back. He didn't take my card. He let it fall to the ground as he was supposed to have done. He would have been measured had he taken that by all those others that respected him, but who really wanted to be the leader of that mob.

He did what he had to do, and I understood that. But I also understood as I look in his eyes what he was saying and what was crying out, because it was the same thing that was crying out in me 25 years ago. You're hoping and praying that somebody really hears you.

GROSS: Now, how do you go about continuing trying to rescue somebody from the street life when their response is to pull a gun on you and insult you?

MFUME: Well, first of all, life is not promised. And I think there's more risk to life than we sometimes assume. We think that if we're comfortable and everything is going fine, then we have reduced risk.

But we really haven't, because those young men, who are African-American; who are Latino; who are poor white -- who really are striking back and striking out of the system -- we can't contain them in some neighborhood or lock them off in some special area and assume that they will not interact with us, because they will and they do.

They are part of the crimes that take place. They are part of the fear that's bred in us daily as we walk down streets and drive through neighborhoods. We can't turn our backs on them.

So for me, it was less risk to confront him there and to offer him an opportunity, but also to communicate to him, face to face even in that tense moment, the fact that I understood what he was going through; that I had gone through it myself. And that my absence of fear said to him that perhaps, if he could find a way back to me, that there was someone who cared and some way out of that situation.

GROSS: This is the point where a lot of people give up. You know, if your attitude is going to be to threaten me, to insult me, then the heck with you. I'm gonna spend my energy on somebody else.

MFUME: Well, and that's not a bad attitude to have. I just believe that you'll know when you can't go any further with someone else; when it's really hopeless. And I didn't think it was totally hopeless in that case.

GROSS: Kweisi Mfume is the president of the NAACP. Our interview was recorded last August after the publication of his memoir No Free Ride.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Kweise Mfume
High: President of the NAACP Kweisi Mfume. He was a five-term U.S Congressman for Maryland, and former Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1996 he was appointed the head of the NAACP. He wrote a memoir, "No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream."
Spec: Race Relations; People; History; Kweise Mfume; Politics; Government
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
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End-Story: Kweise Mfume
Date: JULY 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071802NP.217
Head: Carl Sagan
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The new movie "Contact" stars Jodie Foster as a scientist in search of extraterrestrial life. It's based on a 1985 novel by Carl Sagan, who was also one of the film's co-producers.

He didn't live to see it open in theaters. He died last December after fighting bone marrow disease for two years. Sagan taught Americans about science and astronomy through his public TV programs and his books.

Sagan also consulted to NASA on the Mariner, Viking, and Voyager planetary expeditions. He had little patience for pseudo-science and superstitions, which he debunked in his book "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark."

In that book, he used what he described as his "baloney detection kit" to challenge beliefs in channeling, alien abduction and more. I spoke with him last May after its publication.

GROSS: Carl Sagan, what sign are you? Just kidding.


I know astrology is one of your pet peeves.

CARL SAGAN, AUTHOR AND SCIENTIST: Well, if it worked it would be great, but it doesn't work.

GROSS: So what do you say when people, inadvertently, annoyingly, ask you what sign you are?

SAGAN: I say, oh, I don't know, slow, soft shoulders, or I guess that's as inadequate a joke here as it is in parties.


I try -- I try to explain why this is not a very smart question.

GROSS: And why isn't it?

SAGAN: Because it doesn't matter. You learn absolutely nothing about me to find out that I'm a Taurus or a Gemini or whatever it is, because there is no correlation between when you're born and what your character is like. What's more, how does it work? I'm born in a closed room in a hospital.

The light from let's say Mars doesn't get to me. What aspect of Mars can get to me? The gravity of Mars? But it's easy to calculate that the gravity of the obstetrician exceeds the gravity of Mars -- the obstetrician weighs a whole lot less, but the obstetrician is a whole lot closer.

GROSS: Do you think that science and religion are compatible?

SAGAN: It depends very much on how you view the arena of religion. If I look at the Bible, I see -- especially in the King James translation -- great literature; great poetry. I see some powerful ethical and moral prescriptions, including the importance of charity. I also see some dreadful stuff, including mass murder, whole people with God cheering one side on.

I see rituals and a sense of community -- a lot of things that are really terrific and I'm absolutely for them and it's hard to see how science could be opposed.

But the Bible is not a work of science. The science in the bible was taken by the Jews from the best scientists of 600 BC, during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. But we've learned a lot of science since.

So mainstream Roman Catholics and Reformed Jews and most of the mainstream Protestant denominations have no difficulty at all with evolution of human beings from other animals; an Earth that's 4.6 billion years old; the big bang and so on.

But on the other hand, if you are a biblical literalist, then you have problems. A biblical literalist is someone who thinks that the Bible was dictated by the creator of the universe to an unerring stenographer with no room for allegory or metaphor. If you believe that, then you have all sorts of problems on the boundaries of science and religion.

GROSS: Are you a religious man yourself?

SAGAN: I think it's impossible to be a scientist and to confront, even occasionally, the grandeur, subtlety, elegance, and magnificence of the universe without feeling a sense of reverence and awe.

But that's very different from concluding that there's a God who issues punishments and rewards after you're dead or that prayer works or that the Bible is written by anybody but fallible human beings.

GROSS: So, that means that you have -- that you're in awe of the universe; that there's something -- what? -- something larger than any of us, but you wouldn't define it as God?

SAGAN: Well, the word "God" is used to cover so many different points of view. I mean, it's a lot to say -- let me just spend a minute.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SAGAN: First of all, you can be religious without believing in God. Buddhists are certainly religious without having any notion of God. Secondly, the word "God" -- it's amazing how diverse the definitions are.

Let me give two extremes: one is the sort of God that I gathered by osmosis during my childhood, which is an out-sized white male who sits -- with a long white beard -- who sits on a throne in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow. Now, that kind of anthropocentric God, there is, as far as I can tell, no compelling evidence for at all. None.

At the other extreme, there is the kind of God that Einstein and Spinoza talked about -- not too different from the sum total of the laws of nature.

Now, there are laws of nature, and not only that, they apply everywhere -- to a quasar 10 billion light years away, as to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. And it's a very remarkable fact that the same laws do apply so generally. It could have been a different set of laws applies in every county.

So that kind of God, of course, exists. Who would deny that there are laws of nature? So I claim you learn absolutely nothing about someone's belief if you ask them "do you believe in God?" and they say yes or no. You have to specify which of the countless kinds of God you have in mind.

I don't myself like to use the word in that context because it doesn't illuminate at all. If I say I believe in God, or if I say I don't believe in God, and I say no more, you've learned nothing about what my belief system is.

GROSS: So where do you turn for answers to those nagging questions, like: what is life about? What am I doing here?

SAGAN: Well, I have a tolerance for ambiguity. It's clear to me that there are some questions that humans don't have the answers to, and what arrogance to imagine that we have answers to all questions. See, science is sometimes, I know, attacked for supposed arrogance.

But I think it's the most humble occupation and discipline around, because instead of trying to impose our preconceptions, our predispositions on the universe, we are open before the universe to see what the universe has to offer.

Science is in the business of finding out what's true, to the extent humans are capable of that. Whereas a lot of these other disciplines are in the business of pretending that what feels good is true.

GROSS: Have you been interested over the years in science fiction novels and films?

SAGAN: Well, when I was little -- starting about, I don't know, eight, nine, 10 -- science fiction held enormous fascination. I couldn't read textbooks or at least I didn't have access to textbooks that I could read, but there was a lot of science in science fiction, and it was rippling with the sense of wonder.

But as I got older and could learn some science, I found the science to be more subtle, more complex, more challenging, more full of wonder. And having the additional not inconsiderable virtue of being true.

GROSS: Carl Sagan, recorded in May of last year. He died in December of bone marrow disease.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Carl Sagan
High: Astronomer and Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sagan. The new film "Contact" is based on Sagan's novel of the same name. Sagan died last December.
Spec: Astronautics and Space; Movie Industry; Carl Sagan
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Carl SaganShow: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071803NP.217
Head: Contact
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our film critic John Powers has a review of "Contact," based on Carl Sagan's novel. It stars Jodie Foster as a serious young astronomer in search of extra-terrestrial life.

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Today's movies about outer-space usually come in one of two kinds: oddball comedies, like the slyly surrealist "Men in Black;" or extravagant shoot'em ups like "Independence Day."

Contact is something difference -- a science fiction film that tries to deal seriously with big metaphysical issues. It doesn't succeed. In fact, the movie is often hamfisted and dull. But it's not the cloying piece of big-budget uplift you might initially expect.

Jodie Foster stars as Ellie Arroway, a brilliant young scientist obsessed with making contact with alien life forms. Because this is a Hollywood movie, Ellie's opposed by various straw men -- a self-promoting scientist played by Tom Skerritt; a sneering national security bureaucrat played quite amusingly by James Woods; and an oily Christian fundamentalist played by Rob Lowe, of all people.

Yet, in the end, Ellie's vindicated. She receives a message from the star Vega, complete with instructions for building a space ship, and winds up traveling into space to meet this source of superior intelligence. How superior is open to debate.

When the extraterrestrial finally offers its wisdom about loving other people, it's hard not to think that Ellie's rocketed across 25 light years just to land at the Hallmark printing plant.

The movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who has no equal at putting across this kind of technically elaborate project. He fills Contact with crowd-pleasing tricks, including some that strike me as being faintly obnoxious, such as cutting Bill Clinton into the action, just as he cut Nixon and JFK into "Forrest Gump." Call me square, but isn't it a bit unseemly to use a sitting president to pump up a Hollywood movie?

That cavil aside, it must be said that some of the movie's effects are really spectacular. Zemeckis creates the most exciting blast-off I've ever seen. You feel the rumbling risk of sitting in a rocket. And he follows this up with the loveliest and trippiest light show since "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Yet like nearly all of Zemeckis' films, Contact has a dark undertone. Even as it lays on the sententious speeches and visual poetry, the world it depicts is strangely bleak. Even Ellie isn't really likable.

As played by Foster with admirable thin-lipped aggressiveness, Ellie's so obsessed with contacting aliens that she cuts herself off from the humans around here. She even remains detached from her lover, played by Matthew McConnaughey -- an unctuous ex-seminarian who wants to know why she's so eager to go into space.


JODIE FOSTER, ACTRESS: Look, Palmer, nobody's saying this isn't dangerous. I -- the rest of the candidates and myself -- we fully understand the implications, the risks that we're taking.


FOSTER: Because it's a historic opportunity; because the world needs...

MCCONNAUGHEY: You, Ellie, you -- you personally, by doing this, you're willing to give your life; you're willing to die for it.

FOSTER: Long as I can remember, I've been searching for something -- some reason why we're here -- what are doing here, who are we? If this is a chance to find out even just a little part of that answer, I don't know -- I think it's worth a human life. Don't you?

POWERS: In fact, this is only part of the story. Driven and self-righteous, Ellie doesn't realize that her craving to meet extraterrestrial life grows from her unconscious desire to rejoin her father, who died when she was nine. This connection with the dead is what she's always pursuing.

There's something deathly in her rejection of human contact, and Zemeckis emphasizes the tantalizing isolation of her quest by filling the screen with TV monitors, video cameras, satellite dishes, computers -- electronic images that always point to something untouchable beyond themselves.

In the end, Ellie actually touches this beyond. Some might say she finds God. She certainly finds a kind of faith. Yet what's striking about the film's ending is that even Zemeckis doesn't quite believe in her transcendent discovery.

Ellie's triumph is hedged in with bleakness, and the movie closes not with the familiar Hollywood fanfare, but with an image of profound ambiguity: Ellie staring into space as the darkness descends around here -- the nearest ghost of a smile trying to brighten her face, but never actually doing so.

Here, as in Forrest Gump, Zemeckis has created a hero who may have God on her side, but she still winds up alone -- thinking of the loved ones who've been lost.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Film critic John Powers reviews "Contact," starring Jodie Foster.
Spec: Movie Industry; Contact
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Contact
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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