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February 20, 2005
Rep. Mel Watt
Democratic Representative from North Carolina
Watch The Congressional Black Caucus Swearing-In Ceremony
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Info: He talks about growing up poor in the segregated south, how he managed to go to college and law school and eventually become the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Watch The Congressional Black Caucus Swearing-In Ceremony

Uncorrected transcript provided by Morningside Partners.
C-SPAN uses its best efforts to provide accurate transcripts of its programs, but it can not be held liable for mistakes such as omitted words, punctuation, spelling, mistakes that change meaning, etc.

BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: Congressman Mel Watt, why did you want to be chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus?

REP. MEL WATT (D-NC), CHAIRMAN, CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS: Well, it’s an important job. And I felt like after serving in Congress for 12 years, serving under six different chairs, watching their strengths, some of the challenges that they had faced, knowing the personalities of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, that I was probably the logical person for this two-year stint to take on the responsibility.

LAMB: How will it change your life?

WATT: Oh, make substantial changes, because the travel demands are very heavy. The public relations demands, the press demands are very heavy. And those are things that I have typically shied away from in the 12 years I’ve been in Congress. I don’t do a lot of travel around the United States. I don’t do a lot of press. I tend to respond to the press rather than aggressively position things. But it’s already changed my life substantially, and I’m sure it will over the next two years.

LAMB: Correct these numbers. 1969 was the first year for the Congressional Black Caucus. There were 13 members. Today there are 43. And the only two that are left from all those years back are Charlie Rangel and John Conyers.

WATT: That’s correct, although there’s some question about exactly when the Caucus started. I think they started trying to pull it together in ’69. Kind of the first public positions that they took were in 1971.

LAMB: Why do we need a Congressional Black Caucus?

WATT: Well, I think, like any other caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus is designed to focus on particular issues. And in our case, the particular focus is the needs of African-American citizens in the United States, who have – even after all these years in the United States – not achieved the same level of success, had the same opportunities, got the same results, certainly, that white citizens have gotten as citizens of the country.

And just like there’s a textile caucus that feels like they have a particular interest, or a Southern caucus that feels like it has a particular interest – or even a North Carolina caucus, which has a particular North Carolina interest – the Congressional Black Caucus serves the same purpose for African-Americans that other caucuses serve to emphasize the particular interests of a particular group in Congress.

LAMB: On January 4th, you gave your inaugural speech as the chairman. As someone who watched it, it seemed like you worked pretty hard at that speech.

WATT: Well, it was – I worked hard at it on an emotional level, because that speech said a lot about who I was and how I got to be who I am today. And when you talk about your personal history, sometimes it is very heavy emotionally. But the content of the speech was just me. I mean, I wanted both my colleagues in the Congress, many of whom, who had known me in a different way, to know how I got here, what my values were.

I wanted the public to know that, because each Congressional Black Caucus chair has a different style, a different background, a different set of values and beliefs that they bring to this position. And I think it’s important to know that I can’t be somebody else. I can only be who I am in this leadership capacity.

LAMB: I want to share four minutes of it – and most of it’s about you, about your life and the background – and then ask you to explain some of this.



WATT: I wondered where – whether there has ever been or will ever be again, another chair who, like me, was actually born and spent a good part of his life – early years – growing up in a house with no running water, no electricity and no inside plumbing.

A house with a tin roof that you could actually look up through at night and see the stars, and look down through the wooden floor – my mama’s saying, "Shhh, don’t tell" and see the ground. And I hope there will never be another CBC chair that has had to excuse himself, or will have to excuse himself, to the cold, wintry night of an outdoor toilet.

I wondered how many CBC chairs were raised by a mother who dropped out of school in the sixth grade, had three boys by the time she was 18 years old, and was separated and divorced by the time she was 22, who worked as a domestic in a school. And against all of those odds, still taught us the value of sacrifice and conservation, but never, ever let us know that we were poor or couldn’t do anything that anybody else could do.

I wondered whether there has ever been a CBC chair who experienced the grace of being raised in a house which had a front yard that adjoined the church parking lot, virtually assuring – predestining me, as we say in the Presbyterian faith – predestining me to be a Presbyterian. But also to learn almost every church hymn by heart. And to be exposed to country preachers …


WATT: … and to be exposed to the absolute reality of a Greater Power controlling our lives.


WATT: Unlike John Lewis, I wasn’t out preaching to the chickens. I’ve got some – I’ve got a soul mate here. I wondered whether we’ll have any future CBC chairs who spent all 12 years attending segregated schools, or drove the school bus past three white schools to get to the colored school that was miles away.

I wondered whether there’ll be another CBC chair who shines shoes in his uncle’s barber shop in a college town, but couldn’t get his hair cut there until the drapes were pulled at night, because it was a segregated barber shop. And then years later came back to Congress to represent that college and that town in the United States Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep it coming, Mel.

WATT: I’ve hoped that there will never be another CBC chair who showed up at his college, had three white roommates, and before the end of the day, every single one of them had moved out. But went on from that to form a lifetime friendship with the white roommate who moved in after being asked whether he’d mind rooming with somebody colored.


LAMB: What was the – what was the hardest part of that to give?

WATT: Oh, I think, looking down and watching my mom start to cry, I guess was the most difficult part of it. You know, it’s history, and it’s reality. And I’m not ashamed of any part of it. It has made me who I am. It’s given me the values that I have. It’s let me know that regardless of how the odds are stacked, whether they’re stacked for you or against you, you can move and do things. And, you know, I think adversity makes you stronger.

And I wanted that to come through. I wanted people to know that, despite the fact that you have these kinds of experiences, something good almost always comes out of adversity. I thoroughly believe that. You just have to take the negative, internalize it and use it to some positive purpose. And so, it’s emotional watching it again. I had not really seen it replayed. So, I just kind of was in it, and talking about it. But it was a – it had a great deal of emotion to it.

LAMB: You graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1967?

WATT: 1967.

LAMB: Graduated from Yale Law School in 1970. How did you get from that beginning, where you could see the stars at night, and the dirt floor, looking through the house, to that accomplishment alone?

WATT: I think the primary thing – and I wanted this to come through – is that it takes somebody strong in your life – in this case, my mother, who was a very powerful influence in my life. It takes a belief in a higher being, which I firmly have. It takes some luck. It takes hard work.

It takes taking some risks, because there are some things in that clip that don’t really describe the extent of the risk. The fact that I turned down scholarships in Alabama to go to the University of North Carolina without a scholarship, for example, because I wanted to go to the state university, the University of North Carolina. It was the best university, and I wanted to go there.

So, they told me that if I came, and I did well my first semester, they’d give me – they’d consider me for – scholarship assistance. And so, I worked very hard that first semester. And at the end of that semester, I laid my grades on their desk and said, look. I can’t come back to school next semester, unless you now live up to your promise.

But part of that was the roommate that moved in – the white roommate from New Jersey who moved in, who’s still a personal friend of mine, who was a graduate student. And all he did was study. And I thought, going into college and watching him, that that’s what everybody was doing. So, the negative of three roommates, three white roommates moving out, turned to a positive, because he became the role model for my study habits. You see what I’m saying?

So, you know, there’s something good that typically is going to come out of adversity. And I’m not here to advocate adversity for anybody. But adversity comes, it goes. And you have to roll with it, and you have to keep moving. And you can’t hold adversity against the world, or be mad at the world. You’ve got to keep moving. And you’ve got to keep reaching out to people and dealing with people, and understanding that they have values and they have opinions.

And that’s what I love about serving in Congress. I mean, the whole idea of bringing 435 people together from all different backgrounds, and sitting them at a table and allowing them to work through the differences of a country – that’s powerful stuff.

LAMB: You’re in your seventh term, and you win about an average of 56 percent of the vote every time from what district? Explain the district.

WATT: Well, I’ve gone through, what, four or five different iterations of the district, because the first 10 years, while everybody else thought they had a district for 10 years, mine was in constant litigation. So, it started off being about 50.1 percent African-American. And then it went down to as low as 33 percent African-American, which I also won. And then it went back up after some more litigation to about 40 percent African-American, which is the current African-American composition.

LAMB: What communities?

WATT: Charlotte – part of Charlotte, part of Greensboro, part of Winston-Salem, part of High Point, part of Salisbury. I have part of a lot of stuff, not all of anything. But that’s turned out to be a real blessing, I think, for the communities that I represent, because they end up with more than one member of Congress. And in most cases, they’re Republican members of Congress, which I have to deal with and develop relationships with, to get things done for my local constituents.

And so, I try to work across party lines, across racial lines, and understanding and letting people understand that I come from a history – I am black. And I believe firmly that this country can only reach its full potential if all of its people have the opportunity to reach that potential. And you can not say to people who start 50 yards behind in a 100-yard race, OK, you’re on your own now. You’ve got to catch up. Because catching that 50 yards behind up is a tremendous task. And we have not yet reached the goal of catching up. And until we do that, there’s got to be some special considerations taken of that.

LAMB: Back to the shots we had of your mother in the audience, how old is she today?

WATT: Oh, man. I’d have to – I have to calculate it. She is – let’s see, I’m 59 – plus 18. What does that add up to?

LAMB: Seventy-seven?

WATT: Yes.

LAMB: I think I’m close, yes.

WATT: Or something – yes.

LAMB: How long has she been without your father?

WATT: They separated and divorced when I was fairly young, probably four, five, six years old. Somewhere in that range. And then, she was very upset at me about the part of the speech that I gave, because I didn’t clarify that after she got all three of us boys educated, she went back and got her GED, and actually got a job at the United States Postal Service, and been very successful in her own way. And that’s what she was angry at me about – not angry, but she – that was the first thing she said. Why didn’t you tell them that I got my – that I got my high school diploma? You know, because she’s so proud of that.

LAMB: Did she remarry?

WATT: She did. Yes.

LAMB: Is he still with her?

WATT: Sure. My stepfather is – he was at the ceremony also.

LAMB: What kind of a student were you in high school?

WATT: I was an above-average student. I read a lot. But I was very outspoken, even in high school. And I guess in the ninth grade, one of my teachers said, you know, you question everything. You don’t want to take anything that anybody says as the final word. You must be planning to be a lawyer. Well, I really didn’t know what a lawyer was, because there were no lawyers in my family. There’s no precedent for it.

But from that point on, basically, every time an adult would ask me, what are you going to be when you grow up – which people always do – I would say, I’m going to be a lawyer. And I set my sights to being a lawyer and, you know, ultimately found out what lawyers did. And so, it’s been a long, long journey.

LAMB: You tell us about the moving – at the University of North Carolina – moving in with three white roommates. But before you got there, you talked about driving past three white high schools. Was it an all-black school you went to in high school?

WATT: Yes.

LAMB: What was the name of it?

WATT: Well, I went first to a school called Plato Price School, which was grades one through twelve. And I stayed at that school for 10 years, and then they broke that school up and sent half the students to one side – a black school – on one side of town, half to a black school on the other side of town. And I ended up at York Road High School for the last two years of high school, and that’s where I graduated from. It was an all-black school.

LAMB: And that’s in what community?

WATT: On the south side of Charlotte. And probably 15 miles from where I lived, or more.

LAMB: And you were bused there every day.

WATT: Yes. Bused there. Actually, students drove the buses at that time. I was a bus driver – I drove the bus to school. Yes.

LAMB: And did you consciously know that you were passing these white schools? Was that something that made an impression on you at the time?

WATT: Well, I mean, you knew. You knew, yes, that you were passing those schools. But you knew what the code of the community was at that time, also. And it wasn’t so much that I was focused on going to an integrated school. I’m not sure I even really focused on that. One of the things I did focus on was that the schools that we attended were inferior to the other schools. We didn’t have a gymnasium at Plato Price School, for example.

We had to go all the way across town to practice basketball. We didn’t – we got the second-hand buses handed down to us, that after they had been used by the white schools. They were busing, too, you know. This whole idea that some people have, that busing was for the purpose of integration is just wrong. We were busing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg for the purpose of segregation for years and years before we were busing for the purpose of integration.

So, and I led in my junior or senior year, I led what was threatened to be a boycott of black school bus drivers, because we knew that some new buses were coming into the system, and we wanted one of the new buses. So, we basically threatened not to drive. We would just strike, basically. And finally, they gave us one of those brand-new buses. And, of course, they punished me. They said, you know, we’re not going to let you drive it. I said, fine. You know, this is not about me driving it. They gave it to somebody else to drive, but that was fine.

LAMB: You mentioned that you were a shoeshine boy in a barber shop, but you couldn’t get your hair cut there during the daytime. Explain that.

WATT: Well, my uncles owned the barbershops on opposite ends of the street in one of the communities in my district – Davidson, North Carolina. Davidson College is the community – Davidson, North Carolina, is the community. And my uncles had kind of a monopoly on the barbershops. But they were white barbershops.

Black people were cutting hair in the barbershops, but the customers were all white, segregated. And the standards at that time were, you know, they accepted that. They were making a living. And at the end of the day, they’d – my uncle would draw the blinds. And when we needed a haircut, we had to get our hair cut at night. That’s the only way we could do it.

LAMB: Did you ever ask him about why that was the way it was?

WATT: No, I was so young at that time. I guess that was when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, probably, when I did that. And I was so young at that time, I mean – it was a way of life. It wasn’t something that I was even into raising questions about at that time. It was something that you accepted, that you didn’t – you know, it’s just the way things were done at that time.

LAMB: What was your mother telling during those years about the black-white relationships?

WATT: Not a lot, because we lived in the county – actually the country, although we had a Charlotte address. And the houses were kind of far apart. We didn’t really live in a community, per se. At least not a highly-developed community. And so, right down the road might be a white family, down the road in another direction a black family. I mean, you know, it wasn’t – it wasn’t – and we sometimes played with the white kids.

More often than not, we ended up throwing rocks across the field at them. And I’m not sure we understood why we were doing it, but it was white against black in my time, for some reason. But there was not a whole lot of discussion about it. There was not dwelling on the race issue at that time.

I tell the story sometime about the struggle that older people were going through at that time, between whether to get – even later, in the early ‘60s, in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s to the after ‘60s – during the civil rights movement, there was a big emotional struggle going on with a lot of black people. Do you get involved in the movement, or do you not get involved in the movement?

And I tell the story about my – the demonstrations taking place in Charlotte – and my mother saying to my oldest brother, you know, you stay out of those – he was a freshman at Johnson C. Smith University – and, you know, you stay out of those demonstrations. And then turning on the news that night, and there he was – right in the middle of the demonstration.

So, it was – you know, my mother was a proud person, but she was not a civil rights pioneer. She was a – she was my mother. And she had religious values. She had values that told her that we could achieve anything that we wanted to achieve.

She had values that made her go to every single PTA meeting after school, and make sure that we were doing what we were supposed to do in school. So, you know, she was trying to make sure that we had a better life than she had. And that was her single purpose.

I mean, the thing I’ve loved most about accomplishing things in my life, is that my mother has lived out those successes vicariously. And I think she’s a lot prouder of the things that I’ve accomplished than perhaps even I am.

LAMB: Your brothers – how many are there?

WATT: Two of them.

LAMB: And what have they done?

WATT: One of them has a doctorate degree and works for the North Carolina State Department of Commerce. And one of them is a self-employed contractor.

LAMB: Now, where did your mother get all this, to bring to you?

WATT: Well, my family has a very long and proud tradition. There were – there were people in my – my great-grandfather was a logger, a timber man, who employed white people to cut timber, employed black people to cut timber. And he shipped timber to Europe.

Now, and my family has had family reunions. I don’t know if you saw that part of the – we were honored at the Library of Congress several years as one of the families that has among the longest histories of family reunions in this country.

LAMB: And hundreds come and …

WATT: We’re celebrating our 100th straight family reunion this August.

LAMB: Where do you do that?

WATT: We do that in Cleveland County, North Carolina, which is the place that the family originated. It’s two counties over from Charlotte-Mecklenburg County.

LAMB: How many will be there?

WATT: Probably 500, 600 people this year. We usually have 300, 400 people at our reunions.

LAMB: And you do it every year.

WATT: We do it every year.

LAMB: And how long is the reunion?

WATT: Well, it typically lasts – starts on Friday and goes through Sunday. This one will be longer, because it’s a seminal event, I guess, so they’re stretching it out and we’ll probably have a whole week of activities this year.

LAMB: By the way, any Republicans in that group?

WATT: I’m sure there are. But we don’t ask about political affiliation or religious affiliation when people come to our family. They’re members of our family, and we’re happy to have them.

LAMB: You talk about the proud traditions and how your mother got what she had to bring to you. Who else in the family might have influenced her? Was that – the grandfather you’re talking about – her father?

WATT: Her father, I think, had a profound impact on her.

You know, they were proud people.

LAMB: Well, go back to – you graduated from high school, what, I’m guessing ’63, ’64?

WATT: Sixty-three.

LAMB: Sixty-three. And you went to the University of North Carolina. Tell us more about what it was like to check into that room, and to have three white roommates. And why did you end up in that particular spot?

WATT: Well, just the backdrop that, number one, you’ve never been to school in an integrated situation.

LAMB: And why was it integrated at that time?

WATT: Well, that’s the University of North Carolina, which was barely integrated. I mean, I was one of, I think, 17 black students in a freshman class of 2,000 students.

LAMB: Sixty-three.

WATT: Sixty-three. We couldn’t play sports on any of the teams. I mean, you know. It was a, you know, University of North Carolina was beginning to open up, had opened up. I was not the pioneer, fortunately. But, you know, they still had a long way to go at that time. And so, you’re going into that setting. You’re going into a setting where you’ve never been to school with a white person.

You’re going into a setting where everything around you tells you that you are inferior, that you’re – that the school you came from is inferior, that because you didn’t go to an integrated school, you are somehow inferior. You’re going into a setting where you have set as a goal success there. You’ve wanted to go there for years, and you turned down scholarships and you’ve put yourself on the line.

So, there was a lot of pressure on, not so much because I was expecting to end up with three roommates and have all of them move out before the end of the day. I mean, that was the last thing I expected, you know.

LAMB: How did you find out that they were moving out.

WATT: Well, two of them just never showed up again. One of them, I actually heard the conversation with his father from a distance. Our room was the second room from the end of the hall, and the phone at that time was in the center of the hall. And he called his father. And I could hear his father screaming at him, "Get the hell out of that room with that nigger." And I was all the way at the end of the hall.

LAMB: What’d you do?

WATT: And – I didn’t do anything. I mean, I …

LAMB: How did it feel, though, when he said that?

WATT: I didn’t know – didn’t know really how to internal – I mean I was trying to get unpacked and get moved into a room. And so, he came and he said, look, you know, I guess you have overheard the conversation. I’m from New Jersey. But my father is from Mississippi. And he has told me that I’ve got to move out of this room. And I don’t have any choice.

So, I really appreciated that. I had no – I don’t remember the guy’s name. I don’t remember any of those three people’s names. I wouldn’t know them if they walked in here today. So, it’s just – I mean, it was a fleeting moment. It was a humbling experience for the first day of college. It was a humbling experience for the first day that you were going to be in an integrated setting in your lifetime.

LAMB: But did you go to somebody and say – I mean, did you end up that night having nobody in the room?

WATT: I ended up that night, and for about two more – two or three more weeks before I got a roommate.

LAMB: Did anybody ever explain it all to you?

WATT: No. Nobody other than the new roommate I got, who told me that they asked him if he’d mind living with a – rooming with a negro. That was about the only explanation I got for it.

LAMB: You’ve got to give us him name, because you say you’re still a friend of his.

WATT: He’s – he works in the United States government, in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His name is Marvin Mood. A wonderful friend, and a big Virginia Tech Hokie fan.

LAMB: So, what was it about Marvin that it didn’t seem to bother him, I guess?

WATT: Well, you know, he was from New Jersey. He had gone to school in integrated settings. And he was coming into the University of North Carolina late. You know, he was in graduate school and he was coming in late and didn’t have a place to live, I mean. And so, I don’t think he had any objection to it. It wouldn’t have mattered to him anyway. But, you know, he needed a room.

LAMB: You talked about earlier, circumstances, sometimes adversity leads you in the right direction sometimes, as strange as it might be. But I think I remember you in the speech saying, had you been able to play baseball, you might not have ended up going to law school, or you might not have ended up where you are.

WATT: Well, I use that as kind of my explanation for why I’m still playing baseball in the annual Democratic-Republican baseball game. I’m just a frustrated baseball player. That’s the truth of the matter. And that probably goes back to being cut from the freshman team at the University of North Carolina. I went out for the team and, you know, got cut, of course. But …

LAMB: Could you have played?

WATT: Could I have played?

LAMB: At the University of North Carolina? I mean, had they – I mean, were you allowed to play?


LAMB: You were not allowed.

WATT: No. No, I …

LAMB: When did that change?

WATT: It changed a couple of years later. We had a walk-on to the basketball team named Willie Cooper. And then right after that came Charlie Scott, the great basketball player, who went on to the NBA. Charlie came, I think, either my junior year or senior year, because there was overlap between us. I was still there when he became the first superstar athlete at the University of North Carolina.

But the first African-American athlete at the University of North Carolina was Willie Cooper, who wasn’t a superstar. He was just an excellent basketball player and played his way, kind of the sixth or seventh man on the team.

LAMB: The first year you were elected to any office, and what was it?

WATT: The first year I was elected to an office was 1992, when I was elected to Congress. I actually got into politics, I say through the backdoor. I started managing political campaigns in 1974, I believe it was. And I had managed a political campaign every two years since then, all the way up to 1992, when I called my candidate and said, are you – they created this congressional district. And it was designed to make it possible for an African-American to win the position, so I assumed he would run. And he said no. And he talked me into running, and here I am.

LAMB: How many times did you run a Harvey Gantt campaign?

WATT: Well, every two years for city council, up to 1979, from ’74 to ’79. And then he ran for mayor, lost by 95 votes out of over 100,000 votes in the Democratic primary in 1979. And then he ran in ’81 for city council again, became mayor pro tem. And that set the stage for him to become the mayor of Charlotte in 1983. So, we managed the campaign for mayor.

And then in 1990, he decided he was going to run against Jesse Helms, and I managed that statewide campaign. It was the first statewide campaign I’d ever managed. But we have a long history. And, of course, I just pretty much assumed that he would run for Congress when they created this congressional district. But when I called him, it was two years after he had lost the – or, actually, the next year, I guess – after he had lost the race to Jesse Helms.

And he said, no. I want to run for the U.S. Senate again. And I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m just out there running for any position. And why don’t you run? Now, I had served in the North Carolina State Senate for one term, earlier. But I actually didn’t run for that position. I got appointed to that position – in a sense I got appointed – at the end of a campaign the guy who was running died suddenly. And then the Democratic committee had the responsibility of naming his replacement. And they named me to serve one term.

And then at the end of that term, I decided I would not run. Both of my sons were still in high school, and I said, hey, you know, it’s important work, but I’ve got more important things to do, because I really wanted to – I didn’t want my sons to be without a father. I had been without a father. And the time demands of serving in the state senate were extremely heavy. It kept me away from home way too much. So, I just called a press conference, didn’t tell anybody what I was going to do. Said, hey, you know, this is important work, but I have things to do that are more important to me at this point in my life.

LAMB: You have son Jason, son Brian. How old are they?

WATT: Thirty-six and 31.

LAMB: What are they doing?

WATT: Brian went to California to be an actor and did reasonably well, but has made the transition over into radio. He works on the "Marketplace" program. Minnesota Public Radio owns, runs "Marketplace." But it’s National Public Radio, I guess, is the whole organization.

And Jason got his Master’s degree in early childhood education, taught in Brooklyn, New York for five years, and went out of the classroom and started doing consulting work. Now he’s doing consulting work in radio and television, voice-over work and a little bit of this and a little bit of this. It’s kind of a sad commentary on what’s going on in education, because we’re not paying teachers enough to allow them to stay in the classroom.

I mean, imagine a black Master’s degree male teaching four-year-olds – exactly what’s needed – but not able to make ends meet, really, to support himself. And so, having to say, hey, you know, it’s time for me to go and do something else.

LAMB: Where did you meet your wife, and how long have you been married?

WATT: We met in high school. I was an announcer for my high school band. We played her school at their homecoming. She was announcing for half-time of the homecoming. And so I said, move aside. Let me show you how to do this, because I’d been doing this for a while. And we struck up a relationship and ended up lasting on and off all the way through college, and finally getting married our first year of graduate – she was in graduate school in New York. I was in law school in New Haven. And so, we got married and been at it now, what, 37, 38 years.

LAMB: How difficult was it to get into Yale Law School, and why did you do it?

WATT: It was extremely difficult to get in. Well, I guess, I don’t know. What I did was, I applied to five law schools. And I said, you know, I want to go to the best law school I can go to. And if I get in all five – I kind of had a pecking order. And I ended up getting in all five of them. I think the only thing – one of those was the University of North Carolina. And I probably would have stayed at the University of North Carolina, had I gotten a Morehead Scholarship.

That’s the most prestigious scholarship – one of the most prestigious scholarships – nationwide, and one of the most financially lucrative scholarships nationwide. But they had never had a black person get a Morehead, either to law school or undergraduate school at that time.

So I went through the interview process and they – you know, I thought it was a charade, but I also thought it was necessary to move the envelope, to go through it. And I missed out on getting a Morehead. And then they offered me the next-best scholarship they had, and I turned it down and went to Yale. And probably the best thing that ever happened to me, again. You know, I didn’t get the Morehead. It turned out for the best.

LAMB: Just a few days ago in your role as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, you were on the floor of the House talking about African-Americans and what needs to happen. Let’s watch a little bit of this and get you to expand on it.


WATT: African-American college enrollment rates are 10 percent lower than white college enrollment rates. College graduation rates are even worse for African-American students. Only 46 percent of African-American freshmen ever graduate from college, compared to 67 percent of white freshmen.

According to the Education Trust, the typical American college or university has a graduation rate gap between white and African-American students of over 10 percentage points. A quarter of institutions have a gap of 20 percentage points or more.


LAMB: What’s the reason?

WATT: What’s the reason for the gaps? Well, I think some of them are historical. As I said earlier, you can’t start a race with one person at the 50 yard line and the other person at the one yard line, and expect that gap to be closed. So that …

LAMB: But you did it.

WATT: No, I didn’t do it. I mean, I have succeeded. But that’s aberrational. Looked at as a whole, it just can’t be done. And …

LAMB: Why not?

WATT: And there have still been impediments in the things that I have been able to do. I wouldn’t be in Congress today, but for the creation of a district that took race into account. I couldn’t have gotten elected.

LAMB: Who was responsible for making that happen?

WATT: Well, a lot of people were responsible for it. Probably more than anything else, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act was responsible for it. And the case law, which law firms around the country were involved in, including the law firm that I was a part of in North Carolina that was pushing. So, there are a lot of people who were responsible for that.

But the point is, you cannot make up that kind of gap overnight. And so, there are historical reasons. And a lot of those historical reasons have more to do with race than perhaps today’s attitudes have to do with it. But there’s still the gap there.

And then you’ve got, you know, it’s like giving somebody $1,000 and somebody zero dollars and then saying, OK, you all are equal now. Yes, well, at some level you are equal. But the person who has the $1,000 has investment opportunities that the person that has zero dollars doesn’t have. I mean, it’s a process. So, we’ve got to keep working at it, and that’s why we focused – I encouraged the Congressional Black Caucus this year – to really focus on these disparities that continue to exist.

LAMB: Here’s a clip speaking about unemployment.


WATT: The African-American unemployment rate is consistently more than double the average, national average. In inner cities, that number is even larger. Yet the president proposes cutting the budget for the Department of Labor by 4.4 percent, including Workforce Investment Act state grants.

Further, while the African-American homeownership rate is over 20 percentage points behind that of white Americans, the president proposes cutting funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by almost $3.7 billion.


LAMB: What’s the answer to the employment problem?

WATT: Well, I think you’ve got to start with education. There are still significant gaps in education. Actually, our agenda starts earlier than that. It starts with nutrition and early childhood development, because if children don’t have adequate nutrition and health care at a young age, and they get behind at that age, they really never catch up.

So you’ve got to improve that. And then you’ve got to improve education. Then you’ve got to get changed some racial attitudes, because jobs are still disproportionately filled through the buddy system. Think about it. I went to a conference a couple of weeks ago that was specifically about diversity and improving diversity. And I looked around at the place we were having the conference. It was owned by the person who had called the conference. Wasn’t a single white person working there.

And we went out with some of the people and started talking to them. And I asked one of the people, how did you get your job? Said, well, I knew the owner. They knew my family. Nothing intentionally racist about that. You see what I’m saying? There’s some racial intent, some racial discrimination still going on, but a lot of it is just, you know, business as usual. I’m not paying attention to this. I’m going to hire somebody I know. And that entrenches the effects of past practices, past discrimination.

So, you know, this is a multidimensional thing. You can’t put your finger on one thing and say, this is going to solve it. And that’s why I think our agenda really tried to focus more on the whole spectrum of things, where there continue to be disparities.

We say at one point in the agenda that we believe that education is the primary route to closing these disparities, because if you don’t attack education disparities that continue to exist – and you see them right here in D.C., across the country, those education disparities continue to exist – then there’s a built-in excuse. Well, we can’t find qualified black students. Or we can’t – you know, the whole thing just kind of builds on itself.

So, it’s a difficult issue. And that’s why I was so disappointed that the president didn’t use the State of the Union address, as we had asked him to do, as a bully pulpit to say, look, we’ve still got some problems in this area in this country, and to set a tone for changing and making people think about it.

Because a lot of times, you know, the excuse now is, well, you know, I’m not a racist. And that’s probably true. That’s why I think the president misses the point when he talks about – what does he call it – the soft racism of low expectations. Because he’s looking at racism and the cause, rather than looking at the effects.

What I want the country to do is look at the effects of where we are, and then, if we close those, the impacts of racial attitudes, either past, present – past or present – and the impacts of past differentials and current differentials, we’ll be fine. We can fend at that time.

LAMB: If you had – I don’t know how many – five, six black young men sitting in front of you, you’re just in a room, and they say to you, Congressman, tell me what I have to do – based on your success – to do what you’ve done? What would you tell them? What advice would you give young men today – or women, for that matter – how – and they’re black – in this society today, how can they become Mel Watt?

WATT: Well, I wouldn’t ask them to even think about becoming Mel Watt, so …

LAMB: But I’m suggesting – they’re asking …

WATT: … I mean, …

LAMB: … you. They want to …

WATT: I would say, you’ve got to achieve to your potential. And I would say, you’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to study hard, you’ve got to build on every day, because tomorrow is going to be a function of what you did today and yesterday. And you’ve got to keep building on that. And I would give that lecture to them with the utmost integrity.

But the country has to understand that if I’m giving that lecture to five black boys whose parents are not educated, who don’t have adequate nutrition and background, who don’t have equal opportunities in their schools and materials and technology access, and are growing up in a neighborhood at the end of school where they go in and there’s no recreation activities, no after-school activities and there are gangs and violence going on around them – regardless of how hard they work, regardless of how hard they study or how much they try to stay on track – the odds are going to be stacked against them.

And, you know, that’s not an excuse for them, it is a reality. And if they show up at the door at a place of employment and the good-old-boy system says that somebody already has that job, even though they’ve got to interview four people for it, and they can’t get that job.

Or they get in on the base level and the promotions go to a family member, you know, who says, well, that’s my family member. I can, you know, I can discriminate, you know, even though my great-grandfather made his money and built this business on the backs of a different mindset and racial attitude, I can justify it now, because it’s not me. That’s not a level playing field for African-Americans in this country.

And so, this is multidimensional. I’m not saying that, you know – I would say with integrity to those students, you’ve got to work. But if you’re honest with them, you’ve got to tell them, you’ve got to work five times as hard as your white counterpart. Otherwise, it ain’t going to happen.

LAMB: Is that what you did?

WATT: I guarantee you, that’s exactly what I did. Now, I didn’t work as hard as Marvin Mood, because – you know, I always tease him now. I say, you know, you weren’t all that smart. You must not have been all that smart if you were studying all these hours. But, you know, I worked probably five times as hard in college and law school as most of my counterparts did. You’re absolutely right.

LAMB: You have two years as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. And only have a minute. What will you – what will you have to do to make that a success?

WATT: Well, first of all, I’ve got to keep the Caucus unified. And I think we are unified behind this whole message and agenda of closing disparities. And I’ve got to convince other people that we need their help, and it can’t be just, OK, I’m going to ignore the problem. Things are OK now. I’m not affirmatively discriminating against you anymore. It’s going to take more than that to close these disparities.

LAMB: I want our audience to know that if they want to see your whole acceptance speech from January the 4th, we have it on our Web site. They can watch it all from start to finish. We only used four minutes. Thank you, Mel Watt, for joining us.

WATT: Thank you so much for inviting me.


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