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'One Small Step America' aims to bridge divides during a contentious election year



It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps, bringing us voices of people who know and love each other. And today, two strangers sit down to talk. Their conversation comes from One Small Step, which is a StoryCorps program to bring together people with different political beliefs to learn about each other's lives. Alton Russell was the long-time chair of the Republican Party in Columbus, Ga. Wane Hailes led the local chapter of the NAACP, and before this interview, they had never spoken.

ALTON RUSSELL: I went looking for a job, and there was a guy sitting at the desk. He said, what will you do? And I said, anything, as long as it's legal. He says, good answer. By the way, my name is George Bush. It was George H. W. Bush.


RUSSELL: Yes, sir, and he was running for Congress. What my job was was I made yard signs.

HAILES: But you'd never run for office?


HAILES: You'd just been the kingmaker.

RUSSELL: Well, I don't know about that...

HAILES: (Laughter).

RUSSELL: ...But no, I never have run.

HAILES: What do you do for a living?

RUSSELL: Believe it or not, I'm a toilet paper salesman.

HAILES: Really?

RUSSELL: Yes, sir.

HAILES: Two-ply (laughter)?

RUSSELL: Two-ply, wiping up, yeah. I've been there 40 years.

HAILES: Is that right?

RUSSELL: Yeah. But I'm just wondering - how in the world did you wind up in Columbus, Ga.? You take a wrong turn?

HAILES: I was working for the YMCA, and the YMCA here called and said, would I be interested. But as a president of the NAACP, I can tell you how I got into that. When we were growing up, about 8 or 9 years old, we were traveling to my grandfather's house, and we stopped at a laundromat. And they said, we don't wash Black folks' clothes here. Of course, they didn't use the Black folks word. My father, being a preacher, you know, he was cool, but my mother was ready to go off.

RUSSELL: (Laughter).

HAILES: You know, and we went on to my grandfather's house, and he called the NAACP. They said, go on back up to the laundromat, and the white owner stood in the corner while we washed our clothes, red as a beet, and that was a memory that's always been in my mind...


HAILES: ...And how it worked.

RUSSELL: You know what? I have a good friend of mine. We went to breakfast one morning, and when we left, this guy that was in the restaurant with us followed me to my truck, and he said, how can you be a Republican and eat breakfast with that Black guy? I said, what did you say? You're way off base. We got things to do, and worrying about whether you're man or woman, Black or white is not what you need to be focusing on.

HAILES: Yeah. Well, I tell you what - I've got a whole different view of you. You know, my perception was, OK, he's always going to be over here, and I'm not going to even talk with him, but this has been eye-opening for me.

RUSSELL: Well, it has to me, too.

HAILES: And I can go tell some people, you know, Alton's not that bad.

RUSSELL: (Laughter).

HAILES: He's all right.


INSKEEP: USA. Alton Russell and Wane Hailes at StoryCorps' One Small Step program in Columbus, Ga. You can learn more about the project and see an animated version of this story at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kerrie Hillman