Lawrence O'Donnell and GOP presidential contender Herman Cain got into a tense argument about an unexpected topic on O'Donnell's Thursday show: Cain's participation in the Civil Rights movement.
The two also discussed Cain's predilection for calling people "brainwashed." He refused to back down from his assertion that many black voters have been brainwashed by the Democratic Party, and also told O'Donnell he thinks that the 81 percent of Americans who support a surtax on the rich have been brainwashed as well.
O'Donnell asked about the Hank Williams Jr. controversy. Cain said that Williams had made a "poor choice of words," but refused to say that ESPN was right to end its association with him.
Then, O'Donnell took a surprising turn. He read out a passage from Cain's new book in which Cain discusses his childhood in Atlanta. In the passage, Cain says that he was too young to participate in the Civil Rights movement, and that his father told him to "stay out of trouble" by moving to the back of the bus.
"Where do you think black people would be sitting on the bus today if Rosa Parks had followed your father's advice?" O'Donnell asked. It was an audacious question, and Cain took the bait, reacting forcefully.
"You are distorting the intent of what I said," Cain said. "...If I had been a college student I probably would have been participating." He said that, as a high school student, "it was not prudent" for him to be involved. O'Donnell didn't buy this. He noted that Cain had been a college student "at the height" of the movement, from 1963-67, when other black people were "murdered" fighting for their rights. He asked Cain if he regretted "sitting on those sidelines."
Cain called this an "Irrelevant comparison." O'Donnell said he was just reading from Cain's book. "Did you expect every black student and every black college in America to be out there?" Cain said. "...You didn't know, Lawrence, what I was doing...maybe, just maybe, I had a sick relative!"
"I gave your book a fair reading, and I didn't read anything about a sick friend," O'Donnell said. "What I did read was a deliberate decision to not participate in the Civil Rights movement."
Cain said he didn't understand why O'Donnell was pressing this point when there were more pressing matters at hand. "Let's do the people of this country a service, Lawrence," he said.