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Up First briefing: Iowa caucuses; MLK Day

Signage for the Iowa caucus during a storm in Des Moines, Iowa, US, on Tuesday, Jan. 9.
Bloomberg
/
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Signage for the Iowa caucus during a storm in Des Moines, Iowa, US, on Tuesday, Jan. 9.

Good morning. You're reading the Up First newsletter. Subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox, and listen to the Up First podcast for all the news you need to start your day.

Today's top stories

Iowa Republicans kick off the 2024 election season tonight as they hold the first caucuses to nominate a presidential candidate. Donald Trump is the clear favorite, but his rivals have been campaigning hard — even as temperatures plunge below zero. Here's how the first-in-the-nation caucuses work and why they're so significant.

  • "It really feels like a battle for second place," NPR's Don Gonyea reports for Up First from Iowa. Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are in a close battle after Trump. Gonyea says DeSantis has "poured so much" into the race, and if he finishes third, there would be calls for him to drop out. Haley is looking forward to the New Hampshire primary later this month, where she's been polling well — but still behind Trump.
  • NPR's Elena Moore covers new voters and says Iowa's Gen Z Republicans are also "on the Trump train." But caucuses tend to attract fewer voters than primaries, and the people who turn out are generally older. She says the less flexible system with no early or mail-in voting is "all-around a bad combo for new and young voters."
  • NPR journalists will bring you caucus news, results and analysis — online and on air — all day. Stay up to date with NPR's live blog, check out Iowa Public Radio and tune in to live coverage on many public radio stations and the NPR app.
  • People in Israel, Gaza and around the world marked 100 days of war this weekend following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, according to the nation's government. Gaza's Ministry says more than 24,000 people in Gaza — mostly women and children — have been killed by Israel's military response to the attacks.

  • Israelis held vigils this weekend for hostages taken by Hamas. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports there was a sense that "time is running out for their safe return." U.S. officials, meanwhile, are pushing Israel to tamp down on its bombardment of Gaza and shift to targeted missions to hunt Hamas leaders and find hostages.
  • Moshe Lavi's brother Omri Miran was one of the hostages taken by Hamas. As he tells Morning Edition his brother's story, Lavi says there's a "sense of urgency right now that needs to be amplified everywhere by everyone beyond the political discourse." 
  • See photos of the warfare in Gaza and Israel over the past 100 days.
  • Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

    During his lifetime, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s views were considered radical by much of the white establishment, including the government. King was the subject of several FBI surveillance investigations, designed to collect subversive material on him.
    Chick Harrity / AP
    /
    AP
    During his lifetime, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s views were considered radical by much of the white establishment, including the government. King was the subject of several FBI surveillance investigations, designed to collect subversive material on him.

    The Iowa caucuses fall on a national holiday this year: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For 2024, Americans are honoring the civil rights leader on his actual birthday. He would have been 95. Here are a few things to know about why we celebrate this holiday:

  • While King is widely lauded as a nonviolent civil rights hero now, his views were considered radical by the government and much of White America during his lifetime.
  • A campaign to make MLK Day a national holiday began almost immediately after his assassination on April 4, 1968. President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1983, but it wasn't officially observed until 1986.
  • In 1994, MLK Day became the only federal holiday dedicated to volunteerism. Americans are encouraged to honor King's life through "acts of civic work and community service."
  • To learn more about MLK's legacy, listen to these six podcasts about his life, including Code Switch's episode on the power of King's anger.

    From our hosts

    Michele Norris
    / Simon & Schuster, Eli Turner Photography
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    Simon & Schuster, Eli Turner Photography

    This essay was written by Steve Inskeep. He joined NPR in 1996 and started hosting Morning Edition in 2004. He also hosts Up First.

    In 2008, Michele Norris approached me with an idea. We should gather a mixed-race group of voters and interview them about that year's presidential election, which Barack Obama was on his way to winning.

    Michele proposed encouraging frank discussions by serving dinner first and then talking for hours and hours. She thought food improved conversation. Looking back, I realize she told me this while we were in a restaurant. She was recruiting me for the project while taking me to lunch.

    The resulting York Project traced voter attitudes and fears in a historic year — and launched Michele on a new path. Many people thought Obama's election heralded a post-racial America. She didn't think so. Eventually, she founded the Race Card Project, which encouraged people to tell their stories about race and identity in six words. She left NPR as she pursued this.

    Now, she's collected more than a decade of six-word stories and follow-up interviews, which she views as a special record of our era. In today's interview about her book Our Hidden Conversations, she compares the stories to "dendrochronology, the study of tree rings." When you cut down a tree, the rings in the trunk — one from each year — will tell a story of floods and droughts, fires or human disturbances and chemicals in the soil. "The tree will tell a story, and the tree never lies."

    In a tumultuous era, she told us, "This archive of human experience is a social tree ring."

    Race and diversity reads and listens

    Students from municipal schools in Caxias do Sul, a city with a majority white population in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, paint an image of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., as they participate in a program called "Qualifying Education of Ethnic-Racial Relations."
    Silvio Avila / AFP via Getty Images
    /
    AFP via Getty Images
    Students from municipal schools in Caxias do Sul, a city with a majority white population in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, paint an image of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., as they participate in a program called "Qualifying Education of Ethnic-Racial Relations."

    Sandhya Dirks is a national correspondent covering race and identity for NPR. She approaches race and equity not as a beat but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting. Dirks shares some NPR reporting to read, listen and reflect on for MLK Day.

    There's one MLK quote you'll hear when a group or politician is going after diversity but couching it in the language of civil rights: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

    "This quote gets appropriated to push for a color blindness that willfully rejects the realities of systemic racism. This piece by my colleague Adrian Florido looks at the attempt to dilute King's legacy and words — something important to remember today. This must-listen episode of Code Switchdoes the same.

    School districts face increasing threats nationwide to limit or suppress teaching the facts of systemic racism and Black history. I spoke with high school students in the Southern California suburb of Temecula on what it's like living with bans on "critical race theory" and "divisive topics," which effectively silence talking about race. It turns out the bans increase students' experiences of racism. Adrian has a powerful story chronicling how Black teachers in Oklahoma find ways to fill in gaps with facts and wisdom.

    I stopped in Memphis, Tenn., while driving cross country to visit my in-laws for the holidays. Seeing the Lorraine Motel, the site of King's assassination, in real life was powerful. It's hard to explain, but the sense of profound loss is still raw decades later.

    On this trip, I listened to a podcast called The Sum of Us, hosted by Heather McGhee, who spoke to NPR about her book of the same name. The 2022 Memphis episode describes what it's like to encounter this hallowed ground and focuses on a then-mostly unknown local activist named Justin Pearson.

    Pearson is no longer unknown. Last year, he was one of two young Black legislators expelled by the white, Republican majority in the Tennessee legislature. Before he was expelled (and then reinstated and reelected), he gave a rousing speech about democracy and race that reminded many not just of how civil rights era battles are still being fought but how new leaders are emerging to carry on King's legacy.

    This newsletter was edited by Treye Green

    Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Suzanne Nuyen