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New Day Saturday

CDC Forecast Predicts 84,000+ COVID Deaths Over Next Four Weeks; Chicago Cancels School for Third Straight Day As City, Teachers Union Clash Over Return To Classroom; Airlines Forced To Cancel More Flights Amid COVID Sickouts; Experts Warn Of Domestic Extremism One Year After January 6th; Schumer Calls For Filibuster Reform As Voting Rights Bills Stall; Thousands Of U.S. Restaurants, Bars Face Closure Amid COVID Surge. Aired 7-8a ET

Aired January 08, 2022 - 07:00   ET




CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: Wow, good morning to you. Rise and shine here. We are happy to have you here in NEW DAY. I'm Christi Paul.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Boris Sanchez. Rising cases and bitter confrontations. The Biden administration is working to reassure Americans amid a COVID surge as battles play out across the country over mass mandates and testing to keep kids in class.

PAUL: Also, more than a year after the January 6th riot, lawmakers are still trying to piece together how that deadly day unfolded. And now the committee investigating is considering asking Mike Pence to appear voluntarily on Capitol Hill?

SANCHEZ: And new developments in the case of tennis star Novak Djokovic. He's being held in a detention facility in Australia. What we're learning this morning from newly released court documents.

PAUL: Also, remembering a Hollywood icon and a champion of civil rights. We're looking at the life and legacy of Sidney Poitier.

SANCHEZ: Buenos dias. We are grateful to have you this January 8th. Christi, always a pleasure to be with you as well.

PAUL: It's good to be with you as well, Boris. Just, all full disclosure, I was home with COVID for a few weeks. All is well. I'm hoping all as well with everybody out there because they know this thing is surging.

And on that note, there is some new drama inside the Biden administration regarding its response to the COVID 19 pandemic. We know CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is facing some backlash for her agency's COVID quarantine and isolation guidelines, as the Omicron variant causes a surge in hospitalizations.

SANCHEZ: Yes, health officials say the next month could be brutal. The latest CDC forecast predicts more than 84,000 Americans could die from COVID over the next four weeks.

Hospitals are already on the brink as ICUs are overrun with unvaccinated patients.

PAUL: And the battle between teachers unions and school districts is heating up over how to keep kids in the classroom. CNN's Omar Jimenez is in Chicago, where negotiations are still going on right now after schools were closed for three days straight.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Back to School hangs in the balance for the country's third largest school district has negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the teachers union remained deadlocked over returning to in-person learning.


MELANIE LOPEZ, EDUCATOR, CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS: I'm not happy that we're not at work. We want to be at work. And we want people to understand that this idea was to go remote, not to stop working.

JIMENEZ: Melanie Lopez is a high school teacher in the school district and a union member. It's a teachers union that is argued the city of Chicago hasn't provided adequate resources to be in-person safely.

JIMENEZ: Did you feel like you had what you needed in the classroom for it to run safely?

LOPEZ: I did because I bought it. I don't know if that make --


JIMENEZ: With your own money.

LOPEZ: With my own money. Right. The wipes that we were given we're not great. So, a lot of us had to go buy better quality, you know, PPE equipment than what we were provided. We're running through masks, you know, pretty quickly.

Things that like, in theory sound great on paper, until it's in practice, right? Like, until you actually see it being implemented. And then you see where the holes in the situation are happening.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): The city, however, has argued through masking vaccinations, testing and more that school is still safer than being at home, even with record numbers of cases among students, staff, and across Chicago in recent weeks.

MAYOR LORI LIGHTFOOT (D-IL), CHICAGO: The difference between now and a year ago was obviously we have vaccines for a huge swath of our school-based population.

I think that the issues that are on the table, as I understand them, we can narrow the divide and get a deal done. Schools are safe. There's been no question about that.

JIMENEZ: The union disagrees. And one of the major sticking points in their ongoing negotiations with the city is testing.

Governor J.B. Pritzker's office confirmed Friday, it had been in touch with the White House in recent days asking for more tests. The White House confirm those conversations with Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to assess their needs.

All the while, students have been out of class and parents have been frustrated. Lopez is also a parent to two 7-year-old twins, and trying to find a balance, especially, as she remembers what remote learning was like last year.


JIMENEZ: You walk that line.

LOPEZ: Right. Trying to juggle watching them and making sure they're engaged in their activities, and then, trying to make time muscle teaching my classes is almost like playing a game of Russian roulette, it feels like.

As a parent, and I think what could be done better for next time is let's get those Parent Voices in there. Let's get solutions provided that if this is something that may happen in the future, we already have some alternatives in place so that parents feel like they're supported.


JIMENEZ: Now, a spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools says they plan to continue negotiations through the weekend. And in a joint statement with the head of public schools, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said they're bargaining negotiations Friday went into the evening and they're so far productive sessions must conclude this weekend.

Well, parents, teachers, and over 340,000 students will be waiting to see if that actually happens. Christi, Boris?

SANCHEZ: Omar, thank you so much. The surge in the Omicron variant, we should point out, is causing more disruptions at U.S. airports this morning.

PAUL: Yes, already there are more than 1,000 flight cancellations and hundreds of delays as airline employees are continuing to call out sick.

CNN's Pete Muntean has more.

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Airlines are once again axing flights by the 1000s. This time, thanks to the latest snowstorm hitting airports up the East Coast. New York's LaGuardia Airport is facing eight new inches of snow.


STEVE MOSS, TRAVELING AT LAGUARDIA AIRPORT: If I got stuck here then I probably wouldn't be as happy, but as long as I get home, I'm OK. I won't make it in time, so, I just canceled my flight. I'm going to try to see hopefully tomorrow if I could find something.

MUNTEAN: But it is winter weather along with airline workers shortages that have led to a perfect storm of cancelations nationwide. The latest figures from FlightAware show that U.S. airlines have canceled more than 27,000 flights since Christmas Eve.

Cancellations so bad this week in Atlanta that travelers waited hours to get their check bags back.

HAILEY CONN, TRAVELING AT ATLANTA AIRPORT: I went to try and talk to someone about my bags, and they just said that they would try their best to get out on my flight, and that was basically all I heard about my bag.


MUNTEAN: Industry analyst Henry Harteveldt says it is unlikely that airlines around that cancellations corner this month. An untold number of airline workers are calling out sick either because they've been exposed to or infected with coronavirus.

HARTEVELDT: The random nature of Omicron means that you don't know which of your employees are going to get sick. Well, airlines are trying to take steps to reduce the impact. There is no way they can get to an absolute zero proof level of being disrupted.

MUNTEAN: Alaska Airlines is the latest carrier to trim its flight schedule, proactively canceling 10 percent of January flights, citing "the continued impacts of Omicron and unprecedented employee sick calls." Similar moves have been made by JetBlue and Delta.

MUNTEAN: Southwest Airlines canceled another 500 flights on Friday for the third day in a row. It was so cold and its Denver hub on Thursday that it actually halted arrivals of flights for a period of time. You know, this is typically a slow time for the airlines nationwide.

But even still, about a million and a half people are flying each day, a big inconvenience for many of them. Boris and Christi?

PAUL: Thanks so much, Pete. Appreciate it.

So, one year after the deadly Capitol riot, the January 6th Select Committee is seeking more information to better understand what happened that day and they're even now considering asking former Vice President Mike Pence to voluntarily appear before the panel.

SANCHEZ: Right. They're piecing together exactly what led to the attack on U.S. democracy, and if the former president can be legally held liable. CNN's Jessica Schneider walks us through where things stand right now.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After a day of remembrance on Capitol Hill, the January 6th Select Committee is back to work. And they say learning more about individuals conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Individuals, including people in the inner circle of the Trump White House?

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS): Oh, no question about it.

SCHNEIDER: Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney saying they are not ruling out the possibility of concluding the former president and his associates committed a crime.

REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): For a president to -- through either his action or his inaction, for example, attempt to impede or obstruct the counting of electoral votes, which is an official proceeding of Congress. Is, you know, we -- the committee is looking at that.

SCHNEIDER: Some Republicans have spoken out against Trump, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski calling the rioters, "a mob incited by our former president."

But others are folding under pressure after Senator Ted Cruz said this on Wednesday --

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): And it is an anniversary of a violent terrorist attack on the Capitol.

SCHNEIDER: He later apologized on Fox after host Tucker Carlson called it a lie.

CRUZ: The way I phrased things yesterday, it was sloppy, and it was frankly dumb.


SCHNEIDER: A year later, we are still learning new information about what happened that day.

Then-vice president-elect and Senator Kamala Harris had been at the Capitol that morning.

KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had left. But my thoughts immediately turned not only to my colleagues, but to my staff who had been forced to seek refuge in our office, converting filing cabinets into barricades.

SCHNEIDER: But she declined to comment on revelations that she was evacuated from the Democratic National Committee headquarters later that afternoon, seven minutes after a pipe bomb was discovered nearby.

While the FBI continues to search for the suspect, captured on video planting to pipe bombs the night before the attack, rioters continue to face their day in court, and outspoken federal judges.

Anthony Williams, who has pleaded not guilty said in a Facebook message that storming the Capitol was the proudest day of his life. He had asked the court for permission to travel to Jamaica, but Chief Judge Beryl Howell rejected the request writing, "This court will not commemorate the one-year anniversary of this attack on the Capitol by granting defendants request for non-essential foreign travel when he was awaiting judgment for his actions on that day."


SCHNEIDER: And the court cases are only set to intensify now that we're into 2022. Starting next month, we'll see the start of the first trials involving January 6th defendants. And the committee will also see its work ramping up.

We're still waiting to see if Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows is indicted for contempt of Congress and public hearings could be planned in the coming months. Boris and Christi?

SANCHEZ: Jessica, thank you so much.

We should note that dozens of those arrested in connection with the insurrection have been tied to extremist groups. Domestic extremism presents what DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says is one of the greatest threats to the U.S. homeland, with experts cautioning that to many, January 6th was only the beginning, as extremist content online and threats to lawmakers and the president continue to rise.

One of those sounding the alarm is Cynthia Miller-Idriss. She's the director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University. She's also the author of Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.

Good morning, Cynthia, we're glad to have you today and that you're sharing part of your weekend with us. First, I want to sort of dissect what we saw in that piece with Senator Ted Cruz. Not him, specifically, but more broadly, the narrative and the restructuring of the narrative and the white washing.

How does it work when it comes to extremism to have people like a sitting senator, walk back on his own words, given the facts of what we watched happened on January 6th?

CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS, DIRECTOR, POLARIZATION AND EXTREMISM RESEARCH AND INNOVATION LAB, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Well, good morning, Boris, Christi. Good to be with you and thank you for having me. I mean, I think what we saw in that particular episode, this redefining or attempt to whitewash the events of January 6th is really dangerous because it confuses the public.

Even further, we already have an incredibly divided population about what happened on January 6th. We see millions of people who continue to believe that that was some sort of legitimate effort to save democracy, who really believe in this full false information and disinformation about a stolen election.

So, to have a sitting senator, then, you know, walk back remarks, even though it met the definition of domestic terrorism is really dangerous.

But I would also say, I think we get very caught up in what happened on that -- on that day. And whether it was or wasn't terrorism, whether it meets that definition, instead of really focusing on how could we prevent another event like that from moving forward?

And so, part of what I'm hoping we'll see is, is a little bit of a change, you know, to talk not just about accountability, but also to talk about prevention.

SANCHEZ: Well, I want to dig into that because you write in the New York Times, "The United States should focus less on isolating and containing a few bad cells, and more on reducing the fertile ground in which anti-democratic and violent extremist ideologies thrive. It needs a public health approach to preventing violent extremism."

What exactly is the fertile ground that you're referring to there? What needs to change?

MILLER-IDRISS: Well, one of the things we saw on January 6th, for example is, of those who've been arrested so far, only about 16 percent had formal ties to actual extremist groups.

So, the vast majority of those people were kind of ordinary citizens who had not previously been known or been affiliated in any way. So, our U.S. approach to dealing with extremism has been to look at bounded extremist groups, to infiltrate them, to surveil, to monitor through a security perspective.

That would never work against this type of problem because you can't predict. They're not members of groups, you can't -- you can't monitor them.


MILLER-IDRISS: And in the public health world, some of the biggest gains we've made around things like cardiac disease or diabetes were to realize that you can't just treat the outcome of a disease, but you have to invest in communities to teach people about the behavioral changes, and attitudinal changes that can reduce their own susceptibility to that disease.

So, we have the same problem here. We need to have digital literacy, media literacy, teach people how to resist propaganda and disinformation, and that's part of the problem.

SANCHEZ: It's fascinating to me, because as we talk about extremism, we're not talking about, you know, Timothy McVeigh, or Ted Kaczynski, the folks that were there on January 6th, were some of the same folks that I met at countless Trump rallies on the road, doctors, and librarians, and just everyday people.

How do you best communicate with them, when so much of their own identity is tied into the idea put forth by the president that they are victims, and that the election was stolen?

MILLER-IDRISS: Absolutely. I mean, these people genuinely, genuinely believe that they were heroic, you know, actors who were saving democracy, and start trying to thwart something that was tyrannical. And I think that's part of this whole universe of disinformation that people have bought into. And the only real way, you know, what we know is it's extremely difficult to turn that around, and to combat that kind of belief and disinformation or conspiracy once people believe it, the only thing you can really do is prevent it from happening beforehand. And that really is educational, mental health, social work investments, and not just security and intelligence. Ones.

SANCHEZ: It's such an important message. We appreciate you moving that conversation forward. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, thanks for the time.

MILLER-IDRISS: Thank you so much.

PAUL: Yes. Great conversation, thank you.

So, there are some new details about the controversy that's rolling around the world's number one tennis player. What new court documents are revealing about Novak Djokovic, as his vaccine exemption fight has turned into this international political debate?

And with Build Back Better on the back burner, Democrats are focusing their attention on voting rights. Could they run into the same roadblocks? We'll talk about it.



PAUL: Good morning to you. We're glad you're here.

So, we know Democrats are pivoting to voting rights now, as President Biden's Build Back Better bill has stalled on Capitol Hill.

SANCHEZ: Yes, President Biden expected to speak on voting rights next week in Georgia. CNN's. Daniella Diaz joins us now live.

Daniela, after a year of stops and starts, the Senate is looking to take action January 17, potentially the date.

DANIELLA DIAZ, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: That's exactly right, Boris. That is the date that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set for a vote for a rule change. A Senate rules change in the Senate, so that they could try to pass voting rights legislation with just a simple majority, which means 51 votes rather than the 60 needed for bills to advance in the Senate.

But, of course, that would require all Democratic senators to get behind it that rules change, otherwise called a filibuster carve out. And right now, Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema do not support that filibuster carve out.

They don't support any sort of rules changes to pass legislation through the Senate that wouldn't require some sort of bipartisan support. And they are very strong on their opinion on this. Even though the Democratic caucus continues to be optimistic, most of the Democratic senators that they could change their mind, and they continue to negotiate with Senator Joe Manchin, especially behind closed doors to see if they can get his change behind -- these rules change that they could pass voting rights legislation.

And of course, this comes after Senator Joe Manchin torpedoed the Build Back Better Act. That bill that would have expanded the nation's social safety net that Democrats will working on the majority of last fall, because he did not support that $2 trillion price tag amid all this soaring inflation in the country.

So, that is why Democrats are shifting their attention to voting rights legislation that would counter, of course, all the state voting restrictions that have been passed in the last couple of months.

So, the bottom line here being of course, that Democratic caucus is optimistic they could try to get Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema behind this legislation change. But, as of now, it doesn't seem that they'll be successful in that endeavor. Boris, Christi?

SANCHEZ: One of many battles still ahead. Daniella Diaz, thank you so much.

Stuck inside a Melbourne hotel room. This morning, tennis star Novak Djokovic, fighting to get his visa back as the head of Tennis Australia weighs in on the vaccine exemption scandal.


SANCHEZ: We'll be right back.


PAUL: Some new developments to tell you about in the COVID saga of World Tennis Champion Novak Djokovic. Court documents published today say Djokovic was granted a medical exemption to play in the Australian Open, but the Australian government canceled his visa, and as you know, he's currently confined to a hotel in Melbourne before a hearing on that case happens, but that's not until Monday.

SANCHEZ: Yes, CNN correspondent Blake Essig joins us now live. Blake, where do things stand right now with Djokovic.

BLAKE ESSIG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Boris, Christi, clearly there's a disconnect between Tennis Australia and the Australian government that has led to the current situation playing out involving Novak Djokovic and several others involved in the Australian Open.

As far as Djokovic is concerned, we learned today based on court documents filed by his lawyers appealing for him to stay in the country that the tennis superstar is not vaccinated and that he had COVID in December.

Now, the document also reveals that the defending Open champion was granted a medical exemption by Tennis Australia on the grounds that he had recently recovered. However, the Australian government told Tennis Australia back in November that unvaccinated players with a recent COVID-19 infection would not be allowed to enter the country based on public health guidelines.

And so, when Djokovic arrived on Wednesday, he was denied entry and had his visa revoked with Australian health -- the Australia's health minister saying that he failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet entry requirements.

Now, tennis Australia's chief addressed the situation involving Djokovic in a leaked recorded message to staff. Take a listen.


CRAIG TILEY, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, TENNIS AUSTRALIA: There's a lot of finger-pointing going on, and a lot of blaming going on, but I can show you our team has done an unbelievable job and have done everything they possibly could, according to all the instructions that they have been provided.


ESSIG: Well, Djokovic and others who have had their visas revoked are free to leave the country at any time, and at least one unnamed individual has done that.


ESSIG: The men's world tennis number one is waiting for an Australian court to decide his fate. That decision is expected Monday. So far, there is no official indication on what the judge will rule, but the Australian Deputy Prime Minister told our affiliate Seven Network in an interview that in regard to Djokovic being allowed to stay if he were, a betting person, he would not put his house on it.

In the meantime, Djokovic has been staying at a hotel in Melbourne that's being used as an alternative place of detention for asylum seekers and refugees. The tennis star has repeatedly requested to be moved to a "more sustainable" and suitable place of detention that would allow him to train ahead of the Open tournament set to begin in about 10 days. Boris, Christi?

SANCHEZ: Yes, Blake, notably, Djokovic could be facing a three-year ban from Australia depending on what the judge decides. Blake Essig, thank you so much.

So, between the pandemic, rising costs, and staffing shortages, how many more hits can the restaurant industry take? That's a question being posed by one chef in Atlanta. He joins us next to tell us the kind of support he'd like to see from leaders.



PAUL: You more than two dozen U.S. mayors are calling on Congress to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Their warning 1000s of restaurants are on the brink of financial ruin because of the impact of COVID-19.

Now, according to the National Restaurant Association, 177,000 restaurants that applied for grants did not receive them. And the mayor says, without more assistance, about 86 percent of those businesses could be forced to close permanently.

Well, Chef Ron Hsu is with me now. He's the co-founder of Atlanta restaurant Lazy Betty. Chef Ron, thank you so much for being with us. I know that you wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about this very thing.

Lazy Betty, your restaurant opened to such a claim, and I mean, there were so many articles that were written on it. And describe for us, first of all, the difference between Lazy Betty, in say, March 1st of 2020 to where you are now.

RON HSU, CO-FOUNDER, LAZY BETTY RESTAURANT: Well, you know, we had just, like you said, come up with a lot of acclaim, we got nominated for a James Beard for best new restaurant in the country.

Things were looking very good. And then, all of a sudden, the pandemic hit. And, you know, things were very dire when COVID first hit back in March 2020. And we had a pivot to take out, furlough our staff as well, really change all our operations. And you know, I was washing dishes of delivering food when we were when we had a pivot to a takeout model.

But since then, since the -- vaccine has come out and we've gotten used to managing, we have been able to reopen our dining room. So, it's not quite as bleak as when the pandemic first, but it's still a struggle every day.

PAUL: It's interesting. I understand you wrote that pre-pandemic, you average about $42,000 a week in revenue. The week you reopened, you barely broke $13,000, and some nights you just had 10 guests.

Talk to me about emotionally what that does? I cannot imagine you standing in this restaurant that was so vibrant and had so many people. And all of a sudden, standing there thinking, being able to count the number of people there. What was that like for you?

HSU: Right. Yes, it was an emotional roller coaster. You know, you're fresh off the high from all the success and all the hard work you put in. You know, I've been conceptualizing Lazy Betty for six years. And for it to reach a pinnacle right before the pandemic end, and then, for it's all crashing down was very tough.

But the hardest part was, you know, I have knowing how to handle my staff and handle their emotions. A lot of them depended on Lazy Betty to provide a living for their family, pay the rent, to food on their table, and for them to be working side by side with them and seeing only 10 customers come in.

You could feel that the dread that they -- that they had, and not knowing that they needed to find a new job, if they needed a new career, and it was bleak because all the other restaurants were in the same struggle as us.

PAUL: Yes, yes. So, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland is chair to Small Business Committee, and he said earlier this week that there is a bipartisan group of senators who are working to build support for a package, specifically, for emergency aid to companies that includes restaurants.

So, if you could sit down with him, what would you say to him? What is your most urgently need?

HSU: I would say the health security for the health of the staff and restaurant employees, as things such as supplemental health insurance, access to testing. You know, when Omicron first hit, testing was very scarce.

When we had an exposure in our staff, we close the restaurant and send everyone to go get tested, and a small -- only a handful of people were actually able to get access to a test.

You know -- you know, so, things like that would help. I don't expect them to come up with a cure offer for the pandemic, but just a little more focused access to testing and more health insurance. Just providing security for people financial and health wise for restaurant employees and owners would be great.


PAUL: Well, Chef Ron Hsu, of Lazy Betty and Juniper Cafe, we should say as well here in Atlanta. Thank you so much, Chef Ron for talking to us. We wish you the very best of luck to you and your staff.

HSU: Thank you for having me, Christi.

PAUL: Absolutely.

SANCHEZ: This morning, Hollywood continues to mourn the death of Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier. Up next, a look back at his life and legacy and how he was a trailblazer on and off the screen.



SANCHEZ: He was Hollywood's first black movie star and the first black man to win an Academy Award. Legendary actor and activist Sidney Poitier have died at the age of 94.

PAUL: Yes, so many of his films dealt with racial issues and social changes stemming from the Civil Rights moment. Well, CNN's Sara Sidner has a look at Poitier's life on and an impact off the screen.

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sidney Poitier was so much more than a film legend. He is revered not just because of what he did on screen, but also because of his tremendous impact off- screen, as a champion of civil rights.

SIDNEY POITIER, OSCAR-WINNING ACTOR: We believe. In the essential dignity of every human being.

SIDNER: The son of a Bahamian tomato farmer, Poitier lived a life of first, the first black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor, and one of the first black people to become a true Hollywood star among the greatest of all time.

POITIER: We have lots and lots and lots of African American actors. Now, when we didn't have any? I appeared not because I brought so much, because -- but because the time was right.

SIDNER: But his career almost ended before it ever began. As a teenager, Poitier audition for the American Negro Theatre, but he was quickly thrown out because he couldn't read. He was tone deaf, and he had a thick Bahamian accent.

He says, you know, actor we got next to the door, he opened and pushed me out and slammed it.

SIDNER: A determined Poitier spend months perfecting his acting skills and modifying his speaking voice. His hard work would pay off in a big way.

POITIER: I was right. I know I was right.

SIDNER: In the 1950s, he appeared in more than a dozen films beginning with No Way Out and including an Oscar-nominated performance in The Defiant Ones.

However, it was his portrayal of a former G.I. in the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field that broke Hollywood's color barrier, earning him the coveted Oscar for Best Actor.


SIDNER: Poitier never overcame his tone-deafness, lip-syncing the song, Amen in the famous Lily seen. The songwriter, Jester Hairston actually did the singing.

Poitier was considered a bankable star in 1967, starring in a landmark film, To Serve with Love.

POITIER: Those kids are devils incarnate. I've tried everything.

SIDNER: Playing characters that would force audiences to confront racial prejudices.

POITIER: They call me Mr. Tibbs.

SIDNER: But he would also challenge the Hollywood establishment, forcing a change in his iconic role as Detective Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 Academy Award-winning In the Heat of the Night, because of a scene that would require him to acquiesce to a racist character.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to take you over to Brownsville and put you on the bus myself.

POITIER: You aren't taking me anywhere, you dig. You're holding the wrong man.

SIDNER: That same year, he would star in the Watershed film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, alongside Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.


SIDNER: The film not only depicted a successful interracial relationship, it also foreshadowed future progress in America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you given any thought to the problems your children are going to have?

POITIER: Yes. And they will have some. And we'll have the children otherwise, I don't know what you'd call it, but you couldn't call that a marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that the way Joey feels?

POITIER: She feels that every single one of our children will be president of the United States, and they'll all have colorful administrations.

SIDNER: It's only fitting that in 2009, Sidney Poitier would be presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

BARACK OBAMA, 44TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Poitier once called his driving purpose to make himself a better person. He did, and he made us all a little bit better along the way.


SANCHEZ: Thanks to Sara Sidner for that touching obituary. For a closer look at Sidney Poitier's legacy in Hollywood and beyond, we're joined by the author of Blackness Is Burning: Civil Rights, Popular Culture, and the problem of recognition.

TreaAndrea Russworm is also an associate English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. TreaAndrea, thank you so much for joining us this morning, sharing part of your weekend with us.

Let's talk about some of Poitier's films and their impact, starting with A Raisin in the Sun. The adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's plays. One of my favorites. It's about the generational trauma, the discrimination and racism inflict on people.

What did that performance mean to you personally and more broadly to African Americans?

TREAANDREA RUSSWORM, ASSOCIATE ENGLISH PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS, AMHERST: Thank you for that question. You know, A Raisin in the Sun is a powerful story of black family love. So, that's at the surface, what it meant to me.

You see six generations of the younger family, trying to succeed, trying to overcome the structural barriers that are right in their way and preventing them from ascending. And so, part of that story is about black aspirations. You have the younger daughter wanting to become a doctor, you have Poitier's character, Walter Lee, who wants to start his own business. You've his young son, and of course, his mother played by Claudia McNeil.

And so, part of that story that I think resonated with so many black audiences are that story of black familia (ph) love on the screen, on the big screen. And then, of course, you have Walter Lee losing the money. So, you have that drama there. That's right at the heart of Hansberry's play.

And then you have forgiveness within the family, where the family, you know, forgives him for losing their inheritance, you know, for squandering it, and for potentially jeopardizing their chance for an economic mobility.

And of course, what happens in that film is the family bonds together and Walter Lee decides that yes, they will still go and integrate this neighborhood that does not want them.

So, on the one hand, you have that story of black family love, but you also have the acknowledgment of real structural barriers, like redlining that would have kept this family out of a neighborhood.

SANCHEZ: And it was captured so powerfully by Sidney Poitier. There is so much to parse through in terms of his legacy. I remember what former President Obama said about me. He doesn't make movies, he makes milestones. How are you going to remember Sidney Poitier?

RUSSWORM: I'm going to remember Sidney Poitier as this symbol of black excellence. Of dignity as someone who broke down barriers in Hollywood, but also as someone who means unpredictable things to different people.

So, for me, you know, Poitier's career was powerfully motivating. When I first learned about him in the early 2000s -- right, I'm not in Poitier's generation. My mother is, my grandmother, who's in her 80s also loves Sidney Poitier and respected Sidney Poitier.

When I discovered his films in the early 2000s, there was something that was still timeless in his performances. There was something about his brand of black perseverance and endurance and excellence and competence, right? That really spoke to me.

And it told me -- it taught me that I wanted to study film. That I wanted to study media. That I wanted to think about the enigma that is Sidney Poitier. And that represented his characters for, you know, the span of decades. 38 films. He started in, you know, from 1950, throughout the 70s.

So, for me, Poitier will always be -- his legacy will also always be personal, that it inspired me, even though I'm in the audience in a generation that probably wasn't supposed to be inspired by someone who's coming from that era, right?

The critics would have said that, you know, at a certain point past the 60s, Poitier's images of these exceptional black characters were outdated. And that's just not true. I think there are things in his performances where the edge of demand cracks through and you see all these unexpected things.

There were some static scripts, there were some boring scripts, you know, Edge of the City. There were some awkward moments, and some moments that don't ring true.

But as a body of rich -- a rich body of work, his performances are timeless. They are powerful, and they are motivating to new and younger generations.

SANCHEZ: And he was asked about that criticism that he received by Oprah in 2000. And quickly, I just want to note what he responded to, to that question from Oprah. He said, I accepted a responsibility. "I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do."

And obviously so many, including yourself, have enjoyed the legacy of Sidney Poitier and carry on, you know, his trailblazing legacy.

TreaAndrea Russworm, we appreciate the time. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

RUSSWORM: Thank you for having me.


SANCHEZ: Of course. Stay with CNN. We'll be right back.


PAUL: In today's human factor, meet the Iraqi war veteran who turned his trauma into music.


JASON MOON, FOUNDER, WARRIOR SONGS: When I close my eyes, I hear a voice from deep inside.

I was in Iraq for 11 months. It was when I got home and tried to reintegrate that I started to notice that I wasn't who I was. I couldn't be in crowds. I was always watching every door. I felt weak, ashamed, and I hadn't been able to write songs for almost five years because of all the pain.

When I started trying to write songs about it --

Child inside me long didn't gone.

That's when I start getting e-mails from other veterans going, dude, this is exactly how I feel. And that's when my healing really begins.