COLUMBIA, TENNESSEE. — I sit here after 10 days of travel to the cities where Thurgood Marshall fought his greatest legal battles, and I am acutely aware of this election-year reality: No matter how far ahead the polls say he is, Bill Clinton cannot win the presidency unless he wins a lot of electoral votes in the South.
I sense that Mr. Clinton knows this, which is why he is following a strategy of not embracing black Americans to the point that he provokes the ''Bubbas'' of the old slave states to march upon the polling booths to vote against him.
''Clinton Waves at Blacks as He Rushes By'' was the headline in Sunday's New York Times, which quoted Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D., N.Y., as saying, ''It appears we blacks are on the back burner.'' The people to whom I have talked on this journey convince me that Mr. Clinton is following the only strategy that can deny George Bush four more years in the White House.
Summerton, South Carolina. -- This is the place where an incredibly brave black man, Harry Briggs, petitioned for an end to Jim Crow schools. Thurgood Marshall argued the Briggs v. Elliott case in Charleston, and lost. But Briggs became the heart of Brown v. Board of Education, which Marshall won before the Supreme Court in 1954.
I find that, 38 years after state-imposed school segregation was declared unconstitutional, this school district still resists. The public high school here has an enrollment of 530 students this fall, with a brave 13-year-old boy as the only white person among them.
Those who defy the Supreme Court and curse federal intervention count George Bush as their friend. Governor Clinton will need a miracle to win South Carolina.
Birmingham, Alabama -- Most Americans, except for the very young, have seen television footage of ''Bombingham,'' the city that was a citadel of racial oppression in the 1960s. They still recoil over the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church where four black girls were killed as they sat in Sunday School. This city's former police commissioner, Bull Connor, will forever be a symbol of brutal racism because of his use of police dogs and fire hoses, and his nod to violent white racists, in his efforts to thwart the black revolution.
But here now I talk to Richard Arrington, the black mayor, one of some 8,000 prime beneficiaries of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Bull Connor had an all-white police force. Birmingham now has a black police chief. Black and white policemen patrol the streets of this city together.
Birmingham is a dramatic example of a changing South. Mr. Clinton can win this state.
And here in Columbia, in my home state and that of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Al Gore, I find the scene of one of the worst race riots in American history a changed place. But it is still a place where Mr. Clinton would be in trouble if those here who support President Bush could portray Mr. Clinton as ''a nigger lover.''
Candidates Clinton and Gore are part of a South that is i delicate flux. They know it. They know better than Jesse Jackson, Charlie Rangel or any other blacks how to take it back from President Bush and a Republican party that has tried to return black Americans to servitude.
Everyone loves to be courted, to be told, ''I love you,'' but in this crucial political contest blacks just have to be smart enough to ''cool it'' for a few more weeks.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.