Clintons, Obama join Selma march

Political theater at civil rights site

First joint appearance by presidential rivals occurs in Alabama

March 05, 2007|By Dahleen Glanton and Mike Dorning | Dahleen Glanton and Mike Dorning,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SELMA, Ala. -- Two of the Democratic Party's leading presidential candidates came to an emotionally evocative touchstone of the civil rights movement yesterday seeking to strengthen their bonds with black voters and tie their campaigns to the cause's unfinished work.

It was the first side-by-side appearance of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in their 2008 presidential campaign, and the political theater of the two campaigns overlapped repeatedly, but with a polite tone that contrasted with their political skirmishing of recent weeks.

Obama and Clinton spoke at services on the same street, three blocks apart, and the lines of worshipers were so long that they nearly intermingled. The two candidates presented their campaigns as legacies of the struggle for political equality.

With African-American votes crucial to winning Democratic primaries in the South, Clinton and Obama have been making a determined effort to win them over. They came to Selma for events leading up to the 42nd commemoration of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers were beaten by state troopers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

The day marked the first entrance into the presidential campaign by former President Bill Clinton, a popular figure with African-Americans whom writer Toni Morrison once called "our first black president." He avoided upstaging his wife at her speech by staying away from the church, but people cheered and rushed to be near him when he joined his wife and Obama for a re-enactment of the 1965 march.

In a keynote address for the commemoration, Obama declared himself part of a new wave of black political leaders that he called "the Joshua Generation." It was Joshua, the Biblical successor to Moses, who led the Jewish people to the Promised Land after Moses delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

"We are in the presence today of a lot of Moseses ... of giants whose shoulders we stand on," said Obama, surrounded by civil rights veterans. But, he added, "We've got to remember now that Joshua still has a job to do."

While Obama did not explicitly claim for himself the role of Joshua, that was clearly the implication, coming during a campaign to be elected the nation's highest leader.

Speaking at the First Baptist Church, Clinton drew upon her Southern roots in Little Rock, Ark., saying that three Democratic contenders for the presidency - Obama, an African-American; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Latino; and she, a woman - benefited from the civil rights movement.

"In the last two elections, we have seen our right to vote tampered with ... in state after state," Clinton said, adding that she planned to reintroduce a voting reform bill.

Clinton began the race with a huge lead among African-Americans, many of whom have deep affection for the former Clinton White House, but recent polls have shown Obama leading her among black voters. Though Obama is African-American, he is a newcomer to national politics and is not as well-known as the former first lady.

Black voters could play an important role in the selection of the next Democratic nominee. South Carolina, where blacks make up about half of the Democratic primary electorate, will hold one of the earliest nominating contests. Several other Southern states, including Alabama, are considering moving up their primaries.

The Clintons and Obama, separated by two black congressmen and several other civil rights leaders, marched at the front of the procession through downtown Selma and across the bridge.

Before the march, Obama spoke at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the meeting place for Selma civil rights organizers during the 1960s and the starting point for the Bloody Sunday march. Obama was joined there by the local congressman, Democrat Artur Davis , who has endorsed Obama, and by Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who was badly beaten on the bridge and returns for every anniversary.

Obama placed his life in the broader experience of black Americans and noted an account of his genealogy showing a white ancestor once owned slaves, which was reported by The Sun last week.

His father, a black man from Kenya, "met this woman whose great great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves," he said.

He offered his life story as a legacy of the civil rights movement, asserting formative events in his life as touchstones of the movement's achievements: election to high office, the opportunity to study at prestigious Ivy League universities; and even his birth of a mixed-race marriage

"There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born," Obama said.

Obama was born in 1961, four years before the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But spokesman Bill Burton said Obama was "speaking metaphorically about the civil rights movement as a whole."

Insisting that "the march is not over," Hillary Clinton said much work remains to be done in this country, including providing health care for 46 million uninsured Americans, creating an efficient energy policy and taking care of soldiers fighting in Iraq.

Dahleen Glanton and Mike Dorning write for the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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