Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton crossed campaign paths for the first time Sunday as they paid homage to civil rights activists who they said helped give them the chance to break barriers to the White House.
The two candidates and former President Clinton linked arms with activists who 42 years ago were attacked by police with billyclubs during a peaceful voting rights march. “Bloody Sunday” shocked the nation and helped bring attention to the racist voting practices that kept blacks from the polls.
“I’m here because somebody marched for our freedom,” Obama, who would become the first black president, said from the Brown Chapel AME Church where the march began on March 7, 1965. “I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Not to be outdone in the hunt for black votes, Hillary Clinton also spoke in Selma at a church three blocks away and brought a secret weapon — her husband. Three days before the march anniversary, her campaign announced that the former president who is so popular among blacks would accompany her for his induction into Selma’s Voting Rights Hall of Fame.
‘The call to our generation’
Sen. Clinton said the Voting Rights Act and the Selma march made possible her presidential campaign, as well as those of Obama and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who would be the first Hispanic to occupy the Oval Office.
“After all the hard work getting rid of literacy tests and poll taxes, we’ve got to stay awake because we’ve got a march to continue,” Clinton said in a speech interrupted numerous times by applause and shouts of approval. “How can we rest while poverty and inequality continue to rise?
“We all know we have to finish the march,” she said. “That is the call to our generation.”
Clinton and Obama both appeared outside Brown Chapel for a pre-march rally, but came from opposite sides of the podium and did not interact. Despite the intense rivalry between their campaigns, the two praised each other.
“It’s excellent that we have a candidate like Barack Obama who embodies what all of you fought for here 42 years ago,” Clinton said. Obama said Clinton is “doing an excellent job for this country and we’re going to be marching arm-in-arm.”
Praise from Clinton, but no linked arms
But they did not join arms when the commemorative march attended by thousands got under way. Instead, Clinton held hands with her husband in their first joint appearance on the 2008 trail. Obama was several people down the line, his arms linked with the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who led the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march at the request of Martin Luther King Jr.
Obama, who shed his coat and tie for the march, approached Clinton at one point and the two chatted for a few seconds before moving back to opposite sides of the street.
The two candidates sounded similar themes in their speeches. Both said the civil rights movement is not over and pointed to inequality in education, health care and the economy. Both criticized the Bush administration for failing to return Hurricane Katrina victims to their homes.
But Obama, who was three years old on Bloody Sunday, delivered a call to action that would be politically unfeasible for Clinton or any of his other white rivals to make. He said the current generation of blacks does not always honor the civil rights movement and needs to take responsibility for improving their lives by rejecting violence; cleaning up “40-ounce bottles” and other trash that litters urban neighborhoods; and voting instead of complaining that the government is not helping them.
“How can it be that our voting rates dropped down to 30, 40, 50 percent when people shed their blood to allow us to vote?” Obama asked at a unity breakfast with community leaders.
Obama gains key to the city
At the breakfast, Obama got a key to the city and another to surrounding Dallas County from a probate judge, Kim Ballard. “Forty-two years ago he might would have needed it because I understand it would open the jail cells,” Ballard said. “But not today.”
Obama said the fight for civil rights reverberated across the globe and helped inspire his father growing up in Kenya to aspire to something beyond his job herding goats. His father moved to Hawaii to get an education under a program for African students and there met Obama’s mother, a fellow student from Kansas.
Obama said he was not surprised when it was reported this week that his white ancestors on his mother’s side owned slaves. “That’s no surprise in America,” he said and added that his mother’s family was also inspired by the struggle for civil rights.
“If it hasn’t been for Selma, I wouldn’t be here,” Obama said. “This is the site of my conception. I am the fruits of your labor. I am the offspring of the movement. When people ask me if I’ve been to Selma before, I tell them I’m coming home.”
Clinton in Montgomery
Earlier Sunday, Hillary Clinton spoke to about 100 current and former public officials, ministers, lobbyists and party stalwarts at a private, invitation-only breakfast in Montgomery.
“You can’t turn somebody into a Southerner who didn’t grow up in the South like he (Bill Clinton) did,” said former Secretary of State Nancy Worley, who attended the Clinton breakfast. “But she certainly did a good job showing her interest in people and her concern for people.”
Bill Clinton’s induction was to take place at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge where police attacked the marchers when they refused to disperse. The violence led thousands to Selma in support of the marchers in the following days.
King Jr. led a separate march to the bridge two days later. On March 21, 1965, after a federal court overturned Gov. George Wallace’s ban on protest marches, King led the five-day walk to the capital.
. President Bush signed legislation extending it last summer.
Edwards weighs in, from a distance
Other Democratic candidates are not leaving the black vote to Obama and Clinton. John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, was speaking about Selma and civil rights at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The fight for civil rights and equal rights and economic and social justice is more than just going to celebrations, even as wonderful as the one in Selma,” Edwards said in remarks prepared for delivery as he referred to Berkeley janitors’ fight for a wage increase. “The fight is going on right here, right now.”