Seeking support in rural Alabama, Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Monday he knows it will be difficult to win over black voters who have supported Democrats for generations.
"I am aware the African-American vote has been very small in favor of the Republican Party," McCain told reporters. "I am aware of the challenges, and I am aware of the fact that there will be many people who will not vote for me, but I'm going to be the president of all the people."
McCain delivered a speech near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, recalling the bloody beatings of civil rights marchers there in 1965 as he embarked on a weeklong tour of places that suffer from poverty and inattention.
McCain's appearance drew about 100 people, most of them white, in a town that is 70 percent black.
Part of Alabama's Black Belt — named for its soil, not the fact that two-thirds of its population is black — Selma has drawn attention from Democrats in the 2008 presidential campaign. Last year, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Clinton visited Selma to mark the anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" march.
'There must be no forgotten places in America'
The Arizona senator described in vivid detail the clubbing that fractured the skull of John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia. McCain, who speaks often of courage shown by military veterans, said he never saw greater courage than Lewis and the marchers showed that day, March 7, 1965.
"There must be no forgotten places in America, whether they have been ignored for long years by the sins of indifference and injustice, or have been left behind as the world grew smaller and more economically interdependent," McCain said outside the St. James Hotel, several hundred yards away from the historic bridge.
"In America, we have always believed that if the day was a disappointment, we would win tomorrow. That's what John Lewis believed when he marched across this bridge," McCain said.
Lewis issued a statement Monday saying he was grateful to McCain for recognizing the march.
"These seminal events cut to the core of American democracy," Lewis said. "Their significance to all Americans is much bigger, much larger and much more profound than partisan politics."
McCain and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said the economy in the region is beginning to turn around, that it remains desperately poor, which is why McCain chose it for his "It's Time for Action" tour.
Charges of indifference
The Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, McCain is still trying to fend off criticism that he has been indifferent to the housing crisis and the market upheaval it spawned. Last month, he said he opposed aggressive government intervention. Since then, however, he has proposed aid for struggling homeowners, a summer holiday from federal gas taxes and other measures.
"I'm not going to tell anybody about how government can make their choices for them, but how we can help grow our economy so that people have better choices to make for themselves," he said.
From Selma, McCain went to the remote Alabama town of Gee's Bend, visiting a quilt-making collective run by generations of black women known for their intricate and bold designs. He bought three of the larger quilts, which carried price tags of up to $2,500.
They greeted him with choruses of "Do Lord" and other gospel hymns, holding his hands and hugging him, and they rode with him across the Alabama River to Camden on a ferry that began service in 2006, 44 years after county leaders shut down the ferry to keep black residents from crossing to the county seat to push for civil rights.
McCain left them briefly to climb into the captain's chair and guide the ferry along the river.
"I thank the Lord for McCain coming here," said quilter Mary Lee Bendolph. But she symbolized the challenge facing McCain: Bendolph admitted she likes Obama best.
"He come to me just like Martin Luther King," Bendolph said, "not just for one race, but all the races."