Obama, Clinton bring their stories to Selma

Times Staff Writers

Presidential candidate Barack Obama staked his claim to the African American experience Sunday, despite a personal background far from the bloodshed that was typified in this Deep South city during the struggle for civil rights.

Yes, the senator said, his grandfather was a Kenyan, but a racist system similar to America’s limited him to work as a cook for whites. Yes, Obama said, his mother was a white woman from Kansas. But she learned colorblindness from the likes of Selma’s 1965 freedom marchers, marrying the son of that cook in Hawaii.

All of that, Obama said, made him “the offspring of the movement” -- and it made his first visit to Selma a sort of homecoming.


“Don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama,” the Illinois Democrat said.

What it was not, however, was a coronation.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, was also here to celebrate the anniversary of the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing, in which black protesters were beaten by white state troopers on March 7, 1965.

Clinton brought her husband, the former president, a beloved figure among many black voters who was inducted into the hall of fame of the National Voting Rights Museum. She too claimed to be a beneficiary of the civil rights era -- because it eventually led to advances for women.

To the veteran activists and civil rights sympathizers who gathered for the celebration, it was obvious that they were witnessing a different kind of struggle in Selma -- a struggle for the loyalty of African Americans, who in four decades had risen from a harassed and marginalized voting bloc to a key Democratic constituency.

It was the attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and a subsequent march to Montgomery led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that prompted Congress to pass the landmark Voting Rights Act, which suspended the use of literacy tests, provided for federal voting examiners and led to the abolishment of poll taxes.

Both Obama and the Clintons are highly regarded here, and for many people, picking a favorite proved excruciating.

“This is very hard,” said retired Air Force Maj. Carrie Barnes, 71, an African American who grew up in Selma. “It’s kind of like choosing between Mom and Dad.”

Though they have months to pick a candidate, on Sunday they had to pick a church. Obama and Clinton gave speeches simultaneously at historic black congregations separated by two blocks.

At Brown Chapel AME Church, Obama shared the stage with the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was beaten during the 1965 bridge crossing.

Much of Obama’s speech dealt with doubts raised by the Rev. Al Sharpton and others that the candidate’s unusual background was alien to black Americans descended from slaves.

The British in Africa, he said, called his grandfather “a houseboy. They wouldn’t call him by his last name. Sound familiar?”

It was the civil rights protests in the American South, Obama said, that “sent a shout across oceans so that my grandfather began to imagine something different for his son. His son, who grew up herding goats in a small village in Africa, could suddenly set his sights a little higher and believe that maybe a black man in this world had a chance.”

Obama said his father came to the United States as part of a program established by President Kennedy to help win “hearts and minds” in the face of negative publicity caused by civil rights protests. He mentioned the recent revelation that one of his mother’s ancestors owned slaves. At a prayer breakfast, he stated, to great applause, “That’s no surprise in America!”

His delivery, which started out lawyerly and dry in the morning, had by the afternoon flexed to fit the more traditional cadences of a black preacher. He repeated his calls for universal healthcare and increased education funding, and for personal responsibility among African Americans.

In particular, he said, parents need to take control of their children’s education. “I don’t know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was something white,” he said. “We’ve got to get over that mentality.”

At First Baptist Church, the senator from New York was pouring herself into the traditional Baptist service with gusto -- nodding her head, hollering “Amen,” slapping her hand on her thigh and swaying from side to side. Her husband, widely perceived as a masterful orator in black churches, was not present.

The congregation received her warmly, clapping and applauding as she spoke of going to Chicago with her youth minister to hear King deliver his “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” sermon. She argued that the civil rights movement was not over. Inequality, she said, exists in education, healthcare and the economy. She received a standing ovation when she took up the plight of Hurricane Katrina victims.

The Voting Rights Act, she said, “is giving Sen. Obama the chance to run for president. And by its logic and spirit, it is giving the same chance to Gov. Bill Richardson, an Hispanic, and, yes, it is giving me that chance too.

“Before Selma and the Voting Rights Act put equality front and center, it was illegal under Alabama law for women to serve as jurors,” she said. “I know where my chance came from, and I am grateful to all of you who gave it to me.”

Later, the candidates spoke to a crowd outside. Both said they were happy to have the other along. As the crowd gathered to march across the bridge, former President Clinton showed up, sending a crushing pool of well-wishers his way. They then walked over the bridge, with the Clintons on one side of Lewis and Obama on the other, singing “We Shall Overcome.”

The former president was inducted into the museum’s hall of fame at the end of the bridge, affecting modesty as he stood by Obama and his wife.

“All the good speaking has been done by Hillary and Sen. Obama already,” he said. “I’m just sort of bringing up the rear.”

The former president’s presence at the event was announced late in the week, and many observers figured it was a sign that the Clintons were going to fight hard to retain the inroads they had made among black Americans.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll Wednesday showed Clinton ahead of Obama. But it also showed that her lead was slipping as Obama picked up support among blacks.

“Why do you think Bill Clinton came down here?” chuckled Thomas Muhammad, a board member at the Voting Rights Museum. “Because Obama’s doing so well with these crowds that she had to bring him. She had to bring her ‘A’ game.”

Obama has his own obstacles to overcome with black voters. Some said they didn’t know much about him. Others in the Selma crowd said they were trying to heed King’s advice and make a decision on character, not skin color -- especially given their fondness for the Clintons.

People like Carl Galmon were worried that Obama could not win in a general election. The nation, they argued, was not ready to elect a black man.

“What are the chances Obama has of winning? Let’s be practical about that,” said Galmon, 66, a former New Orleans resident who moved to Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina. “With six years of George W. Bush in the White House, we can’t afford to play with our future.”

Many of the black voters who wondered about Obama’s chances came from Selma or other pockets of the South where, decades after integration, obvious divisions remain.

Selma, a city of about 19,000, is 75% black and 25% white. The school system is more than 95% black. But the local country club has no black members.

At the eastern end of the Pettus Bridge, a billboard thanks visitors for supporting local Civil War tourist spots. It features a large Confederate battle flag and a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest -- a Confederate general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Gloria Rembert, a veteran of civil rights protests in Sumter, S.C., said that a dark-skinned president would be positive for America. But it wouldn’t mean the nation was healed.

“It would be a sign” that things are improving, she said. “Not the sign.”