SELMA, Alabama: US Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama took to separate church pulpits here Sunday, using a civil rights commemoration to battle for support among the country’s crucial black electorate.
Speaking at churches less than a block apart, Clinton and Obama both credited the seminal Selma, Alabama march against racial segregation 42 years ago with opening the door to their own political careers, as they vie for the Democratic nomination next year.
“I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me,” said Obama, who hopes to become the nation’s first black president.
For her part, Clinton, explaining that the movement opened doors to women in many areas as well, said: “I know where my chance came from, and I am grateful to all of you, who gave it to me.”
They then laid aside the already-growing enmity between their campaigns, and -- together with Hillary’s husband, former president Bill Clinton -- led thousands of people in a symbolic march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state troops and police in 1965 brutally beat hundreds of demonstrators marching for voting rights for disenfranchised blacks.
With the brutality, shown nationwide on television, turning into a national scandal, later that year president Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act to ensure blacks were no longer prevented from voting.
Obama won standing ovations as he paid homage in his church speech to the “giants” who led the civil rights movement.
The son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, he sought to answer skeptics who doubt that he understands the experience of African-Americans.
He credited the civil rights struggle with creating the circumstances which allowed his parents to flout racist conventions in their mixed-race marriage.
“Not only is my career the result of the work of the men and women who we honor here today, my very existence might not have been possible had it not been for some of the folks here today,” he said to an overflow audience including major figures from the civil rights era.
“So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama ... I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Obama.
He described discrimination his Kenyan grandfather faced under British colonial rule, when he was called a “houseboy” even as an elderly man working as a cook.
But he said the fight for equal rights in the United States sent “a shout across the oceans so that my grandfather began to imagine something different for his son.”
Clinton, who seeks to become the first US female president, earned a similarly enthusiastic reception at the First Baptist Church nearby, where she delivered a rousing speech praising Martin Luther King, the black leader who organized the 1965 protest.
“Dr. King said quality for African-Americans would also free white Americans of the staining legacy of slavery. And so it has.”
She then took spirited aim at the current administration of Republican President George W. Bush.
“But we’ve got to stay awake. We’ve got to stay awake, because we have a march to finish. ... How can we rest while poverty and inequality continue to rise?”
“How do we refuse to march when we have our young men and women in uniform in harm’s way, and whether they come back, their government does not take care of them the way they deserve?”
“And how do we say that everything is fine, Bloody Sunday is for the history books, when over 96,000 of our citizens, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, are still living in trailers and mobile homes, which is a national disgrace to everything we stand for in America?”
While the two candidates were ostensibly commemorating the Selma march, the event was underscored by their push for the support of African-Americans in the 2008 contest.
The most recent polls show that Clinton’s once-broad lead over Obama among Democratic voters slipping, and Obama surging ahead of the former first lady among blacks for the first time.
The ABC/Washington Post poll released Friday showed Clinton with 36 percent support among Democrats against 24 percent for Obama. The poll had Obama now leading Clinton 44 percent to 33 percent among African-Americans -- who had strongly supported Bill Clinton during his 1990s presidency.