Former President Bill Clinton came to the Bronx last week to address a crowd of nearly 1,200 African-Americans, and given the warm welcome he received, it was hard to recall the strain that had existed two years ago between African-Americans and the man once called America's "first black president."
Last night in a packed auditorium in the Co-op City section of the Bronx, in a part of town that doesn't often get presidential visitors, people eagerly awaited his arrival. The former president was the keynote speaker for the neighborhood's 11th annual Black History Month celebration.
"Now we have two black presidents," declared Josephine Collins, 81, who described this year's celebration as extra special because of who was coming to dinner.
A vibrantly dressed Irish dance troupe made up of 36 black and Hispanic students performed their own brand of Keltic dance for the former president. Inadvertently, they also served as his decoy to make his entrance into the auditorium a subtler one.
He was finally in the house. For nearly 40 minutes he spoke about the need for community engagement and apologized for the frustratingly slow pace of politics in Washington, even in the age of Obama. "Sometimes it takes us a long time to get things right," he admitted. "But as Martin Luther King said, the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice."
Clinton's speech invoked emotion and pride for Co-op City residents, like Mary McKinney, who was one of the local African-American leaders honored last night for her work in the community. She said Clinton's presence there made her feel like the Bronx was finally getting some much-deserved attention.
"A lot of people are misled about the Bronx," McKinney said. "They think we don't want quality things. We're glad someone is finally listening to us."
The Black History Month celebration was organized by U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, who invited Clinton to the gathering. The event usually draws about 400 constituents, Crowley said, but this year the crowd was nearly three times that.
This year's theme focused on celebrating community service, and "by providence, he's here," Crowley said.
The former president was a fitting guest. He is the United Nations' special envoy to Haiti, and made his second trip to the Caribbean island just last week, where he is helping coordinate relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake that claimed more than 200,000 lives.
As Clinton spoke about his work in Haiti and other countries around the world, his message to people in Co-op City was: "No matter how bad it is, someone has it worse." But in the same vein, he also urged residents to take pride in the good things in their own community.
"This is a special place you live," Clinton said. "It has a character. It has a personality. It has a life, and I don't want you to give up on it, and I don't want you to give up on your country."
The speech was visibly moving to many in the audience who couldn't stop smiling, the room completely silent for the entire length of his speech.
"Lord, we thank you for William Jefferson Clinton," said Dr. Robert A. Smith, Jr., pastor at the Church of the Savior, who led the benediction.
But after the speech, some community leaders reflected on Clinton's relationship to the African-American community in the post-2008 election era -- one that has its first truly "black president."
"People see him as the forerunner for Obama," said the Rev. Sheldon Williams of the Co-op City Baptist church, who led the invocation at last night's event. "Because of him it was possible for Obama to become president because of the way he treated African-American people."
Smith believes that Clinton's connection to the African-American community did reach a low point during the 2008 election when he made some controversial racial remarks, but said it's all in the past.
"We are a forgiving people," Smith said. "The visceral response of the community is that he is one of us. His life's work is always in the midst of people of color."
None of this was on 65-year-old Vivian Wescott's mind, though. She has long been enamored with Clinton and listened intently to every word of his speech. "It was wonderful, " she said. "Such a stimulating force for a community trying to do its best.
"He just brought a lot of good vibes."
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