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Selma Showdown: Obama, Clinton Converge On Activists


SELMA, Alabama - There was no clear-cut first-place finisher in today's battle of the bands here on Martin Luther King Street, where Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spoke at the same time in churches just a block apart.

But it was one of those occasions where you did have to be present to win -- and both candidates did, too, just by showing up.

The front runners for the Democratic nomination came to commemorate the voting rights march on Bloody Sunday 42 years ago, when non-violent demonstrators were attacked by police. They also came to compete for the African American vote in the '08 presidential election.

Many in the crowd seemed to want to give them equal credit for the gesture. In recent weeks, Obama has been gaining ground with black voters.

"Can they both be president? They are both beautiful people," said Ethel Ree Waite, who at 64 still marvels that she no longer has to be afraid to be black in the state she was born in. "I was one of the students that got a cattle prod on Turnaround Tuesday," she said at the community unity breakfast at George Wallace Community College, where Obama began his day.

Representative Artur Davis, the local congressman, introduced his friend and fellow Harvard Law grad. "All the times you've told your kids they could grow up to be anything they wanted to be, you know you've been lying to them," he said. "But I know a man who will make you into a truth-teller when you tell your grandchildren that."

He said the only knock against his friend was, "he doesn't have longevity, and longevity is not a bad thing." But in an obvious poke at Hillary Clinton, he added: "Longevity can make you calculate your vote on a war. Longevity can make you think change is an incremental thing."

Obama did not let the fact his father grew up in Kenya deny him a claim on the American civil rights movement. His father was herding goats for a living and was only invited to come to the U.S. to study because of the awareness stirred in Selma, he said.

"And my mother, a white woman in Kansas, some people have noted now that her great-great-great-great-grandfather had slaves, as if that was some surprise."

But because of the civil rights movement, she didn't let race keep her from falling in love with Barack Obama, Sr. "And it's fair to say that if it hadn't been for Selma, I wouldn't be here. I am the offspring of the move-ment," he shouted, in the cadence of call and response.

Obama spoke again later at the historic Brown Chapel AME, where the march from Selma to Montgomery began. Outside the church, it was like a street fair, with vendors selling burgers and rib sandwiches, and residents from the surrounding George Washington Carver homes sitting in lawn chairs in the sun, listening to the preaching from inside the church over loudspeakers, and singing along with the choir. Some were holding signs that said, "Sweet Home Obama."

A woman who grew up in the public housing right on the block and is a supervisor at a state health lab now said Obama had won her over. "He's just himself, and we need that. All races like him," said the woman, Angelica Webb.

Obama got his biggest cheer when he spoke about personal responsibility: "Don't let them tell you money don't make a difference; there's a reason that rich people got a lot of stuff in their schools. But you've still got to turn off the T.V. when your kids get home from school, and that if you conjugate a verb or read a book you're somehow acting white? We've got to get over that.

"And if Cousin Pookie would vote, and Uncle Jethro would turn off ESPN, we might have a different kind of politics. And don't tell me it doesn't have something to do with too many daddies not acting like daddies."

A 27-year-old legal secretary named Nicole Reeves, who grew up here in Selma, said she was awed. "Many times, a lot of the white people here are stuck in the antebellum mentality and the black people are stuck in what was done to us 40 years ago," she said. "But he is the epitome of the American dream, and this is a turning point for this community. It struck me how he said we have to be accountable, and to me, he's shown he can pull all the people together."

And Hillary? "I like her, but she's not what we need."

Down the block, at the First Baptist Church where Clinton spoke, a smaller group of fans, many of them wearing union hats and t-shirts, was waiting.

Arthurene Davis, who drove in from Atlanta, said, "I love Hillary and having her husband be her backbone, there would be more power there."

Later, the two candidates exchanged mild compliments in remarks on the steps of the Brown Chapel. "I am fully aware that I, too, stand on the shoulders of those who marched here," Clinton told the crowd. "We have an America to reclaim. Thank you and God bless you."

Then Obama and Clinton walked together across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where both seemed eclipsed by President Bill Clinton, who held Hillary's arm and waved to the screaming crowd. "People came to see Bill. I'm sorry, but they did. I know I did," said Charlie Thomas, who lived through Bloody Sunday as a little girl and hadn't been back to her hometown in 40 years, until today.

"I was so scared that day, but to come today to see this, the fear has turned to happiness and joy," she said, patting her chest and shaking her head to hold back tears. "Martin Luther King would be overjoyed to know we can walk freely here now" - and be free to vote for a woman over a black man for president, as she said she plans to do.

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