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Clinton, Obama Campaigns Collide in Alabama

March 5, 2007 at 5:50 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Forty-two years ago this week, Selma, Alabama, was the site of bloody Sunday, one of the most violent confrontations of the American civil rights movement.

But with an already heated campaign underway for the ’08 Democratic presidential nomination, involving two leading candidates who are fighting hard for the black vote, this year’s commemoration was as notable for its politics as its history.

At the site where, on March 7, 1965, 600 voting rights marchers — most of them black — were attacked by police, using billy clubs and tear gas, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton came to share the spotlight.

Before both walked in the memorial march, Clinton and Obama spoke before big audiences at separate churches just three blocks apart. Obama appeared at the Brown Chapel AME Church and injected some personal history, how his white mother and black father came together, influenced by the civil rights movement.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: There’s something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. And so they got together and Barack Obama, Jr., was born.

So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama. I’m here because somebody marched for our freedom. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Clinton spoke at the First Baptist Church.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: We must never forget the blows they took. Let’s never forget the dogs, and the horses, and the hoses that were turned on them, driving them back, treating them not as human beings, but also don’t forget about the dignity with which they bore it all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Honoring bloody Sunday has become an annual tradition for many civil rights leaders and African-American politicians. Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who, 42 years ago, was beaten and arrested during the original march, praised the appearances by both candidates.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), Georgia: To see these two candidates there will help to remind people of the distance we have come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But both Clinton and Obama told their audiences, filled with black religious and political leaders, that there was much more work to be done.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: …that until we’ve got absolute equality in this country, in terms of people being treated on the basis of their color or their gender, that that is something that we’ve got to continue to work on.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Yes, that long march to freedom that began here has carried us a mighty long way, but we all know we have to finish the march.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alabama Congressman Artur Davis — who has endorsed Obama’s candidacy — acknowledged that Senator Clinton was smart to come to Selma.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS (D), Alabama: I think that Senator Clinton felt that there was no better place than this stage to make a statement about her seriousness in contesting the black vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adding to the electricity of the day was the presence of Senator Clinton’s husband, the former president, who was inducted into the Voting Rights Hall of Fame.

At one point during the day’s ceremonies, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama hugged, a rare moment of unity in an already tense competition.

Making the decision to march

Jeff Zeleny
New York Times
[The appearance of Sen. Clinton and the former president] was definitely a sign by the Clinton campaign that they did not want Senator Obama to have this much exposure himself in Selma on a very big day.

To tell us more about yesterday's events, we're joined by Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times. He was in Selma covering the two candidates.

Jeff, there was some interesting background here, in terms of the timing, when these campaigns decided to go. Talk about that first.

JEFF ZELENY, New York Times: Senator Barack Obama accepted this invitation several weeks ago, perhaps almost a month ago. And he was planning to have this stage to himself yesterday in Selma.

Well, about a week ago, Senator Clinton decided that she was going to be speaking, as well, as some of her supporters invited her to come. And then a couple days before, just on Thursday, Bill Clinton announced that he was coming.

So it was definitely a sign by the Clinton campaign that they did not want Senator Obama to have this much exposure himself in Selma on a very big day.

But I talked to Congressman Davis. And he said, you know, the timing speaks for itself, but it is what it is. There was plenty of room in the churches for both of them.

Comparing the speeches

Sen. Obama Speaking at Brown Chapel

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it, as you say, speaks to some concern that the Clintons didn't want to be seen as ceding the ground and the black vote. What were your impressions? You were there all day long.

JEFF ZELENY: Senator Obama delivered his speech from the Brown Chapel, the very place where the march began some 42 years ago. And it was striking just to listen to him talk about the Voting Rights Act. He said he would not be there if it was not for that.

Well, almost at the same time, three blocks away, Senator Clinton was making a similar argument. She said she would not be running for president and Senator Obama would not be running for president if it was not for the Voting Rights Act.

So both candidates were really trying to sort of walk under the umbrella of that, including themselves as they invoked very personal stories.

Senator Obama, of course, grew up almost as far as you could get in America from the South. He grew up in Hawaii. He was 3 years old at the time of this, but he worked very hard to try and connect himself to the civil rights movement.

He said his parents would never have met if it was not for what happened in Selma. Of course, his map was a little bit off, because he was already born when the time of Selma came. But I asked him afterward, and he said means the whole civil rights movement.

At the same time, Senator Clinton tried to use, you know, some very personal anecdotes from her childhood and her time in Little Rock, as well. So it was a day of very personal stories about the past and the future.

Crowd reaction to candidates

Jeff Zeleny
New York Times
[I]n the afternoon, when Bill Clinton came walking through this public housing project on to Martin Luther King Street, you know, that's when people really sort of said, you know, here he is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how did the crowds react to them? Did you see a difference in the way they were received?

JEFF ZELENY: The crowds reacted, I think, to both of them quite well. I was inside the church when Senator Obama was speaking. And there were hundreds and hundreds of people outside the church, standing in the sun, just listening to every word they could on loud speakers.

And he was really -- the crowd was or the congregation, rather, was on its feet throughout much of his 30-minute address. I'm told that the response was not quite as wild or as emotional when Senator Clinton spoke, but she was received very well, as well.

But in the afternoon, when Bill Clinton came walking through this public housing project on to Martin Luther King Street, you know, that's when people really sort of said, you know, here he is. And he was hugging people.

I thought it was striking. I saw one moment he was hugging a woman who had an Obama pin on her lapel, and there was Bill Clinton. So it sort of underscored, you know, what's going to be happening here in the next 10 months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we saw him hugging Obama himself. We haven't seen a lot -- no concern on the part of the Clinton camp that the former president may overshadow her?

JEFF ZELENY: He did not come out until very late in the day. It was after Senator Clinton had already finished her speech. In fact, she spoke a couple times. She met privately with some black leaders in Montgomery.

So he was there and sort of at the very end of the day. And, you know, at that point, they were really looking for sort of a good photograph of all three of them together.

Impact on the rest of the field

Sen. Clinton Speaking in Selma

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the scheme of the campaign -- it's early, we're just at the beginning of March 2007 -- what's the significance of a day like yesterday?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, the significance of this is, in the whole scheme of the Democratic primary campaign, Alabama is one of the states that's trying to move up its primary. And it may be as early as February 2nd next year. And if 60 percent of the Alabama Democratic primary voters are black voters, that could be very important to whoever.

So South Carolina is probably going to be number four, after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, and then Alabama could come right after that. So it is very important, both symbolically and practically, for one of the candidates, as they try and, you know, work through the nominating process early next year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in the polls, there was -- you know, we're trying not to pay too much attention to these polls because it is early -- some of the polls are showing Obama making some headway among African-American voters. Is that creating concern, not only in the Clinton campaign, but what about John Edwards? What about the other Democrats who are seeking?

JEFF ZELENY: It's definitely creating some concern, certainly in the Clinton campaign, and also the John Edwards campaign. Look, a month after Senator Obama formally declared his candidacy, one poll showed that his approval had gone up almost 51 points among African-American voters. Who knows if those are true at this point? As you said, it's very early.

But if you just talk to the people in the crowd, if you look at the mothers and fathers who bring their young children to watch Senator Obama speak, something is happening here. And they definitely -- if they view him as a viable candidate, I mean, that's the whole thing. I mean, it's so early, but if he's a front-running candidate, he looks like he can win, he will certainly get a lot of support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, you've covered a few elections. Does this feel early when you're out there, covering it and talking to people?

JEFF ZELENY: The intensity feels early. I mean, usually at this point in the campaign these candidates are out there almost on their own, without the entourages and things, so the intensity is certainly much greater than it was three years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, thank you very much.

JEFF ZELENY: Thank you.