Clinton: King Paved Way for Her, Obama to Run

Hillary Clinton addressed the growing tension between her and presidential rival Barack Obama on Monday, telling a gathering in New York honoring Martin Luther King that the civil rights visionary made it possible for both a woman and a black man to run for president.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the Democratic presidential contest, the issues of race and civil rights are surfacing in unexpected ways. In a moment, we'll hear what three African-American political insiders in South Carolina have to say about this turn the campaign has taken.

BLOCK: One week ago, Senator Hillary Clinton made a comment suggesting that Martin Luther King's civil rights dream was fulfilled only because President Lyndon Johnson backed civil rights legislation. Well, today, Clinton was at a union event in New York City to honor the late civil rights leader. Tomorrow is King's birthday. She spoke about Dr. King's impact on the 2008 campaign.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): How many of us ever could have dreamed that we would see the day when a woman and an African-American are running for the presidency of the United States of America?

SIEGEL: NPR's David Greene has been following this story and was with Senator Clinton today. And David, I guess this union event took on a new level of importance for Senator Clinton?

DAVID GREENE: It certainly did, Robert. You know, it was really a venue for Hillary Clinton to talk about how important Martin Luther King is to the country in her eyes. And this was an event to basically rally the troops and support security officers, private security officers in New York City, and that the union was trying to use the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and when he stood in 1968 with the sanitation workers in Memphis, an effort that, of course, ended in his assassination. And so, Hillary Clinton spoke about what Martin Luther King did for the union back in 1968. Here's a bit of what she had to say.

Sen. CLINTON: The cause for justice has always come from people of faith and people of labor. Here in this great hall today, you understand, as Dr. King did, that your cause was his cause.

GREENE: So Robert, if there were some doubts, and Hillary Clinton said the whole time that her comments about Martin Luther King have been misinterpreted and that she always appreciated his work, but if there were any doubts, she wanted to really drive the message home today, that she sees what Martin Luther King did as very, very important to American workers and Americans in general.

SIEGEL: Well, how did people react to her today?

GREENE: It was a warm reception. You know, there was gospel music playing and there were some pastors who were speaking. It felt like church on a Sunday morning. She came in - she got warm applause. I would say about half or a little less than half of the crowd of a few hundred stood up and gave her a standing ovation. At the end, I spoke to a few people outside. They're mixed on whether they're going to vote for her, but a warm reception. Barack Obama, when someone mentioned his name and said he might be the first African-American president, he got a warm reception as well.

SIEGEL: Now, we should remind our listeners that the comment that Senator Clinton made about Dr. King, that wasn't the only thing said by the Clinton campaign that angered some blacks.

GREENE: That's right. There have been a number of comments, one of them actually from former President Bill Clinton, who spoke about Obama's campaign as a fairy tale. Now, that bothered a lot of African-American leaders who said that's a comment he never should have made. Bill Clinton, in the days since then, has really been working hard to try to explain what he meant. He said he was only referring to the way that Barack Obama talks about his votes on the Iraq War, which Bill Clinton thinks is not entirely accurate. But certainly, once that comment was out there, a lot of concerns from the African-American community.

SIEGEL: This is an interesting dispute because Bill Clinton was known, lovingly in some quarters, as the first black president. What's at stake here?

GREENE: A lot, Robert. I mean, it's incredible where we are today if you think about how popular Bill Clinton was with the African-American community. I don't think that Bill Clinton ever thought that he would be, at this moment, having to go out and defend his record and his commitment to African-Americans and, and his wife's record. This was not what Hillary Clinton wanted to be talking about as she moves into a moment when she's trying to talk about the importance of African-Americans and what - the work that she's done for them.

SIEGEL: Well, David, let's talk about Barack Obama. Is it in his interest, do you think, to keep all this in the news?

GREENE: You know, Barack Obama has always treaded very carefully with the issue of race. He didn't want to make his campaign about race. He doesn't bring up the fact that he would be the first African-American president that often. And the campaign has been careful not to have Obama out there in campaign speeches talking about Hillary Clinton and her comments. But certainly, I think both campaigns, in a moment with South Carolina, a very important state, and at a moment when they're in a tight race, I think, are looking at this and trying to decide what to do very, very carefully.

SIEGEL: Hmm. Okay. Thank you, David.

GREENE: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Greene.

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South Carolina Voters React to Skirmish over Race

Political Junkie

There are signs that an ugly spat over race between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama might be calming down.

The two camps have been embroiled in a back-and-forth after Clinton tried to clarify her remarks about the role the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. played in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. The former first lady was quoted as saying King's dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark legislation. Obama took issue with the remark.

Both campaigns, however, seem eager to soften the rhetoric.

South Carolina's Democratic primary is nearly two weeks away, and more than half of the electorate is expected to be African American.

Mac's on Main is a popular soul food restaurant in South Carolina's capital, Columbia. It is run by chef and City Councilman Barry Walker. The walls are decorated with signed, framed photos of blues greats like B.B. King and laminated maps of his council district. Walker is undecided but said he is unhappy with the direction the Clinton campaign has taken.

"I think they are going for broke now, going for whatever they can do," he said.

Referring to an incident on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in which Clinton became teary-eyed while speaking to voters, Walker said, "crying isn't going to help here."

"She can cry all she wants, (but) black people have been crying for years. What's going to help here is addressing the issues that are affecting us," he said.

Joseph Free of Columbia, who was dining at the restaurant, agreed.

"They (are) … getting into the part I was hoping wouldn't happen … (turning) the thing into a race problem," he said.

Free's comments reflect a kind of collective disappointment in the black community, according to Todd Shaw, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.

"I think that African-American voters are wise in the sense that they know there is more to come. That is the fear," he said.

Shaw said there is particular frustration at the Clinton camp's tactic of having other blacks, such as BET founder Bob Johnson, go after Obama. They are especially disappointed in the role former President Bill Clinton is playing.

Those sentiments were echoed across town at the historically black Benedict College where Kathryn Jones of Columbia, and Brenda Walker of Irmo, work. The women were split about what to make of Bill Clinton's critical comments of Obama.

"I don't hold it against him," Walker said.

Jones said she wasn't planning to vote for Hillary Clinton anyway, but "as a former president, I had high regards for (Bill Clinton) and he lost some points from me."

Hillary Clinton has her first chance to repair relations with the black community Tuesday, when she will join Obama, as well as John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich in a debate in Las Vegas.

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