Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama will speak this weekend in Selma, Ala., on the anniversary of a bloody civil rights march.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
This weekend, civil rights leaders will commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday — the day in 1965 when civil rights marchers were beaten in Selma, Ala.
The speakers at the solemn occasion in Selma will include two Democratic presidential hopefuls — Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).
Obama was just 4 years old when the marchers were attacked. This weekend, he'll be speaking at the invitation of one of the men who was beaten — Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).
"John Lewis is a dear friend and a hero of mine," Obama says. "It is something that I'd always wanted to do."
At his Capitol Hill office this week, Obama spoke with Steve Inskeep about his upcoming trip to Selma and his experiences as an African American presidential candidate:
Do you try to talk in the same way to a black audience as a white audience?
I think that the themes are consistent. It think that there's a certain black idiom that it's hard not to slip into when you're talking to a black audience because of the audience response. It's the classic call and response. Anybody who's spent time in a black church knows what I mean. And so you get a little looser; it becomes a little more like jazz and a little less like a set score.
What about in questions of substance or what you emphasize [in a speech]?
Typically that doesn't change. Whatever the audience, I am typically talking about America's capacity to transform itself — our ability to change and make this a more just and equal nation — despite what look like daunting odds.
Do you feel that you have to prove yourself to black leaders or civil rights leaders?
You know, I really don't. I think it's instructive to look at how I ran my U.S. Senate campaign... I think that the African American community is more sophisticated than I think the pundits sometimes give them credit for. The notion that right now I'm not dominating the black vote in the polls makes perfect sense because I've only been on the national scene for a certain number of years. And people don't yet know what my track record is.
Will you need to dominate [the black] vote in order to win?
I will be speaking to themes that are important to that community, but I don't expect to get monolithic African American vote... I think we have some strong candidates in the field and it would be presumptuous of me to assume that people would vote for me simply because of my race.
Our correspondent, Juan Williams, recently interviewed a number of black leaders about you. One of them was Bobby Rush, the congressman who defeated you one time.
He did more than just defeat me. He spanked me.
Well, this may count as another spanking — I don't know — I'll just read you this quote. [Rush] said, referring to you:
"I'm a race politician and he's not. I don't compromise. I don't step back. I don't try to deny. I'm proud to be an African American."
What does that make you think of when you hear a quote like that?
Well, it's always hard for me to know the context of these quotes. I mean, Bobby has endorsed my race and encouraged me to get in. There's no doubt that in the history of African American politics in this country there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race-specific terms about the plight of the African American community. By virtue of my background, I am more likely to speak in universal terms.
May I read you another quote? This is from Peggy Noonan, the Republican speech writer, talking about another path-breaking politician, John F. Kennedy.
She said of Kennedy when he became president, "The good news was that the Irish Catholics had arrived. The bad news was that he was a Protestant from Harvard."
Look, identity politics in this country are always going to be complicated and African American politics in particular is weighted with extraordinary history — often painful and tragic history. And so I think my candidacy for the presidency is going to bring to the surface a whole bunch of stuff. A lot of it won't necessarily have to do with me, but will have to do with the country being in a dialogue about where we are now, how far we've come, and how far we have to go.
Do you think that your life and your experience as an African American would cause you as president to pursue any particular policy differently than if you'd been white? Would you be a different president in some way?
...There are certain instincts that I have that may be stronger because of my experiences as an African American. I don't think they're exclusive to African Americans but I think I maybe feel them more acutely. I think I would be very interested in having a civil rights division that is serious about enforcing civil rights laws. I think that when it comes to an issue like education for example, I feel great pain knowing that there are children in a lot of schools in America who are not getting anything close to the kind of education that will allow them to compete. And I think a lot of candidates, Republican and Democrat, feel concern about that. But when I know that a lot of those kids look just like my daughters, maybe it's harder for me to separate myself from their reality. Every time I see those kids, they feel like a part of me.