S.C. Activists Weigh In on Obama-Clinton Race Rift The Marvelettes, three powerful political insiders in Orangeburg, S.C. — Labrena Aiken-Furtick, Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Baraka Cheeseboro — talk with Michele Norris about negative reaction to the injection of race into Democratic primary politics.
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S.C. Activists Weigh In on Obama-Clinton Race Rift

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S.C. Activists Weigh In on Obama-Clinton Race Rift

S.C. Activists Weigh In on Obama-Clinton Race Rift

S.C. Activists Weigh In on Obama-Clinton Race Rift

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The Marvelettes, three powerful political insiders in Orangeburg, S.C. — Labrena Aiken-Furtick, Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Baraka Cheeseboro — talk with Michele Norris about negative reaction to the injection of race into Democratic primary politics.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Well, in South Carolina, black radio stations, Afrocentric blogs and church sermons have been focused on racial matters. On top of Senator Clinton's comments about Martin Luther King and former President Clinton's fairy tale remark, there was also this remark yesterday from Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, at a Clinton rally.

Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Founder, Black Entertainment Television): As an African-American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood, that I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book.

BLOCK: Some heard a swipe at Obama's admitted drug use years ago. Johnson says he was talking about Obama's work as a community organizer. Our co-host, Michele Norris, is in Orangeburg, South Carolina, trying to understand how this war of words is playing there. Michele spoke with three high-profile black women: Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a state representative who is uncommitted in the presidential race; Labrena Aiken-Furtick and Baraka Cheeseboro are activists and Obama supporters. They are known as The Marvelettes because of their close bond and their clout in South Carolina politics.

MICHELE NORRIS: What has changed in the past 10 days with this discussion about race and gender politics?

Ms. LABRENA AIKEN-FURTICK (Political Activist, The Marvelettes): This is Labrena. A lot has changed. It's red hot and rolling now. Well, you think of the Clintons because they made the comment about Senator Obama, and for those that love Senator Obama and also had respect for the Clintons because the Clintons pretty much have had a blank check with the African-American community for a long time, for them to make that comment was hurtful. And for those that still respect the Clintons, feel like the spin has gotten out of control and that much more has been made of it than it should be.

NORRIS: Gilda, is it possible that much more has been made of this, that perhaps the Obama camp saw an opportunity here?

Ms. GILDA COBB-HUNTER (Political Activist, The Marvelettes): Well, I think it's important to note that there is probably blame to go around on both sides. Let me go back to your question and share with you from my perspective. The change there, as far as South Carolina is concerned, is that there were a number of people here, particularly those supporting Senator Clinton, who had used the argument in the African-American community that a vote for Barack Obama was a wasted vote because white folk would not vote for him. What Iowa and New Hampshire clearly demonstrated is that that is not the case. So, it certainly was not the case in those two instances.

NORRIS: Is it possible that Mr. and Mrs. Clinton just stepped through a racial minefield and just didn't understand that where they were stepping and how their comments would resonate in the black community? Is it possible that this wasn't nefarious or pejorative, but something that was a bit more benign? Baraka?

Ms. BARAKA CHEESEBORO (Political Activist, The Marvelettes): Possible - very possible. However, it doesn't, you just have to look at the history on it and where people are. And a few of the folks that I've spoken with since the comments - they're like, well, I'm not coming out. I'm not going to go out. It's not worth coming out. If they're going to do this, why should I waste my vote?

NORRIS: So, either candidate, they're not coming out?

Ms. CHEESEBORO: Yeah. Yeah, people, and I just (unintelligible) this weekend. They're saying, I'm not getting in the mess. And see, we have to change that because so many people died and for it - for us to have that right to vote, and for you to come out and not be conscious of what you're doing, and then you're going to lead a country, there are some things you really need to think about before you open your mouth.

NORRIS: Now, here in South Carolina, this is the first time that the candidates will have to work hard to win the hearts and minds, support from a large African-American electorate. And I'm told that the key voting block, the swing voters in this upcoming Democratic primary, are African-American women, women just like yourselves. And so many of those women - estimates range from 25 to 40 percent - are still undecided. Why are so many people still undecided this close to the primary? Baraka?

Ms. CHEESEBORO: I think part of it has to do with gender. You have a lot of African-American women, especially, that says, okay, well, the Clintons has been - it goes back to that experience - the Clintons have been around, they know we had jobs when Clinton was in the office, but when he left, the jobs went. So, where are the jobs that was, that were created for you as a woman to take care of your household? The other thing, when it comes to African-Americans, it's still the same hype. Bill Clinton was the black - first black president, that's the same hype. But on the other hand, Barack Obama has said one key thing that I think is really working with younger women, 'cause you have a lot of women, a little old, a little more mature women, that are, you know, they are stuck in their ways. Okay, we're going to go with the Clintons because we know them, okay? The thing with Barack Obama, I think, is the one word, change. So I think everybody's looking for a change, especially women.

Ms. COBB-HUNTER: Well, this is Gilda. And I do want to very quickly comment on this issue about the conflict that women of color, specifically African-American women, are having. And a part of it is because you have to ask yourself the question, am I black or am I female, are my problems because I'm black, or are my problems because I'm female? And it's kind of like the chicken and the egg. And women are very conflicted because we, black women, that is, are having to make a choice. We're being forced to choose whether gender or race is more important. Most of the problems I have are not because I'm a woman, it's because I am of color. And there are a number of women of color, African-American, who have said it gets down to what legacy I want to leave for my children. How do I say to my son or daughter, that back in 2008, in the primary in South Carolina, where people of color had an opportunity to advance the campaign of a man of color, how do I say to my son or daughter, I chose someone other than somebody who looks like me? We are focusing in now on the importance of January 26th, and I believe that women are deciding based on what the issues are and what's important to them and what they want their children to see, and race and gender have become secondary, in my opinion, in spite of what the media wants us to believe.

NORRIS: Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Baraka Cheeseboro, Labrena Aiken-Furtick, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. COBB-HUNTER: Thank you for having us.

Ms. CHEESEBORO: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's our co-host, Michele Norris, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. There's a guide to what's at stake for the candidates in South Carolina and other upcoming presidential contests at npr.org.

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South Carolina Voters React to Skirmish over Race

South Carolina Voters React to Skirmish over Race

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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.