LIANE HANSEN, host:
Today, an important anniversary in the civil rights movement is being commemorated, Bloody Sunday, when in 1965 some 600 people began a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to show support for voting rights. Six blocks into the march, they met violent resistance from state and local law enforcers. That seminal event is marked each year with a brief march.
This year some high-powered political personalities have been added. Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama along with former President Bill Clinton are in attendance.
NPR's Juan Williams joins us. So Juan, tell us more about what's happening today.
JUAN WILLIAMS: It's really fascinating. It's amazing political theater, Liane. You're going to have virtually simultaneous speeches, just a matter of a minute's difference between Senator Obama giving a speech at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, the same pulpit from which Dr. King spoke when he really set the groundwork for those violent events that took place in March of 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge over voting rights in Alabama and throughout the South.
Then just a matter of a few blocks away, Senator Hillary Clinton will be speaking at a Baptist Church and she will be making more of a political civil rights statement in her remarks. At the same time, the two of them will get together and they'll be joined by former President Clinton to march as a phalanx of public officials across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the afternoon. And then former President Clinton will be inducted into the Voting Rights Hall of Fame later today.
HANSEN: Obama announced several weeks ago that he would attend the march, but the Clintons' participation, particularly Bill Clinton's, came about pretty recently. Is there a story behind that?
WILLIAMS: There sure is, Liane. Senator Obama announced several weeks ago that he was going to go to Selma at the invitation of Congressman John Lewis. John Lewis, you should know, was actually there in 1965, and when you called it in the introduction Bloody Sunday, it has literal meaning for John Lewis, whose head was smashed in and was left bloody from his encounter with the batons of the state troopers and the mounted police.
So John Lewis invited him, he agreed to come, and then it became a real moment in terms of Obama coming into the black community as a newcomer, and here was going to be a moment which he was in the spotlight as the black candidate.
Now, last week, Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York, announced that she too planned to go to Selma and she was going to also represent her husband when he was inducted into this Voting Rights Hall of Fame.
And the clear implication here was that the Clinton campaign was worried about Barack Obama gaining momentum, especially in the black community. Clinton's aides have said that the decision to send Mrs. Clinton to Selma was made only after consideration of what was right and proper. It didn't have anything to do with politics, but I think you have to be a little bit of a newcomer to the political game to believe that one.
HANSEN: So why is it so important for these two candidates?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's interesting. If you look at the poll numbers, right now Senator Clinton leads Senator Obama about 36 to 24 for the Democratic nomination for president. But that's down, Liane, from 41 percent to 17 percent in January. There she had really a sizable lead. And you see similar numbers, a similar dynamic among African-American voters, suggesting that Senator Obama is in the midst of a terrific surge.
At the moment, Senator Obama actually leads among black voters over Senator Clinton about 44 to 33. And in January, Senator Clinton was leading him 60 to 20. So you can see that Senator Obama is really pulling on a key constituency in the Democratic primaries, black voters, and gaining momentum. And I think Senator Clinton feels that she's got to stop him in Selma today.
HANSEN: Any chance this will backfire and the candidates will be seen as exploiting the event?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, we're 10 months out from the first primary and I think that is really seen as political theater. And in the black community, I think people are taking it to mean that there is proper competition for the black vote and in a sense it's terrific that both candidates and the former president have decided to take the time to go to Selma for this anniversary.
On the other hand, I think there are people who could see it as exploitative, and of course there's a potential backlash among white voters who may be uncomfortable with this, particularly in the Southern states. No one thinks that the Democrats are going to take the red state, Alabama, come the general election. But this could lead to some fallout and even some antagonisms because of the competition overshadowing the actual event.
HANSEN: NPR's Juan Williams. Juan, thank you very much.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Liane.
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