By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007
Bill Clinton will join Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at a commemoration of the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., on Sunday, bringing his star power and popularity among African Americans to a weekend of events that had been shaping up as a showcase for the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama.
It will be the former president's first major public appearance with his wife since she launched her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last month.
Obama (D-Ill.) announced several weeks ago that he would deliver the keynote speech at a service honoring the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, joining Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other veterans of the civil rights movement in marking the historic event. Obama has gained significantly among black voters in recent months, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, jeopardizing Clinton's early lead in the Democratic primary field.
Reluctant to give any ground to Obama even at this stage of the campaign, Clinton (N.Y.) decided early last week that she, too, would go to Selma this weekend. She arranged a simultaneous appearance at a church just steps away from the one where Obama will speak Sunday morning, and she agreed to accept a civil rights award on behalf of her husband.
Late yesterday, after organizers initially said that the former president had not committed to attend, the Clinton campaign announced that he would be making the trip after all.
The convergence of the Clintons and Obama in the small Alabama town, which became the focus of national attention during a series of police beatings and civil rights demonstrations that ultimately helped pave the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, sets the stage for an extraordinary political showdown -- and media circus.
The imminent collision of the two candidates, who cross paths in the Senate but have avoided each other on the campaign trail, offers a vivid snapshot of how important the campaigns believe black voters will be in the primaries. And the swift move by the Clintons to try to claim the spotlight at the event demonstrates that the former first lady does not intend to cede the black vote to Obama.
"I think the Clinton camp is sending a signal that they will aggressively contest Barack Obama for the African American vote," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who has endorsed Obama and whose district includes Selma. "It's a good thing the black vote will not be taken for granted and will be actively contested." Alabama, which has a large black electorate, has not locked in a primary date; it could come as early as Feb. 5, 2008, which is shaping up to be a national primary day with contests from coast to coast.
Lewis -- an icon of "Bloody Sunday," whose skull was bashed by Alabama police as he helped lead a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965 -- organizes a pilgrimage back each year, traditionally with a group of both Democratic and Republican members of Congress in attendance (though this year, few Republicans are expected to attend, in part because the event appears poised to become dominated by Democratic politics). Numerous other Democratic lawmakers are planning to join Lewis on his three-day pilgrimage, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who has close ties to the Clintons and Obama.
"I think it's gratifying to see that two of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination would want to come to Selma 42 years after Bloody Sunday, and I think it dramatizes the changes that have occurred in American politics and black politics in particular," Lewis said in an interview.
He said he has not decided whom to support in the Democratic primary. "I have been talking with Mr. Obama, and haven't talked so much to Senator Clinton, but I've talked to President Clinton, and I think right now, I'm just trying to get through the weekend and make this journey successful," Lewis said. He described the black vote in general as "up for grabs."
The main events this weekend will occur Sunday, when Obama speaks at a unity breakfast and then delivers the keynote address at Brown Chapel AME Church, the most historic church in Selma and the place where demonstrators organized for the 1965 march. Lewis plans to attend that service.
A short distance away, at precisely the same time, Clinton will speak at First Baptist Church.
Later that afternoon, Obama and Clinton are planning to participate in the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis and his fellow demonstrators were turned back by baton-wielding police in 1965. President Clinton plans to fly in that afternoon for his induction into the Hall of Fame at the National Voting Rights Museum, where his wife originally planned to represent him.
"President Clinton is deeply honored by this recognition on an issue on which he and Senator Clinton care so deeply about, and he rearranged his schedule to be there on Sunday because this was an event he felt he couldn't miss," Clinton spokesman Jay Carson said.
How the joint Clinton trip came about was a subject of some debate: The senator's advisers dismissed the suggestion that the former president is rushing in at the last minute to help his wife's standing among black voters. But they admitted that the decision was made yesterday, more than a week after Hillary Clinton made her plans to go to Selma.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said of the Selma showdown: "It's an important event. The more folks who commemorate and pay attention to it, the better."