At a S.C. Church, Black Voters Searching for Integrity

Members of a weekly Bible Study session at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C. share their political opinions ahead of the South Carolina primaries.Video by Ed O'Keefe/
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Lucille Martin clapped along with the congregation at Northminster Presbyterian Church on Sunday as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) praised the achievements of African Americans and said how proud she was of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and what his campaign means for America.

Then the 63-year-old retiree went home and saw Clinton again, on an episode of "Meet the Press" taped the same morning. This time, the senator sought to explain a comment by her husband that Obama's candidacy was "a fairy tale."

In the evening, Martin watched endless replays of Robert L. Johnson's introduction of Clinton at nearby Columbia College, where the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television made what appeared to be an unkind reference to Obama's drug use as a teenager.

By the end of the day, Martin had had enough. She found Clinton's tactics divisive, and they only served to confirm her support for Obama or maybe even former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.). "I'm looking for a candidate with integrity," she said after Northminster's midweek Bible study. "If you said it today, say it tomorrow."

A week before the Democratic primary here, racial rhetoric is on the minds of black voters -- even as the candidates have tried to move on, effectively declaring a truce at a debate in Nevada on Tuesday.

For Obama supporters, the comments have become talking points in their efforts to attract voters to what could be a historic candidacy. For Clinton backers, they are examples of words taken out of context. Undecided voters are tired of the racial talk and want the candidates to discuss ending the war in Iraq, making health care affordable, increasing funding to minority school districts and dealing with other concerns facing their community.

Bill Clinton was so beloved by African Americans that he has been dubbed the nation's first black president, and his wife has long had a close relationship with the black community. But recent polls show some of those ties fraying, as black voters have moved toward Obama. Clinton leads Obama among white voters nationally, but about 60 percent of blacks said they plan to vote for him, compared with 32 percent for Clinton, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Early last year, they ran neck and neck among black voters nationally, and in December, Clinton led among this group.

At Northminster, Martin and others welcomed Clinton. They lined up to shake her hand, snapped pictures and waited to get her to autograph their church programs.

Martin said she hadn't been bothered by an earlier statement by Clinton that Martin Luther King Jr.'s oratory needed a president to make it law. But Martin said that Johnson, who later apologized for his comments, "acted like he'd lost his mind" in making what she said was a snide comment about a youthful indiscretion by Obama, who she called "a role model for young black men."

Martin is considering Edwards, but because she doesn't think he has "a snowball's chance in Hades" of getting the nomination, she will likely vote for Obama.

No one said their decision was based on comments from the Clinton camp. "Talk is always cheap, and people are getting all pumped up over lip service," said Lonnie Randolph Jr., an optometrist who also heads the state NAACP and is not endorsing a candidate. "Let's see the record. Actions still speak louder than words."

Though her support among black voters is slipping, Clinton isn't wholly giving up on a constituency that is expected to make up as much as half of the electorate in the primary. After winning the New Hampshire primary, Clinton went to South Carolina to shore up support. Her campaign called Northminster's pastor, Rev. Richard F. Dozier Sr., to tell him the senator wished to visit his 200-member church.

He called the church board together for approval. One board member raised the issue of whether congregants might be upset with Clinton's visit or whether it would appear that the church was endorsing a white woman over a black man. "That notion was quickly shot down," Dozier said.

Racial sensitivities run deep in this state. The NAACP will hold its annual rally Monday to protest the display of the Confederate flag on the grounds of the state capitol, and community groups are suing the state for allegedly underfunding predominantly minority school districts, Dozier said. Clinton may have been in hot water with some African American politicians for her statement about King, but Dozier felt that any connection his congregants had with the front-runners could put a spotlight on the issues important to blacks.

"To me, when candidates come and meet and greet people, that is meaningful," he said. "I don't care who is running; race is going to be an issue in America for the foreseeable future. Race creeps in. . . . It's like walking on glass. You have to be very careful what you say and how you say it."

Randolph said the war of words between the Democratic front-runners is irrelevant. "I'm a little disappointed in the amount of time that had been spent on insignificant stuff and diversionary tactics," Randolph said. "This week, we've been overwhelmed with who said what as we sit every day by the TV waiting to hear how many sons and daughters have been killed in Iraq. Here we are talking about a sound bite. I would rather see a much more peaceful climate among adults in the process."

Gloria Graham Boyd, 60, a retired principal, is one of the voters torn between Clinton and Obama. She said the candidates have been so similar on policy that she has been unable to decide.

"I listened to Clinton first, and I heard her say she would come in and fix South Carolina's schools," said Boyd, who at the time decided to vote for Clinton. "Then, I heard Obama speak, and I got all excited. Now I'm sitting here waiting to hear them both at the next debate directly address the issues that affect teachers."

Anthony Peppers, 51, a buyer for an electronics company, said he is voting for Obama because he is the only candidate who can work with Democrats and Republicans, and because Peppers hasn't seen a campaign with such a diverse group of adherents since Bobby Kennedy. After Obama won over white voters in Iowa, Peppers said: "Well, maybe he does have an opportunity to win because someone other than black people are looking at him."

For most black voters at Northminster, the ultimate goal is not to choose between Clinton and Obama, but to ensure that a Republican is not elected in November.

"I am just so incensed at where we have allowed our country to go," Martin said. "I'm so glad Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama decided not to fight each other in that debate last [week], because I don't care how they feel about each other. I just want someone who can show leadership skills and can convince me they can walk into that White House and undo some of the last eight years."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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