The bridge to voting rights was crossed Sunday by the Democrats' top two vote seekers. Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama marched over the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., site of "Bloody Sunday" in 1965, an historic moment in the civil rights battle.
A shirt-sleeved Obama pushed Birmingham civil rights legend Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth along the route in a wheelchair. On the opposite side, Hillary and Bill Clinton linked arms with Al Sharpton and Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader who annually organizes the Voting Rights March reenactment.
The two candidates criss-crossed each other all day, but spoke only briefly. They smiled and sang along with the marchers along the path. While the original march in 1965 was met midway on the bridge by law enforcement, who beat the participants, today, all stopped for prayer at the site before crossing the bridge. Selma police estimated a crowd of 10,000 turned out to view and participate in the march.
Before the reenactment, Clinton and Obama spoke at churches just blocks apart. At Brown's AME, Obama criticized the Bush Administration for rolling back Affirmative Action, for an "ill-conceived war" and complained about low voting rates. He spoke to a crowd of about 450. Earlier, he spoke at a Unity breakfast sold out to 600 attendees.
"We assumed when we had the right to vote, people would actually vote. People here shed blood for that right," said Obama. At the breakfast, Dallas County Commissioner, Kim Ballard presented Obama with a key to the city, joking that in 1965 he might have "needed it to get out of jail," citing the troubled time for African-Americans.
Obama also encouraged blacks to take responsibility for encouraging education. "Thinking if you read a book for do well in school is acting white we've got to get over that," Obama said, adding, "We must strive for excellence."
Alabama's only Muslim State Congressman, Yusuf Abdus-Salaam cited Obama's Muslim connections as an asset for a world leader. "He would build relationships with the Muslim world, Africa, Asia and Europe."
At the First Baptist Church, ironically located at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Jefferson Davis (former Confederate president) Street, Hillary Clinton addressed specific issues such as health care, veteran benefits, global warming and the plight of Katrina victims still living in trailers. She also criticized the state of current voting rights and the position of the nation on the world's stage. A crowd of about 750 crowded into the church, with overflow watching a video screen in the basement. "It's time to take it back," said Clinton referring to our national standing.
Both Obama and Clinton praised the marchers in Selma for making their runs for president possible.
"I know where my chance came from and I am grateful," said Clinton.
"If you had not endured the taunts and torments and violence, I would not be in the halls of Congress. I stand on the shoulders of giants," said Obama.
Tiny Selma, a sleepy town of less than 20,000, was a hubbub of politicians and media. Alabama Senator Hank Sanders, who invited Obama, contributed the national attention to the importance of Selma in the voting rights movement. "Selma is a symbol for the whole world," Sanders said
After the march, C.T. Vivian, former member of King's executive staff participated in Bill Clinton's induction into the Voting Rights Hall of Fame. He sited Clinton as the only U.S. President to participate in the reenactment in 2000 and yearned for such a president in the 1960s. "He was the genius president we never had on our side," said Vivian.
After receiving his induction, Clinton thanked the marchers for their "gift given to us." Without it, Clinton said, he would never see "a rainbow coalition running for president, including one junior Senator from New York." After a day of preachers and preaching, he quoted his grandmother's dream for him to be a preacher, "if I'd been a better boy," the former president joked.
In spite of the presence of two presidential contenders, the name most often heard from the crowd, was that of Bill Clinton.