COLUMBIA, S.C. — She shall overcome.
Ever since Hillary Clinton remarked that Martin Luther King Jr. needed President Lyndon Johnson to realize his dream (a comment seen by some as belittling the civil rights leader), race has become a major factor in the Democratic nomination battle.
Clinton, whose husband benefited politically from his strong ties to the black community, has seen her support among that demographic group evaporate in early nominating contests. In Nevada, Barack Obama captured 83 percent of the black vote, and in Michigan, where Obama wasn’t even on the ballot, 68 percent of African Americans voted for “uncommitted” over the former first lady.
These trends have forced her to virtually concede South Carolina to Obama, where blacks make up roughly half of the Democratic electorate, and she’ll likely be in trouble in other states with large black populations.
These developments have prompted some commentators to speculate that if Clinton takes down the first black presidential candidate with a real chance of winning in a bitter, racial-tinged, primary fight, it could damage her in the general election by depressing black turnout.
But if there is widespread outrage in the black community over Hillary Clinton’s remarks, it certainly wasn’t on display here in South Carolina’s capital on Martin Luther King Day, where the three Democratic presidential candidates spoke at a rally in front of the statehouse.
To be clear, there’s no doubt that Obama is generating far more enthusiasm than Clinton within the black community. On Monday morning, those marching to the capitol building for the rally gathered outside the Zion Baptist Church following a prayer service, and a tent on the other side of Washinton Street was set up to sell Obama t-shirts. One of them featured the images of both Obama and MLK, with the words “Leaders” and Obama’s campaign slogan, “Change You Can Believe In.”
At the rally itself, Obama took the stage to a rousing ovation that lasted over a minute and included sustained chants of “O-BAM-A.” By contrast, the polite reception Clinton received, mostly from her section of supporters, was muted. She was able to begin her speech within 10 seconds of her name being announced.
When Hillary first appeared on stage earlier in the rally, there were scattered boos, and one audience member had attached a homemade “No Clinton Dynasty” poster to an Obama sign. But it would really be cherry-picking to say that this represented the general sentiment of the audience.
REGARDLESS OF who they are supporting, the black voters I spoke to before and after the rally had positive things to say about both Clinton and Obama, and their comments reflected the change vs. experience debate between the candidates more than any racial controversy.
“I don’t have a problem with Hillary, but I just think that since she’s been in politics so long, I don’t think she has a fresh enough eye and she doesn’t have her hand on the pulse of America right now,” said Renee Cruell, an Obama volunteer from Easley.
Columbia native Henry Noble, who lived in Chicago and worked on the campaign of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, said it’s time for “new blood.”
“With Obama, at least you see some kind of hope,” Noble said. “All of the rest of the candidates talk about doom and gloom, and with him, it’s uplifting, and I think that’s what you need in politics right now.”
But he dismissed talk that the Clintons were intentionally running a racially-charged campaign. “That was blown out of proportion,” he said. “I don’t think they’re racists or bigoted, not at all.”
Roosevelt Lindler of Columbia told me he liked Obama, but is supporting Clinton. “I don’t think he has enough experience right now, but I do think his day will come,” he said. He added, “I’m proud of him being in the race, he has inspired a lot of people.”
Others were still undecided between the two leading candidates, and admired them both.
“It would be a plus for our country if we could get both of them in the White House,” said Earl Halls of Eutawville. “I like Clinton because she knows more about the presidency because of her husband, and Obama, I like him because he seems to have a good voice for what needs to be done.”
If there is any residual animosity toward Hillary Clinton for the way she has conducted her campaign against Obama, it is likely to dissipate by the time November rolls around.
For one thing, should he lose in the primaries, Obama himself would probably work hard to encourage black voters to turn out for Clinton in the general election, because he wants to remain in the party’s good graces so he can win the Democratic nomination in a future election cycle.
Though Clinton and Obama got personal in Monday’s debate, at the rally that morning, Obama was gracious. “I want to acknowledge my outstanding competitors and my partners in the Democratic Party,” he said of Clinton and John Edwards, demonstrating that he’s able to suck up his problems with Hillary when the ceremony demands it.
And ultimately, as the parade of speeches at the NAACP-sponsored rally indicated, on key issues such as the Iraq War, education, health care, and taxes, black voters line up much more closely with the Democratic candidates, so they are likely to support whoever the nominee is, as they have done traditionally.
If the mood here on Monday is any indication, reports of a race war engulfing the Democratic Party were highly exaggerated.