WASHINGTON – An event steeped in civil rights symbolism offers rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama an opportunity to show unity with the black community while they spar over support from a crucial Democratic constituency.
The two leading candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination are scheduled to give nearly simultaneous speeches behind church pulpits just half a block apart from each other in Selma, Ala., on Sunday. The events will commemorate the 42nd anniversary of the bloody civil rights march there that helped rollback segregation in the South.
Later, the candidates will join civil rights leaders, public officials and others in what has become an annual walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state troopers stopped civil rights marchers in 1965, turning them back using nightsticks and tear gas.
Normally, Clinton might not worry much about the support of black voters after serving eight years as first lady in a White House that enjoyed legendary popularity among blacks. The New York senator, in fact, will be picking up a voting rights "Hall of Fame" award for her husband, Bill, in Selma on Sunday.
But the Clinton mystique is being tested by Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois who some believe has a real chance at becoming the nation's first black president.
In Alabama — one of several states with large black populations that could influence the nomination race — black leaders say buzz about Obama's candidacy is spreading, particularly among younger people and others who might not typically participate in elections. And they dismiss suggestions that the state's black political establishment might shy away from Obama as a mainstream candidate without deep roots in the civil rights movement.
"That would be like saying you can't be a Christian if you were not one of the disciples," said Jerome Gray, who traveled the state as a field operative for the black Alabama Democratic Conference for nearly 30 years before retiring in December.
Obama also has a personal history that is starkly different from most black voters. While his father was from Kenya, his mother was white and he was raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii.
But black voters know, Gray said, that national candidates must appeal to a broader base.
"We have to have a Colin Powell-type person — a black person who does not scare white people, but who is not seen as an Uncle Tom in the black community," said Gray, who supports Obama. "It has to be somebody who has a transcendent quality to appeal to both sides of the tracks, so to speak ... I see Obama as a candidate who has that kind of appeal."
Without question, political analysts say, Clinton comes to Alabama and elsewhere with powerful tools: more money to spread her message, a tested campaign organization and the advantage of being seen as the early front-runner.
Her campaign machine was on display recently in South Carolina — which is slated to hold the South's first Democratic primary on Jan. 29 — when Clinton picked up key endorsements from two black politicians.
But as Emory University political scientist Merle Black put it, "In some ways, Hillary's never faced a candidate like Obama, and Obama's never faced a candidate like Hillary."
For example, Alabama officials estimate that blacks make up between 40 percent and 50 percent of the state's Democratic vote, so any candidate who can capture the bloc would likely win the state. The Rev. Jesse Jackson won the state's primary in 1988.
Alabama has not yet pinned down its primary date for next year, but it likely will fall in early February, possibly just before or as part of a Feb. 5 mega-primary that could seal the nomination.
Democratic Rep. Artur Davis of Birmingham, Alabama's only black congressman, said earlier primaries in Southern states with heavily black populations will benefit Obama.
"I have no doubt that once Senator Obama is firmly introduced to the black community, the level of enthusiasm will substantially rise," said Davis, who attended Harvard Law School with Obama and who has backed his candidacy from the outset. "There is going to be a special magnetism that's there because of what it would mean to the country and what it will mean to the community."
Veteran Alabama state Rep. James Thomas, a Democrat and former president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, said that introduction appears to be happening.
"At first I had some reservations, but I'm beginning to hear quite a bit of interest," he said. "He certainly brings some excitement."
Thomas nonetheless predicted that Clinton, Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards would split the black vote.
Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Joe Turnham agreed it will be a slog and said Obama must be able to energize new groups of voters.
"I think the door is cracked, maybe not open," he said. "I think there's a cautious curiosity among a lot of people."
Organizers of this weekend's Bridge Crossing Jubilee said they couldn't remember a time when two leading presidential candidates spoke at the event.
Obama is scheduled to deliver the event's keynote address Sunday morning at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, while at the same time Clinton is scheduled to address the First Baptist Church just down the street.