Clinton on King: What Cost?

Suddenly race is the hot topic of the Democratic presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton got it started—unwittingly, it seems—with a remark about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that seemed to diminish the role of activists in the civil rights movement. "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964," Clinton said last week. "It took a president to get it done." Realizing, perhaps, that her statement might cause offense, Clinton emphasized King's vital role and sacrifice in subsequent appearances. But a backlash had already begun. Clinton later criticized the Obama campaign for "deliberately distorting" her comments. And on Sunday, Obama shot back that "Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark … But the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous."

The exchange comes as all sides prepare for South Carolina's Democratic primary on Jan. 26—the first real test of the African-American vote. How will the controversy affect voting in the state, where roughly 50 percent of the Democratic electorate is black? Cleveland Sellers, who heads the department of African-American studies at the University of South Carolina, is an Obama supporter. He's also a veteran of the civil rights movement. Now 63, he helped organize sit-ins in 1960, he participated in the March on Washington in 1963, and he was wounded during the 1968 "Orangeburg massacre," in which police opened fire on student protesters, killing three and wounding 27. Clinton's recent comments were "insensitive," Sellers says, and he believes that most civil rights veterans will agree. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet about the controversy, and about the upcoming contest in South Carolina. Excerpts:

What effect did Obama's win in Iowa have on black attitudes or perceptions in South Carolina?
I think it had a tremendous impact on those voters who were concerned about whether or not Obama was going to be able to generate white support in this presidential election. For people who had that question, Obama's strong second finish in New Hampshire and the first-place finish in Iowa were tremendous motivators, freeing those voters to come out to the polls and actually vote for a candidate that they know is, in fact, viable.

Can you talk a little more about those concerns? We've heard about concerns that Obama would not be able to attract the white vote, and also worries about his safety.
The concern about his safety is [related] to what has happened historically to African-American males when they have been outspoken—aiming to change a system that was, during the civil rights movement, segregated and oppressive. I'm convinced that some people were genuinely concerned [about what might happen to Obama] if he looked as if he would be successful … What resonates in the back of their minds is Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy and the assassination of Dr. King. But I don't think that anybody would hold fast to that. One of the things they know is that in order for there to be change, there has to be sacrifice. The African-American community knows that full well.

Former president Clinton has sometimes been called the "first black American president," and he's certainly a politician in good standing with the black community. Does that make the choice more difficult?
I don't think so. President Bill Clinton is not running for president this time.

Is Hillary Clinton seen as different from her husband on matters of race and matters of importance to the black community?
Obama seems to be able to talk about those issues that resonate not only within the African-American community but within the larger community. And he is talking about creating a kind of environment in which those who have been locked out and marginalized over a period of time will have some voice.

During the New Hampshire primary battle, Hillary Clinton made a comment about Martin Luther King that seemed, at first anyway, to diminish his role in the civil rights battle in relation to that of President Lyndon Johnson. She quickly clarified those remarks and re-emphasized the accomplishments of King, but how has that played in South Carolina?
That created some real problems, because it was an indication of a kind of insensitivity. For a veteran of the civil rights movement—and that's what I am—it wasn't just Dr. King, it was all of the unsung heroes and heroines of that era. Modjeska Simkins here in South Carolina, and the Fannie Lou Hamers, and the children in Birmingham, and the people who rode the freedom buses and went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 … All of these people created the climate in which Congress felt the pressure and acted.

Don't you think Hillary Clinton would, if asked about this, agree with you? She's saying now that her original comment has been distorted and that Obama's campaign in particular has helped to distort it. Do you disagree with that?
I am responding to it as a veteran of the civil rights movement. And I think you will find that a lot of veterans of the civil rights movement, if not all, would agree that it was in fact a comment that was insensitive to the sacrifices and the struggles of ordinary people who created the impetus for Congress to move forward on a civil rights bill in 1964, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And I think there's a degree of struggle among scholars to make sure that history is recorded appropriately. My response is not part of some kind of Obama strategy. I'm talking about what my feelings were when I heard that. I knew that all of the lives, and all of the broken heads and broken bodies, and all of the tears that people went through were the basis for the changes that occurred. I thought [Clinton's comments] were insensitive.

Likewise, former president Clinton made a statement that the press treatment of Obama on his Iraq record was "the greatest fairy tale" he had ever seen. How has that played?
That has raised some eyebrows. It could have just passed over the African-American community, but because it came in close proximity to what Mrs. Clinton said, those two things got tied together.

Rep. James Clyburn, the influential South Carolina congressman, has yet to throw his weight behind any presidential candidate. He seemed to take umbrage at the Clintons' remarks. Will he now get behind Obama, or will he still sit this out?
He has said that he will sit it out, but I don't know.

Hillary Clinton has said, "I don't think either Senator Obama or myself wants to see the injection of race or gender into this campaign." Do you think that is correct?
I think it's absolutely correct. I don't think the issue was involved in the campaign until those particular comments came out and people felt them to be insensitive.

What do the polls tell you about how perceptions have shifted in South Carolina?
I have some concerns about the polls. For an example, a large number of African-Americans probably don't have telephone landlines, and the pollers usually target those people who have landlines. Then I think that people are reluctant about giving out information. Historically and even now, African-Americans will step up and vote in large numbers. I think there will be a lot of new voters this time around.

Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson has been campaigning with Clinton, and he seemed to stir some controversy when he said, "Obama was doing something in the neighborhood" years ago when the Clintons were deeply involved in civil rights issues—an apparent reference to Obama's admitted drug use as a young man. How is that playing?
People kind of assume that there are African Americans who don't articulate and don't support the traditional view in the African-American community. But that's not going to have a dramatic impact.

How do you assess John Edwards's position in your state, the state where he was born?
I think there is some support in South Carolina for John Edwards, but I think that the real race in South Carolina will be between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Will Edwards take more votes away from Obama or Clinton?
I'm not sure.

Where is the white vote in South Carolina leaning these days?
I don't know. I went to a rally with Obama and Oprah, and just the [nature of the] audience was a change for South Carolina. You had 40,000 people. It was like a rainbow of black, white, Asians, Hispanics, young and old, who came out to show their support for Obama. I thought that in itself was a change for South Carolina, a change for the South.

There are skeptics who think that a black man cannot really win in the South. They might cite Harold Ford's [unsuccessful] campaign for a Senate seat in Tennessee. Do you think that Obama is in a better position than candidates who have preceded him?
No. I think it's a process that we go through, a kind of evolutionary process. Harold Ford came very close, but the former governor of Virginia, [Douglas] Wilder, won. You've had black mayors of cities in the South … I think there is a change coming. The window may be open for a person who is African-American to get through this time. I think that he'll have a much, much, much better chance this time around than at any other point [before this].

You've spoken about how sophisticated the Obama campaign organization is in South Carolina. We've heard that the campaign has gone so far as to organize people who run hair salons and barber shops to campaign for him. Is that correct, and can you explain the relevance of that?
Absolutely. The discussions in the African-American community are held, in some instances, around barber shops and cosmetology operations. And when you are trying to reach the masses of people, you have to go where the masses are. There's [also] an effort being made to organize around the congregations of the churches. That's what I mean about grass-roots organizing: it goes outside the traditional institutions that organizers have used in the past. There's an effort made to reach out to folk who have not been involved in the political process, and Obama has kind of engaged them in the discussion of the race.

South Carolina is known as a place where campaigns get particularly dirty: push-polls, fake flyers—we've seen even a fake Christmas card this year sent out in Mitt Romney's name. Is there any evidence of dirty tricks on the Democratic side this year?
I haven't seen any. But we will certainly be vigilant. We are 40 years beyond the Voting Rights Act. I would hope there would be some efforts made to be sure those kinds of things would not happen. How in the world can we be talking about democracy in other parts of the world if we're not on guard to be sure that participatory democracy works in America?