SELMA, Ala. – Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton brought their increasingly intense battle for the Democratic party’s base to this heart of the American civil rights movement Sunday.

Obama, the upstart Illinois Democrat, brought the hot vibe of the cool new. Clinton, the veteran campaigner, brought her long history and a ringer: husband and former President Bill Clinton, whom black author Toni Morrison once called the “first black president.”

The trio came to Selma for the 42nd anniversary of a seminal event in American civil rights history – the bloody attack on demonstrators defying a ban on protest marches by then-Gov. George Wallace. Hundreds were savagely beaten by Alabama state troopers on March 7, 1965, as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the highway from Selma to Montgomery.

The national outcry helped lead to a successful five-day march of thousands two weeks later. Within months, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, forever changing American society.

Obama, a toddler at the time of the Selma demonstrations, said in a speech at Selma’s Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church that the civil rights measures that followed had made his rise possible.

“If it hadn’t been for Selma, I wouldn’t be here,” Obama said. “This is the site of my conception. I am the fruits of your labor. I am the offspring of the movement. When people ask me if I’ve been to Selma before, I tell them I’m coming home.”

Sen. Clinton, appearing at the same hour at the nearby First Baptist Church, told a crowd of about 500 not to forget the sacrifices of Bloody Sunday when marchers were assaulted. “We all know we have to finish the march. That is the call to our generation,” she said.

Clinton’s husband proved the real celebrity, however, emerging from an SUV to shrieks of “Bill! Bill!” The shrieking and rock star clamor continued through a re-enactment of the march that the former president led with Obama, Sen. Clinton, Al Sharpton and others.

In brief remarks at his induction into Selma’s Voting Rights Museum Hall of Fame, the former president called the candidacies of Obama and his wife “gifts of the Voting Rights Act.”

“We’ve got people running for president who couldn’t have run 40 years ago,” he said. “Isn’t that a high-class problem?”

Earlier, Sen. Clinton had said that the civil rights movement had made possible not just Obama’s candidacy but New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s and her own.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll late last month found that Obama, once trailing Clinton by 40 points in support among black voters, had gone 11 points up on Clinton among them.

Obama accepted an invitation to a unity breakfast and to speak at a local church several weeks ago; Sen. Clinton accepted a separate invitation days later.

Then last week, Clinton’s campaign announced that her spouse would accept his award personally. (Originally, Hillary was to accept on Bill’s behalf.)

Some voters had already made up their minds as they massed on Martin Luther King Jr. Street to see Obama or the Clintons.

Waiting in line after a four-hour drive to see Obama, Fran Gholston wore an Obama T-shirt and carried a sign saying “I Have the Audacity of Hope,” a reference to Obama’s best-selling book. “It’s a new beginning, a time for a change,” Gholston said of her support for Obama. “I like Hillary, too. And I love Bill. If he were running … It’s just time for a change.”

“I’m still open,” said Dennis Middlebrooks, of Tarrant, Ala. “I was sold on Clinton until he (Obama) stepped up. … I need to investigate both.”

The weekend-long celebration followed the classic Southern pattern of Saturday night fun and Sunday morning solemnity and showed how far Selma – and America – had come since Bloody Sunday.

Saturday night featured a rollicking downtown block party that included teens in long T-shirts and baggy pants and adults dressed to the nines, munching on plates of barbecue and giant turkey legs. Many danced to a blues band and the crowd was almost entirely black.

Leaning against a telephone pole, Vinney Cooper remembered that in his youth, before the movement, such celebrating never would have been allowed to happen: “There was one place we could do something, twice a year, for one day.” (Cooper himself, whose older brothers were injured on Bloody Sunday, later became one of Alabama’s first black state troopers).

Next morning, Selma, a poor town in the old cotton fields of west-central Alabama’s Black Belt, was transformed. Now it was the set for something unimaginable 42 years ago: two presidential candidates vying for crucial black votes – one candidate black, one female.

“If the men and women who crossed that bridge could see … I could hear Dr. King saying, “We’re about at the mountaintop,”‘ said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat.

(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20070302 SELMA march

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AP-NY-03-04-07 1838EST

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