HALL COLUMN: Now is time for political discourse

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 7, 2007

SELMA &045;

For most of last week, this historic city was in the national spotlight as political commentators attempted to measure the impact of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama descending for the Bridge Crossing Jubilee.

Certainly it was a politically charged day as both camps were looking to make inroads into to the black electorate. And, in fine fashion, both praised the other. Each acknowledged that it was the Voting Rights Act that afforded them the opportunity they have today &045; a woman and a black man running for president.

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Obama answered the question of whether or not he is &8220;black enough,&8221; a question raised by some African American leaders who say the son of an African father and a white, Kansas woman does not share the same experiences as black people who grew up and struggled through the challenges that face minorities in America.

But Obama said he was a direct result of the civil rights fight. He said it was the policies of the Kennedy Administration &045; policies borne of the civil rights movement &045; that brought his father to the United States to get a college education. It was the change brought about by the civil rights movement that allowed a black man and a white woman to marry, to raise a son and to live not as outcasts but as productive members of society.

Clinton paid homage to the people who set afoot a movement that captured her youth. She remembers the struggles of the 1960s and how as a student she became embroiled in the civil rights movement. She is quick to point out that these same kind of civil rights struggles gave her the opportunity to vote and to seek the highest office in our land.

The speeches were respectful of the past, cordial to the present and inspiring for the future. In the end, they were everything political speeches at the commemoration of Bloody Sunday should be. As one colleague said as we discussed the events of the day, the civil rights movement was nothing if it was not political. Indeed, the civil rights struggle was about gaining social equality through political means.

But politics aside, it was the Rev. Al Sharpton &045; a former presidential candidate and often divisive political figure &045; who brought home the essence of what this day should represent to the political world.

During his speech at Second Missionary Baptist Church, Sharpton took a slight jab at the two front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination. Perhaps it was somewhat tinted by jealousy (after all, his presidential bid fell flat early in the 2004 race). Most assuredly, it was tinted by frustration, and rightly so.

Sharpton told the congregation in a direct manner what the two candidates had so politely said &045; if it were not for the men and women who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and faced down the Alabama State Troopers, who were beaten and trampled, then neither Obama nor Clinton would be running for president today.

But Sharpton’s words were more congenial when he took to the steps of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to speak just before the march began. His words were tinted by nothing more than the desire to continue the struggle started 42 years ago from that very spot.

He said Democrats are blessed with an eclectic group of candidates &045; black, white and hispanic; men and women &045; who have strong records on civil rights. The choice now was up to the voters over which one they liked the most. Former President Clinton, speaking at the monuments to the men and women who crossed the bridge, called it a &8220;high-class problem to have.&8221;

President Clinton reminded the crowd that with the rights that were won by the crusaders of the past come great responsibilities for the people of the present as we work toward a better and brighter future. Of the civil rights marchers, were they present Sunday, he said, &8220;They wouldn’t be looking back. They would be looking forward.&8221;

For Sharpton’s part, his message was simple: the Democratic primary has reached a new milestone where minorities &045; both of sex and of race &045; are prominently in the lead. Now is the time to peacefully and respectfully set about choosing a nominee, not the time for terse political battles that end with mud-slinging and damaged reputations.

He was right, on both counts. Regardless of what one thinks about Sharpton’s politics, his dedication to the cause here in Selma has been unwavering. He is here &045; when politically beneficial and otherwise. Those elected who are beneficiaries of this and other civil rights movements should be here every year, drawing crowds to the area to help it prosper and bringing awareness to a nation about the struggles overcome and the future ready to be obtained.

More than that, the respectful tone expressed in Brown Chapel and First Baptist Church and at the foot of the bridge should extend to Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and California and Utah and to every state in which these candidates trod. As it stands now, next year’s election could be a historic one for the simple fact that it could represent the first minority &045; a white woman or a black man &045; who holds a major political party’s presidential nomination.

These candidates are creating history, and they will be judged at the polls by how they go about creating that history. And on Sunday, we were reminded of the best reason of all that every candidate should now offer more ideas for change and less political name-calling. That reason?

Because people bled and people died for the right of those candidates to be here.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com.