A Hillary Hijacking

How Senator Clinton's damage-control plan left black voters fuming

When about a dozen attendees gathered after a packed Sunday-morning service at Brooklyn's St. Paul Community Baptist Church to talk politics, most had nothing but complaints about Clinton. In addition to feeling that their rally had been used for political gain, many felt that Clinton's 20-minute speech eclipsed that of Reverend Youngblood, who is credited with the development of the Nehemiah Houses and providing much-needed hope and services to East New York. Youngblood, who calls Clinton "a friend to the community," said that he and other organizers gladly agreed to include her in the event. However, members of his congregation, who came to the rally by the hundreds, were less gracious: "We didn't need another keynote speaker," said Booker, the retired police sergeant.

In an interview a few days earlier, Senator Clinton had said that Martin Luther King's dream of equality "began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Some interpreted that statement to mean that Clinton believed LBJ was able to do something that King couldn't manage—a pretty cynical reading of what she actually said. The pundits salivated, and Obama's campaign, at least in South Carolina, took the opportunity to release a Hillary-is-really-a-racist memo, mostly composed of insensitive remarks made by Clinton's supporters. (The memo was later condemned by Obama, who said that an "overzealous" staffer had put it together without his approval.)

That blip in the campaign actually exposed little about Clinton's racial politics; her record clearly shows, as Obama himself said later, that she is "on the right side" of civil-rights issues. But the events did fuel a disheartening competition among supporters of both candidates over who has had it worse in this country, African-Americans or women. When feminist and Clinton supporter Gloria Steinem proclaimed in a New York Times editorial earlier this month that "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life," and told readers that black men "generally have ascended to positions of power . . . before any women," it struck many readers as a distasteful rationale for casting a vote for the lady in the race.

Clinton supporters have rightly claimed that they've been battling a sexist mentality: In just the last few weeks, a Fox News commentator told viewers that men won't vote for Clinton because her shrill voice reminds them of their "nagging wives," while in New Hampshire, a heckler greeted the candidate with a poster that read "Iron My Shirt." But for some black women still on the fence between Clinton and Obama, the uproar over her comment about King quickly trumped any sympathy they may have felt for her.

"I did feel the pull between voting for an African-American and a woman," said Michele Noble, a loan-mortgage officer and Obama supporter. But "to come there to try to save her ass—I don't think it's appropriate." To add insult to injury, Noble added, Clinton's speech ran so long that the choir didn't have time to perform its final song—"Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," written more than a century ago to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's birthday. It's also affectionately known as the "Black National Anthem."

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