SELMA, Ala. -- Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton crossed campaign paths for the first time yesterday as they paid homage to civil rights activists who they said helped give them the chance to break barriers to the White House.
The two candidates and former president Bill Clinton, making his first appearance with his wife since her campaign began, linked arms with activists who 42 years ago were attacked by police with night sticks during a peaceful voting rights march. "Bloody Sunday" shocked the nation and helped bring attention to the racist voting practices that kept blacks from the polls.
"I'm here because somebody marched for our freedom," Obama, who would become the first black president, said from the Brown Chapel AME Church, where the march began on March 7, 1965. "I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants."
Not to be outdone in the quest for black voters' support, Hillary Clinton also spoke in Selma at a church three blocks away and brought a special lure -- her husband.
Three days before the anniversary of the march, her campaign announced that the former president, who is popular among blacks, would accompany her for his induction into Selma's Voting Rights Hall of Fame.
Senator Clinton said the Voting Rights Act and the Selma march made possible her presidential campaign, as well as those of Obama and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who would be the first Hispanic to occupy the Oval Office.
"After all the hard work getting rid of literacy tests and poll taxes, we've got to stay awake because we've got a march to continue," Clinton said in a speech interrupted numerous times by applause and shouts of approval. "How can we rest while poverty and inequality continue to rise?"
Clinton and Obama appeared outside Brown Chapel for a premarch rally, but came from opposite sides of the podium and did not interact. Despite the intense rivalry between their campaigns, the two praised each other.
"It's excellent that we have a candidate like Barack Obama who embodies what all of you fought for here 42 years ago," Clinton said. Obama said Clinton is "doing an excellent job for this country, and we're going to be marching arm in arm."
But they did not join arms when the commemorative march, attended by thousands, got underway. Instead, Clinton held hands with her husband and Obama was several people down the line. Obama, who shed his coat and tie for the march, approached Hillary Clinton at one point and the two chatted for a few seconds before moving back to opposite sides of the street.
The two candidates sounded similar themes in their speeches. Both said the civil rights movement is not over because inequality still exists in education, healthcare, and the economy. Both criticized the Bush administration for failing to return Hurricane Katrina victims to their homes.
But Obama, who was 3 years old on Bloody Sunday, delivered a call to action that would be politically unfeasible for Clinton or any of his other white rivals.
He said the blacks in the current generation do not always honor the civil rights movement and need to take responsibility for improving their lives by rejecting violence; cleaning up "40-ounce bottles" and other trash that litters urban neighborhoods, and voting instead of complaining that the government is not helping them.
"How can it be that our voting rates dropped down to 30, 40, 50 percent when people shed their blood to allow us to vote?" Obama asked at a unity breakfast with community leaders.
Obama said the fight for civil rights reverberated across the globe and inspired his father to aspire to something beyond his job herding goats in Kenya. His father moved to Hawaii to get an education under a program for African students and met Obama's mother, a fellow student from Kansas.
Obama said he was not surprised when it was reported last week that his ancestors on his mother's side owned slaves. "That's no surprise in America," he said, adding that the civil rights struggle made it possible for such an unlikely couple to fall in love.
"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 whether I've been to Selma before, I tell them I'm coming home."
But the former president stole the show from both candidates. The audience cheered loudest for him when the three took the stage at the end of the march, and the crowd mobbed him as he tried to make it to his limousine, delaying his departure.
Speaking at his induction, Clinton said the 2008 campaign features "a rainbow coalition running for president."
Other Democratic candidates honored the activists yesterday. John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, spoke about Selma and civil rights at the University of California, Berkeley.