History Lesson

Clinton Cultivates a Crucial Swath of the Obama Coalition in Alabama

The front-runner's firewall against Bernie Sanders is in the South—and her speech on the Rosa Parks anniversary can't hurt.

Can Hillary Clinton Get Out the Black Vote?

On the 60th anniversary of the day that Rosa Parks sat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refused to relinquish her seat to a white man, Hillary Clinton traveled to the city in Parks’s honor. She took the pulpit at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church to commemorate the Montgomery bus boycott that Martin Luther King Jr. had organized there. But her focus was not, most specifically, on water fountains, diner counters, and Jim Crow segregation. It was on the role of lawyers in changing rotten laws.

Facing a surprisingly robust challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s presidential campaign has constructed a sort of political firewall across the American South to fortify against snags or hitches in New Hampshire or Iowa. Although Clinton’s numbers have lifted in those first two states, she’s leaving little to chance. President Barack Obama’s tremendous support among African-American voters hurt her in 2008, and she is working hard to capture the support of the so-called “coalition of the ascendant.” Her jaunt to Alabama, and straight after to Florida for a handful of fundraisers, will help her to maintain appeal with voters of color.

She began her remarks with classic church cadences, making her case to a crucial swath of the Obama base. “This is the day the Lord has made,” she opened. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

The two-day anniversary program was hosted by the National Bar Association, the country’s largest network of African-American lawyers and judges, and Clinton spoke extensively of her work for Marian Wright Edelman, the first African-American woman to pass the Mississippi bar, at the Children’s Defense Fund. She spoke of a conversation with the civil rights lawyer John Doar, who calmed a raging mob after the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963. (Clinton recounted asking Doar, “Weren’t you afraid?” He replied, she said, “Of course I was, but I was representing the law. I was representing the Constitution.”) She thanked Paulette Brown, the president of the American Bar Association, and the first African-American woman in that position, for her words highlighting the role of women in the civil rights movement.

In her speech, Clinton checked off many of the subjects that she's been talking about on the stump: her hopes for criminal-justice reform and for a bright and just future for Charlotte, her 14-month-old granddaughter, and Charlotte’s fellow American babies. She spoke, again, of meeting the mothers of some of the young black men killed in recent years at the hands of law enforcement. Clinton spoke of stop and frisk, of systemic racism, of the bloated prison population, gun violence, missing black men. She championed voting rights.

But in this setting, Clinton—an attorney, after all—seemed to find an unusual vitality. She spoke of unjust laws that get it wrong, injustices perpetrated “in spite of the law, and sometimes, unfortunately, in keeping with it.” She said that when that happens—when Rosa Parks is arrested in keeping with a fetid law—then the law can be changed. In the United States, Clinton said, “it’s up to lawyers and judges to get it right.”

The candidate’s pragmatism at times can seem to clash with the idealism of a new generation of African-American activists; review her tense but instructive meeting with Black Lives Matter activists in August. (“You can get lip service from as many white people you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say, ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer,’” she told the group from Boston. “That’s not enough, at least in my book.”)

And Clinton lacks Obama’s natural ease, and his oracular power. In certain contexts, when he speaks, he can bring to mind a preacher. But in Montgomery on Tuesday, as she spoke about the role of the lawyer—she joked that she was a “recovering” one–she found a kind of poetry.

Compensating for her lawyerly mien, she made an interesting segue. She said that it may be “unusual” to hear a presidential candidate “say we need more love and kindness,” but that love and kindness were exactly what the country needed. "Justice is really love in calculation,” she said. “Justice is love correcting that which would work against love.” And, “Standing beside love is always justice.”

After Clinton’s address, Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter—who pointed out that her father had aspired to become an attorney, and that she fulfilled his aspirations “and am a part of you as a member of the State Bar of Georgia”—offered a benediction. “And Lord as I believe this is the century of the woman,” King, a minister, said, “I pray that you grant great favor, grace, and anointing to Hillary Rodham Clinton in her pursuit to be the first woman president of the United States of America.”

And then Clinton locked hands with Bernice King, with Paulette Brown, with Benjamin Crump, the president of the National Bar Association and the attorney who represents the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, with Fred David Gray, the attorney who represented Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, and Martin Luther King Jr., and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

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