In Selma, McCain Recalls Civil Rights March

The likely GOP nominee is touring economically distressed parts of the country.

SELMA, Ala., April 21, 2008— -- Far from the Democratic battlefield of Pennsylvania, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was campaigning where GOP candidates for president rarely go because they don't have to.

McCain chose Alabama, one of the reddest states on the Electoral College map, to launch a week-long swing through some of the nation's economically distressed areas.

Even more extraordinary, McCain went to Selma, the site of one of the most notorious episodes of the Civil Rights movement, and talked about that episode.

Instead of a standard stump speech, he used vivid imagery to describe a dark chapter in the city's racially-divided history. When Republicans running for president campaign in the South, they don't often raise the uncomfortable subject of its racially segregated and violent past.

"Forty-three years ago, an army of more than 500 marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an army that brought with them no weapons, which intended no destruction, that sought to conquer no people or land," McCain said standing a few hundred yards away from bridge, bathed in the warm spring sunlight.

"They were people who believed in America, in the promise of America," he said. "And they believed in a better America. They were patriots, the best kind of patriots."

On March 7, 1965, the protesters, almost all of them black, had gathered to march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery.

They never made it across the bridge. At its crest, police and state troopers attacked them, unleashing a vicious assault on the demonstrators that was captured on film. When it was shown on television, it shocked the nation. March 7 would come to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Selma is now a small, decaying city of 20,000 people, nearly 70 percent of whom are African-American. About 100 of Selma's residents gathered on a bluff above the Alabama River to hear McCain speak. No more than a dozen of them were black.

McCain was asked about the small turnout of African-Americans and if it reflected his difficulty in appealing to them for votes.

"I'm aware of the challenges," he said. "I'm aware of the fact that there will be many people who will not vote for me. But I'm going to be the president of all the people and I will work for all of the people and I will listen to all of the people, whether they decide to vote for me or not. ... I am aware that the African-American vote has been very small in favor of the Republican Party."

Ben Sanders, a Democratic state senator from Selma, stood behind McCain alongside the state's Republican governor, Bob Riley, as he spoke.

Afterward, Sanders praised the Arizona senator for coming to Selma and for talking about Bloody Sunday. But he added, "He has a long ways to go to gain African-American votes." Sanders said he is supporting Sen. Barack Obama.

Rev. Franklin Fortier, who wandered by toward the end of McCain's speech, said of McCain, "He seems like he is going along the same direction of George Bush and that is the general sentiment of the black community, and unless Sen. McCain makes a direct and concerted effort to communicate otherwise, that is going to be our conclusion."

Selma was the first stop of McCain's "Time for Action" tour, which will also take him to industrial Ohio, the Kentucky coal mining region and New Orleans, all of which are economically distressed areas.

"I will be traveling to places in America that aren't enjoying the prosperity many other parts of America enjoy," McCain said. "They are places that for too long suffered too many disadvantages, but where people of good character and stout hearts believe in the possibility of making the future better than the past."

McCain has pledged to carry his campaign to parts of the country and voters unaccustomed to seeing a Republican candidate for president.

There is also political strategy behind the itinerary. McCain is striving to build an image as a "different" kind of Republican, both to blunt the Democrats attacks on him as a Bush clone and to appeal to moderates and independents.

Campaigning in areas where people have suffered economically is also a way to try to rebut the accusations of Sen. Hillary Clinton and Obama that he is out of touch with the economic concerns and fears of Americans.

McCain also visited Gee's Bend, a remote all-black community best known for the hand-woven quilts. African-Americans are one of the most loyal Democratic constituencies, but McCain's campaign says it believes he can make some inroads among black voters, even if he is running against Obama.

The images of McCain reaching out to African-Americans could also mollify those white voters who are put off by what some may feel is a Republican Party that is unwelcoming to minorities.

"John McCain needs to find a way to appeal to a lot of minority voters," said Mark Halperin, political writer for Time magazine. "That's partly what this trip is about. But it's also to try to appeal to the kind of white suburban voter who would like a president to be inclusive."