Black, white and Democrat all over

John Carlin goes to Alabama with a confident Clinton as he woos the South back from the Republicans
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The Independent Online
Martin Luther King wrote in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" that the biggest stumbling block to the freedom of black Americans was not the Ku Klux Klan, but what he called the lukewarm, fence-sitting "white moderate".

That was in 1963, the year Birmingham earned its reputation, in King's words, as the most brutal, most unjust, "most thoroughly segregated city in the United States". The city acquired the nickname "Bombingham" because of the large number of unsolved bomb attacks against blacks, the most notorious of which was a dynamite blast at 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four young girls.

But that was then. Today Birmingham is as close to a model of racial reconciliation as the American South has been able to achieve, and its black citizens have taken that most moderate of white moderates, Bill Clinton, to their collective bosom. No Democrat since segregation days has leant further to the right; none has striven more calculatingly to be all things to all men than President Clinton.

He has not so much led as swung with the conservative times. And so effectively has he stolen Bob Dole's thunder that not only does all the evidence indicate he is going to score a stunning victory in the 5 November polls, he is adding insult to injury by seeking victory in Alabama, the Heart of Dixie, where no Democrat has won in a presidential election for 20 years. The black vote has remained loyally Democratic during this period, but the white vote, representing 73 per cent of the electorate, has been steadily Republican.

Encouraged by polls showing what local political analysts describe as the unthinkable, a shift by white voters that has positioned Mr Clinton neck and neck in the state with Mr Dole, the president made a campaign stop in Birmingham last week - the first by a Democratic presidential candidate to Alabama since Jimmy Carter.

At a rally of 20,000 in a grassy college quadrangle his black supporters were out in force, but it was to the white folks that the President primarily addressed himself. He thickened his Southern drawl, he played the part of the upright good ole' boy, hitting back at Mr Dole for attacking him on his morals with the admonition, "where I was raised, my momma would've whupped me if I ever said I was better'n anybody else".

The white folks nodded, remembering momma, then applauded warmly when he tossed them a couple of red-meat morsels of the kind they have been more accustomed to receiving from conservative Republicans. He had fought for the introduction of mandatory school uniforms in Alabama and he had succeeded, he said. And now he planned to introduce a drug test for all teenagers who apply for a driver's licence.

His true-blue principles having been established, he turned his attention to the audience's pockets, reminding them that during his four years in the presidency unemployment in Alabama, the deficit and the number of people on welfare had significantly declined. Then, panning out to his national television audience, he did his "vision thing", inviting the electorate to join him on "the bridge to the 21st century" towards a brave new world where "everyone who is responsible enough to work for it can have a shot at the American Dream".

The crowd erupted, but none looked happier at the mention of the two magic words than a black lady called Eleanor. "He reminds me of John F Kennedy," she sighed. Remembering Kennedy, she is old enough to remember King and the bombings of 1963. "The memory of those days keeps me vigilant," she said. "But my eyes are on the future." A mature student with children, she is dreaming the same dreams as her white compatriots, seeking to build her own bridge to a prosperous 21st century by completing a second college degree.

The evidence that her dreams were within reach lay before her, she said, on the podium. There, sitting next to President Clinton, was Birmingham's black mayor of the last 17 years and, dressed like an admiral, the big black chief of police.

The civil rights museum, in downtown Birmingham, chronicles in vivid, hi-tech detail the days 33 years ago when the chief of police was the legendary Eugene "Bull" Connor, when dogs and fire hoses were turned on black demonstrators and the Knights of the Klan committed atrocities, safe in the knowledge there would be no redress. Across the road from the museum is the 16th Street Baptist Church, the setting for a documentary Spike Lee is making about the bombing that killed the four girls in 1963.

Today the church is back to its pristine state, embellished by a blue stained glass window donated in 1965 by "the people of Wales". The preacher is the Rev Christopher Hamlin. Racism, less obvious, more subtle than before, still exists, he said. But Birmingham today boasts a distinction that King, writing in his cell, would never have imagined: a group of black and white city leaders, to which Rev Hamlin belongs, that meets once a month to discuss common problems and common plans.

And President Clinton, what did the Reverend think of him? "Look, he says we're better off than we were four years ago and I know I am better off, but I don't know if that applies to all," he said, gesturing with his head towards a part of town barely three blocks away where unemployed black men loiter on street corners. "But the president cares. I've been to the White House twice at his invitation with groups of black clergy. And he listened to us. He had a pad and a pencil and he took notes."

And the president cares too about the sons and daughters of Mr Hamlin's erstwhile tormentors. He cares about school uniforms and he cherishes the family values of mothers who whip impious boys. And now that black and white are no longer at war, now that an inscription on a statue of King in the town centre officially declares that "His dream liberated Birmingham from itself", a new era has come to pass in which a white moderate is no longer a stumbling block, he is a bridge.