Obama calls for unity at Luther King's church

Barack Obama today called for unity to overcome the country’s problems as he acknowledged that “none of our hands are clean” when it comes to healing divisions.

Barack Obama today called for unity to overcome the country’s problems as he acknowledged that “none of our hands are clean” when it comes to healing divisions.

Heading into the most racially diverse contest yet in the presidential campaign, Obama took to the pulpit at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on the eve of the federal holiday celebrating the civil rights hero’s birth 79 years ago.

The Illinois senator’s speech was based on King’s quote that “Unity is the great need of the hour”.

“The divisions, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame the plight of ourselves on others, all of that distracts us from the common challenges we face: war and poverty; inequality and injustice,” Obama said.

“We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing each other down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.”

Obama has called for a new kind of politics that he says should appeal to people’s hopes, not their fears.

South Carolina, which holds its Democratic primary on Saturday, is the first state where a large number of black voters will participate, and Obama needs a win to remain a front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

He is counting on blacks to stick with him despite losing to New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in two consecutive contested races. He lost Nevada despite winning 83% of blacks, who made up 15% of the total vote. In South Carolina, they are expected to make up at least half the turnout.

Obama’s campaign has worked to overcome a concern among black voters that he would not be able to win an election in white America. After his victory in practically all-white Iowa, his poll numbers leaped among blacks.

“I understand that many of you are still a little sceptical,” Obama said on Friday night at a King banquet in Las Vegas.

“But not as sceptical as you were before Iowa. Sometimes it takes other folks before we believe ourselves.”

He said in a radio interview today that winning South Carolina was critical, and that immigration, education and the economy would be important issues in that contest.

“We think we’re moving in the right direction, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Obama said in the interview with the Rev Jesse Jackson on WVON-AM in Chicago.

“South Carolina, obviously, is going to be absolutely critical to our success.”

At Ebenezer, where King launched the civil rights movement, Obama spoke in front of a tightly packed crowd; hundreds more who had lined up outside in subfreezing temperatures could not get in. It was unclear whether the crowd was for Obama, the King holiday or caused by the unusual blast of ice and snow that closed other area churches.

“We had to fight, bleed and die just to be able to vote,” the Rev Raphael Warnock said in introducing Obama.

“Now we can select presidents, and now with credibility and intelligence and power, we can run for president.”

He teased worshippers who cheered at the sight of the most viable black presidential candidate in history. “I understand, but don’t get it twisted,” Warnock said.

Obama said blacks often have been the victims of injustice, but he said they also have perpetrated divisions with gays, Jews and immigrants.

“If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community,” he said to applause.

Obama suggested he has allowed divisions to creep into his campaign in recent days. “Last week, it crept into the campaign for president, with charges and countercharges that served to obscure the issues instead of illuminating the critical choices we face as a nation. None of our hands are clean,” he said.

Obama’s and Clinton’s campaigns engaged in several days of back and forth after her comments about King that some interpreted as minimising his role in the passage of landmark civil rights legislation. The two candidates called a truce on that issue last week.

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