In the escalating battle between his campaign and Hillary Clinton’s over civil rights history and racial politics, Barack Obama launched a pre-emptive strike of civility earlier this week. “I don’t want the campaign at this stage to degenerate to so much tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, that we lose sight of why we are doing this,” Obama said Monday while campaigning in Nevada. “Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have historically been on the right side of civil rights issues.” Clinton responded by saying that “when it comes to civil rights and our commitment to diversity, when it comes to our heroes–President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King–Senator Obama and I are on the same side.” A truce was declared by the national media.
It didn’t last. On Tuesday, the Clinton campaign released “talking points” to reporters that kept the issue alive. “Over the last few days, the Obama campaign has distributed recent comments from Senator Clinton and President Clinton to suggest that they were diminishing Senator Obama’s candidacy and casting aspersions on the legacy of Martin Luther King,” the talking points stated. “There are media reports that the Obama campaign is distributing a memo in an effort to sensationalize and drive this story. This is unfortunate, especially coming from a campaign that says it is about bringing people together.” The release went on to declare that “Nobody wants to see the injection of race or gender into this campaign.”
It’s a little late for that. No matter who injected race or gender into this campaign, it’s not going away. Obama and Clinton had nothing but nice things to say about the other’s civil rights record at Tuesday’s debate in Nevada. But at the same time, the subject of race could rear its ugly head at any time going forward. After all, race has always been used as a wedge issue in political campaigns, including by the Clintons, dating back to Bill’s run for the presidency in 1992.
During his famed “Sister Souljah” moment in June 1992, Bill Clinton went before Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and condemned the black rapper for seeming to justify the Los Angeles riots and advocate the killing of whites. “Her comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with the kind of hatred that you do not honor,” Clinton said. His remarks were cheered by establishment pundits, but they stirred controversy and resentment among prominent black political figures. “Clinton’s speech was arrogant, and it was cheap,” longtime civil rights activist Roger Wilkins told the New York Times. “He came there to show suburban whites that he can stand up to blacks. It was contrived.” The Reverend Jesse Jackson accused Clinton of staging “a very well-planned sneak attack, without the courage to confront but with a calculation to embarrass,” intended “purely to appeal to conservative whites.” Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel, now a top supporter of Hillary Clinton, labeled Bill’s behavior “insulting.”
During the campaign, Clinton angered members of the African-American community in other ways, too. He went back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally ill black man, Rickey Ray Rector, who’d been convicted of shooting a white cop; he played golf on numerous occasions at a segregated country club in Little Rock; he was photographed at a Georgia prison in front of an all-black chain gang.
These moments are now mostly forgotten, and today Clinton is widely regarded as the “first black president,” in Toni Morrison’s immortal words. As the junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton forged close ties with New York’s black community. President Clinton chose to base his foundation’s operations in Harlem. No right-thinking person would accuse the Clintons of being insufficiently committed to racial equality or civil rights.