NEW YORK (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on Monday toned down their rhetoric over race, seeking to smooth over a clash that was dividing their party, which for decades has prided itself on standing up for minority rights.
“I’ve been a little concerned about the tenor of the campaign over the last few days,” Obama told reporters in Reno, Nevada, after speaking to about 2,500 people at a rally. “We share the same goals, we are all Democrats, we all believe in civil rights, we all believe in equal rights.”
“I think that (former President) Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues,” he added. “I think they care about the African American community and they care about all Americans and they want to see equal rights and equal justice in this country.”
His remarks came as the former first lady addressed a predominantly black audience of union and church members in New York who gathered to demand higher pay for security guards in the city and to mark the anniversary of King’s birthday.
Clinton, a New York senator, took an equally conciliatory tone, hailing the fact that the Democratic Party’s top two presidential candidates were a woman and a black man.
“Each of us, no matter who we are or where we started from, is a beneficiary of Dr. King,” she said. “Both Sen. Obama and I know that we are where we are today because of leaders like Dr. King and generations of men and women like all of you.”
The former first lady has been locked in a war of words with Obama, who would be the first black president, over comments she made last week that some interpreted as downgrading King’s role in passing the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act while giving the bulk of the credit to the then-President Lyndon Johnson.
Clinton accused Obama of distorting her remarks. Obama called that claim “ludicrous.” Both candidates are courting black voters ahead of the nominating contest in South Carolina, where a high proportion of those expected to vote in the Democratic primary are black.
The audience in New York clapped but some were not convinced.
“I think she wants to get a vote,” said Robin Gray, 49.
“I think it was totally hypocritical, her being here. I think it was a slap in the face to the African American community,” said Jerry Mitchell, 42. “It’s her trying to do cleanup work based on a statement that she made.”
The Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation of blacks and whites in schools and other public places. King was a leader of the civil rights movement and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated four years later.
Hazel Dukes, the president of the New York National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) defended Clinton, saying her remarks about Johnson’s role did not diminish what King had done.
“Dr. King couldn’t make a law -- he advocated for the law,” she said. “In order for a law to become effective, in order for us to get the Voting Rights Act, somebody had to sign the legislation,” she said.
Dukes, whom Clinton described on stage as being a friend and mentor, said she had not decided how she would vote, but hoped people would focus on other issues.
“We need to be talking about what’s going to happen in education, the war in Iraq, employment, the economic situation in America,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in Nevada, editing by David Alexander and Alan Elsner)
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