April 4, 2008 / 2:27 AM / in 10 years

Candidates court black vote on King anniversary

MEMPHIS (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton tried to shore up support among black voters on Friday in the city where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was slain 40 years ago.

Democrat Barack Obama honored King’s legacy with a speech in Indiana while his rivals attended activities in Memphis marking the anniversary of the day King was gunned down as he stood on a Lorraine Motel balcony.

“I think it’s important to spread the message that Dr. King’s work is unfinished in places like Indiana and North Dakota,” Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, told reporters in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

As a steady downpour soaked a crowd outside the Lorraine Motel, Arizona Sen. McCain got a mixed greeting at a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

A couple of people shouted “no more war” as McCain, an Iraq war supporter, was introduced. There were scattered boos as McCain said “I was wrong” for voting against creating a federal King holiday while he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1983.

Others shouted, “We forgive you.”

McCain, who will face Obama or Clinton in the November U.S. presidential election, noted that he had afterward supported a King holiday in his home state of Arizona.

“We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans,” McCain said.

Forty years after his death, King “only seems a bigger man from far away. The quality of his character is only more apparent. His good name will be honored for as long as the creed of America is honored,” McCain said.

Clinton spoke at Mason Temple, headquarters of the Church of God of Christ, where King gave his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech the day before he died.

She said if elected president she would appoint a Cabinet-level “poverty czar” to address the problems of the disadvantaged, the people for whom King fought.

Members of the Memphis Tennessee "Beloved Community" carry signs as they march to the former Lorraine Motel, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, April 4, 2008. April 4 marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the civil rights leader who was shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. REUTERS/Mike Segar

“He never gave up and neither should we,” Clinton said. “Like with any faith there were dark moments -- but he would always come back from those dark places. And so must we.”

RACE ROILING

Forty years after King’s assassination set off race riots in more than 100 U.S. cities, race is roiling U.S. politics this presidential election year.

Both McCain and Clinton have some fence-mending to do among African Americans.

Slideshow (9 Images)

McCain had rankled black voters by skipping a Republican debate on African-American issues in September.

Clinton had irked some black voters by saying on the campaign trail that King was not solely responsible for improvements in civil rights laws, that 1960s President Lyndon Johnson had a lead role as well.

Obama has been criticized over inflammatory sermons given by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at Obama’s Chicago church, as he railed against the U.S. history of segregation.

Obama, who is getting overwhelming black support, told a crowd in Fort Wayne that American politics had not lived up to King’s dream.

“For a long time, we’ve had a politics that’s been too small for the scale of the challenges we face,” he said. “Instead of having a politics that lives up to Dr. King’s call for unity, we’ve had a politics that’s used race to drive us apart.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll published on Thursday found Obama’s favorability rating among Democratic primary voters dropped 7 percentage points to 62 percent since late February. The decline was mostly among men and upper-income voters.

Clinton, who would be the first woman to win the White House, is scrambling to capture the Democratic presidential nomination from Obama in what seems an increasingly hard task.

Obama and Clinton will address the North Dakota Democratic convention later.

Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst and Caren Bohan; Editing by Doina Chiacu

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