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Republican McCain serenaded on Alabama tour

GEE’S BEND, Ala. (Reuters) - African-American women serenaded Republican presidential candidate John McCain with gospel songs on Monday as he began a tour of economically ailing “forgotten places in America.”

Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) greets supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Nashua January 8, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Segar/Files

Trying to appeal to independent voters who could be crucial in the November election, McCain spent the day in some of the poorest areas of Alabama, arguing that the United States needs nonpartisan ways to attack economic dislocation.

While Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battle for their party’s presidential nomination, McCain as his party’s presumptive nominee is visiting places where Republican candidates do not normally go.

He began the day with remarks at a landmark of the U.S. civil rights movement, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where armed Alabama police attacked more than 500 civil rights demonstrators on March 7, 1965, a day known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“There must be no forgotten places in America,” he said, his voice rising with emotion as crowd applauded on a warm spring morning.

McCain spoke highly of Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis -- an Obama supporter -- who took part in the Selma march and was beaten by police.

The crowd gathered to see McCain, 71, was mostly white. In a news conference after his remarks, he said he was not concerned about making sure his message reaches black voters and other minorities. Blacks usually vote Democratic by overwhelming margins.

After Selma, McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” took him to Gee’s Bend, an isolated town near the Alabama River that itself was caught up in the civil rights conflict in the 1960s.

The nearby town of Camden had shut down the ferry across the river to prevent black Americans from traveling to Camden to join Martin Luther King’s movement.

Black women have been making colorful, highly prized quilts there for generations, and they still do, with prices ranging from $400 to $2,700.

As McCain stepped off his bus to visit their quilt-making facility, several women broke into song and followed him around singing.

“Oh do, Lord, oh do remember me,” they sang.

McCain clapped along with the women, and then one of them took his hand and pulled him into their circle, and danced with the smiling candidate.

McCain told them he wanted to better understand the economic problems in the area. “Our obligation is to leave nobody behind,” he said.

Then he gave them a check for three quilts and picked out the ones he liked.

The quilting ring-leader, 72-year-old Mary Lee Bendolph, said “I thank the Lord” that McCain came to visit her community.

But pressed by reporters, she shyly said there was another candidate that she favored. “I can’t say,” she said, until finally admitting she backed Obama because she reminds her of King.

Donning a Navy cap, McCain rode the ferry down the river to get to the Camden side, joined by the Gee’s Bend women, who sang some more en route. At one point the 71-year-old Navy veteran took the helm of the slow-moving vessel.

Later, in Thomasville, he got his heaviest applause when he said he wanted to suspend the federal tax on gasoline of 18.4 cents a gallon for the summer.

McCain said Americans are facing tough times and want change in Washington.

“There are still places that haven’t shared in the opportunities enjoyed elsewhere in our country,” he said. “For the people in those places, the time for talking about change is over. It’s time for action,” he said.

His trip will take him from the rural “Black Belt” of Alabama, to the hard-hit steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, the Appalachia region of Kentucky and hurricane-stricken New Orleans.