Asked whether he had finally killed off the notion that he had trouble connecting with black voters, Barack Obama looked around him and laughed.
“It was never alive,” he said.
Mr. Obama had just delivered an impassioned keynote address at the historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala., and he was surrounded by hundreds of black men and women jostling each other for a chance to shake his hand or touch his jacket.
But while the majority of the crowds in Selma flocked around Mr. Obama, he was far from the only show in town. Down the street from the Brown Chapel, Hillary Clinton spoke to parishioners of the First Baptist Church, declaring by her very presence an intention to fight Mr. Obama for a significant stake of the black vote. To amplify her commitment, Bill Clinton, who has unparalleled appeal in the black community among white politicians, dropped in after her speech like a cotton-haired exclamation point.
Even an ostensible show of unity underscored the intensity of the competition. On Sunday afternoon, the Clintons and Mr. Obama stood together in the front line of a march retracing the steps that civil-rights activists took 42 years ago across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In 1965, the marchers met with state troopers wielding billy clubs, bullwhips and tear gas. The savagery and bloodshed, broadcast live on national television, set the stage for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
“We’re all amazed,” said Morgan Lewis, an 81-year-old veteran of the 1965 bridge crossing, who grinned when he added: “They are coming to the bridge crossing to gain more of our votes.”
MR. OBAMA ARRIVED FIRST.
On Saturday night, he visited the National Voting Rights Museum, where a wall of notes handwritten and signed by the original marchers reached from floor to ceiling. The uniforms and nightsticks of the Alabama state troopers hung in a showcase down the hall. The tattered shoes and plaster foot imprints of the men and women who marched lay under glass in rooms visited as piously as a chapel.
Outside the museum doors, a rollicking street fair cluttered Water Street, with booths selling everything from portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. to belt buckles and chicken-on-a-stick. Teenagers flirted and listened to Southern rap music. Many people said they were waiting to hear the next day’s speeches before making up their minds between the two candidates.
A few miles away, past many shuttered stores and dilapidated houses, previews of those speeches were already getting underway in the Elks Lodge, where U.S. Representative and civil-rights lion John Lewis was being honored.
Between poems and testimonials, and a singing performance by Dreamgirls chanteuse Jennifer Holliday, Mr. Obama’s surrogates argued his case. Kim Ballard, a white probate judge for the county with jurisdiction over Selma, told the crowd that he considered Mr. Obama the “No. 1 contender for the Presidency.”
Artur Davis, a Congressman whose district includes Selma, said that Mr. Obama’s election would give an incalculable boost to the country’s impoverished blacks.
After stepping off the stage and behind a partition, Mr. Davis said he thought it was a “smart strategic choice” for the Clinton campaign to have brought in the former President. But, he said, Mr. Obama’s campaign “was what that movement was about.”
The next morning, Mr. Obama wasted little time in making that point himself.
In a packed gym at the local community college, dressed in a dark suit and silver tie and standing a few feet away from an empty table reserved for Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama articulated his connection to the civil-rights movement in the clearest terms he has used so far.
“If it hadn’t been for Selma, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, referring to the movement that paved the way for his Kenyan father to come to the United States. “This is the site of my conception. I am the fruits of your labor. I am the offspring of the movement. So when people ask me if I have been to Selma before, I tell them, ‘I’m coming home.’”
The speech, which Mr. Obama’s campaign said he wrote himself, received shouts of “Preach!” and “Yes!” and repeated bursts of applause from the public. For the most part, he stayed away from matters of policy and focused more on establishing his civil-rights credentials with the audience at hand.
He called the Iraq War “ill-conceived” but left the overtly negative political rhetoric to Mr. Davis, who attempted to turn Mrs. Clinton’s superior experience against her. “Longevity,” Mr. Davis said pointedly, “can make you calculate when you cast your vote on the war.”
As noon approached, Mr. Obama sped over to the historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where hundreds of people gathered outside, alternately chanting “Obama!” and “Let us in!” Dignitaries and select parishioners squeezed into the 11 pews, while the rafters sparkled with camera flashes when Mr. Obama entered.
Under an illuminated cross, gold organ pipes and hanging chandeliers, Mr. Obama closed his eyes and nodded to the hymns and prayers. He shook his head in a show of embarrassment when Bishop T. Larry Kirkland illustrated his point about racial equality by saying, “Show me a John Fitzgerald Kennedy and I’ll show you a Barack Obama.”
But for all his squirming, Mr. Obama seemed eager to encourage the comparison.
“It’s not enough just to ask what the government can do for us—it’s important for us to ask what we can do for ourselves,” he said. Later, he echoed Robert Kennedy when he talked about “ripples of hope.”
He spoke of a “poverty of ambition” to describe the lack of self-value among a consumerist black youth, an “empathy gap” to explain what he called the current administration’s lack of caring for the underprivileged, and a “Joshua generation” to characterize the inheritors of the original civil-rights activists. All of those phrases audibly resonated with the crowd.
At the end of the ceremony, he linked arms with Congressman Lewis, sang “We Shall Overcome” before greeting the masses outside.
“He has a living connection to the movement,” said Evelyn Dawson, of Atlanta, who watched Mr. Obama from the church’s pews. “That connection became clear today.”
Or, as Mr. Lewis said in a later interview about Mr. Obama’s weekend in Selma: “It tends to demonstrate more than ever before that he can, and did, relate deeply and strongly with the African-American community.”
SUNDAY ALSO SERVED AS A TESTAMENT to Mr. Clinton’s status among black voters—and to Mrs. Clinton’s willingness to use it, despite his tendency, as at the funeral of Coretta Scott King in February of last year, to overshadow her.
“Bill Clinton is an icon in the black community in the way no other white has ever been,” said Hank Sanders, a popular Alabama State Senator. “He cannot do anything but good for Hillary.”
Mrs. Clinton, dressed in a green pastel pantsuit and describing herself to parishioners of the First Baptist Church as the “beneficiary of what happened in Selma 42 years ago,” enjoyed a much more modest crush of supporters than Mr. Obama.
Neither of the Clintons was originally slated to attend.
On Feb. 26, several days after Mr. Obama announced his commitment to speak at the commemoration, the Montgomery Advertiser reported that Mrs. Clinton would speak at the church down the street from Mr. Obama and accept a civil-rights award on her husband’s behalf. On Feb. 28, a Washington Post–ABC News poll showed her lead evaporating among black voters. The following day, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign announced in a statement that she would “join President Clinton” as he accepted the award.
But on Sunday, as fans swarmed around Mr. Clinton, grasping at his hands and kissing his reddened cheeks, he told The Observer that he had committed to attend the commemoration right away—“as soon as I found out I was invited and they wanted to give me this award,” he said.
On Monday, Mrs. Clinton told Radio Iowa, “We were both invited—I to participate and he to receive the Voting Rights Hall of Fame honor—and originally he didn’t know if he could rearrange his schedule.”
Mrs. Clinton then added, “It worked out for us to be there together, and I’m glad it did.”
FOR BOTH CANDIDATES, IT WAS A WEEKEND rife with political maneuvering and posturing. Mr. Obama scored the point of sitting next to Mr. Lewis in the church, but Hillary held his hand during the march.
According to a briefing paper circulated among staffers of Mr. Clinton, the candidates intended to flank Mr. Lewis, with Mr. Obama on his right and Mrs. Clinton and then her husband on the honoree’s left. But the pandemonium surrounding the candidates rendered futile any attempt at political choreography.
Mr. Obama ended up six or, at times, eight bodies down the line from Mr. Lewis. Mrs. Clinton’s practiced press operation sensed an advantage and pounced. An aide grabbed photographers backtracking in front of the marchers and smuggled them forward, past the protesting security, so that they could get better pictures of the Clintons next to Mr. Lewis.
Mr. Obama’s press officers scrambled to get photographers to the other side of the line, and one of them actually complained at one point that Mrs. Clinton’s camp was stealing their press.
Mr. Obama, on the other hand, seemed to take it all in stride. As the marchers paused before turning left on Broad Street toward the bridge, he took off his jacket, popped a piece of Nicorette gum in his mouth and happily accepted a wheelchair carrying civil-rights pioneer Fred Shuttlesworth. He then pushed it, smiling widely, to the foot of the bridge.
Once across the Alabama River, the candidates climbed atop a small, tree-shaded stage, where organizers planned to honor Mr. Clinton with his award.
After a few minutes of standing around, Mr. Obama said his goodbyes to the dignitaries, including a quick embrace with Mr. Clinton. The pair indulged the delighted crowd with a wave and then somewhat guiltily dropped their arms off each other’s shoulders. Before Mr. Obama made his way offstage, Reverend Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an Obama supporter, asked everyone to stop what they were doing and close their eyes as he gave a benediction.
A few seconds in, the prayer took a somewhat uncomfortable political turn for Mrs. Clinton.
“We want to support the troops, and we know the best way to support the troops is to bring them home right now,” Mr. Lowery said. “We don’t need any long-drawn-out, structured plan. The plan is to bring them home.”
In the back corner of the stage next to the steps, Mr. Obama—perhaps not coincidentally—started to chuckle.