ATLANTA (AP) – Barack Obama called Sunday for unity to overcome the country's problems and acknowledged that "none of our hands are clean" when it comes to healing divisions. Hillary Rodham Clinton picked up a Harlem church leader's endorsement.
Heading into the most racially diverse contest yet in the presidential campaign, Obama took to the pulpit at Martin Luther King Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church on the eve of the federal holiday marking the civil rights hero's birth 79 years ago. He based his speech on King's quote that "Unity is the great need of the hour."
"The divisions, the stereotypes, the scapegoating, the ease with which we blame the plight of ourselves on others, all of that distracts us from the common challenges we face: war and poverty; inequality and injustice," Obama said. "We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing each other down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late."
In New York, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Clinton told how she had traveled years ago with her church youth group to hear him speak.
"It was a transforming experience for me," Clinton said. "He made it very clear that the civil rights movement was about economic justice."
A day earlier, Clinton defeated Obama in Nevada's caucuses and the two challengers are looking ahead to South Carolina, where the Democratic primary is Saturday. The state is the first where a large number of black voters will participate, and Obama needs a win to remain a front-runner in the race for the party's presidential nomination. He won the leadoff contest in Iowa, and lost New Hampshire and Nevada to Clinton.
Obama is counting on blacks to stick with him despite his losing two in a row to Clinton. He lost Nevada despite winning 83 percent of blacks, who made up 15 percent of the total vote. In South Carolina, they are expected to make up at least half the turnout.
Obama's campaign has worked to overcome concerns among black voters that he wouldn't be able to win an election in white America. But his poll numbers leaped among blacks after his victory in practically all-white Iowa.
"I understand that many of you are still a little skeptical," Obama said Friday night at a King banquet in Las Vegas. "But not as skeptical as you were before Iowa. Sometimes it takes other folks before we believe ourselves."
He said in an interview with the Rev. Jesse Jackson on WVON-AM in Chicago that South Carolina is "absolutely critical to our success."
After appearing in Harlem, Clinton picked up the endorsement of the Rev. Calvin Butts. As dozens of Obama supporters shouted "Harlem for Obama," Clinton's supporters tried to drown them out by shouting "Hil-la-ry!"
Clinton spoke warmly of her opponent saying, "I recognize what a challenging choice this is."
Obama's and Clinton's campaigns engaged in several days of back and forth after some interpreted her comments about King as minimizing his role in the passage of landmark civil rights legislation. She was also criticized when some of her supporters pointed out that Obama admitted to using cocaine and smoking marijuana as a youth. The two candidates called a truce on the racially tinged debate last week.
Obama himself brought up the drug use as he talked about why he has built a campaign on hope.
"The odds of me standing here today are so small, so remote that I couldn't have gotten here without some hope," he said to shouts of support from the audience." My daddy left me when I was 2 years old. … I got in trouble when I was a teenager, got into some things that people now like to talk about. I needed some hope to get here."
Obama said blacks often have been the victims of injustice, but he said they also have perpetrated divisions with gays, Jews and immigrants.
"If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community," he said to applause.
Obama suggested he's allowed divisions to creep into his campaign in recent days. "Last week, it crept into the campaign for president, with charges and countercharges that served to obscure the issues instead of illuminating the critical choices we face as a nation. None of our hands are clean," he said.
Associated Press writer Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.