COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Because Democratic White House front-runners Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton decided to go to Selma and Orangeburg, they have reminded the nation that for many people, the bloody struggle for civil rights happened in their lifetimes.
As they travel around the country in their own quests -- Obama would be the first black president if he is elected and Clinton the first woman if she wins -- the paths their campaigns are taking are already serving as important history lessons.
Obama laid down some markers for this journey last summer, in a trip to Africa in what turned out to be a part of the run-up to his presidential bid. While in South Africa, he toured the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, designed to make sure the scourge of apartheid was never forgotten. The museum was built on the ground where the 12-year old Hector Pieterson was gunned down by police on June 12, 1976.
Like Soweto, the site of one of the worse race riots in South African history, the shame at Selma is well-known. On "Bloody Sunday" on March, 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers attacked voting rights demonstrators en route to the state capitol in Montgomery as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the main street in Selma.
Orangeburg is the forgotten slaughter -- until, that is, last week.
On Feb. 8, 1968, three male students at South Carolina State University -- a historically black school -- were killed by police while protesting a segregated bowling alley. While Selma went on to become the one-word shorthand for the fight for racial justice in the United States, the Orangeburg massacre -- that's what's its called -- faded from the nation's consciousness, perhaps overwhelmed by other events. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
'We can't avoid it'
The superstar status of Obama and Clinton and their historic pursuits means that when their campaigns intersect, every media outlet in the United States pays attention.
Such was the case last Thursday, on the campus of South Carolina State, the site of the first presidential debate of the 2008 season.
South Carolina's new status as a first-time early-primary state gave unusual clout to the House majority whip, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.). A power in South Carolina Democratic politics whose endorsement is much desired by the Democratic candidates, the debate took place at SCSU, Clyburn's alma mater.
Politically, Obama and Clinton had to be there, but I have a sense the venue very much appealed to them because just by being there, the story of Orangeburg gets told.
As further tribute to Clyburn, the major Democratic White House candidates showed up Friday at his fish fry on the first floor of a cavernous concrete parking garage in Columbia.
He was talking about civil rights and the legacy of 1968 to reporters; it didn't come up in the debate.
"I don't believe you get a good understanding of what it is that you ought not ever repeat unless you know what it is," Clyburn said.
"So we can't avoid it. We ought not being trying to ignore it. Let's face up to it. It happened. Let's put it behind us, and let's go forward."