ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., took his presidential campaign to the heart of the Deep South for the first time this weekend, tailoring his campaign message to associate himself with the civil rights movement.
With a Kenyan father who was not descended from African slaves, Obama is unlike Southern black candidates, steeped in the slavery and civil rights struggles that tore at the region for more than a century. Neither is he like the white politicians, whose skin color automatically disqualifies them from the black experience.
And so, on his maiden presidential visit to South Carolina and Virginia, Obama was greeted with not only enthusiasm but also a bit of curiosity.
"Not only people in the black community, but people in the white community are going to be looking at this man and trying to figure out: Is he one of us? Does he understand what we've come through? What we're still confronting now?" said Vivian Glover, an assistant vice president at Claflin University, a historically black school in Orangeburg. "He's not bringing that with him. He's going to need to present it in some form or fashion."
It was Orangeburg where three black college students were gunned down in 1968 as they pressed to integrate the small town's only bowling alley. Speaking Saturday at Claflin to residents of the town and students, Obama brought the primarily black crowd of about 2,000 to its feet by evoking that era.
"At every juncture in our history, there's been somebody that's said we can't. There's been somebody's said you can't overcome slavery. There's been somebody who said you can't overcome Jim Crow," Obama told the crowd. "If I have your support, if I have your energy and involvement and commitment and ideas, then I'm here to tell you, 'Yes we can in '08."'
Later Saturday, Obama and his wife, Michelle, traveled to Richmond and accepted the endorsement of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat. Obama told reporters that his presidential campaign is a symbol for improving race relations in America.
"Here we are in the heart of what was the Confederacy," Obama said, looking out over the Virginia State House, which housed the Confederate Congress during the Civil War. "For me to be able to stand here as an African American reflects the enormous progress this country has made."
He ended a busy day by addressing more than 4,000 Democratic activists at the state party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner.
A Democrat has not won Virginia's electoral votes in decades. But Kaine, in becoming the first sitting governor to make a 2008 endorsement, said that could change with Obama as the party's nominee. He called the Illinois senator "a proud American but also a citizen of the world."
In both states, audiences greeted Obama more like a celebrity than a politician looking for their vote. In Orangeburg, cell-phone cameras snapped pictures the moment he entered the gymnasium and didn't stop during his speech, which was cut to a half-hour because of Saturday's Senate vote on a resolution on Iraq.
"I like his message of togetherness," said Frank Loadholt, 56, a social worker from Orangeburg who said he will "absolutely" vote for Obama. "I look at him as the best candidate out there with the best message."
Democratic State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D) said it is "totally ludicrous" to worry about Obama's lack of a history in the civil rights movement. "Look at the man's record," she said. "It shows he has an understanding of issues like that."
But many in the crowd seemed more hesitant and said they were not yet certain they will vote for Obama.
"I believe in listening to all of the candidates," said Wilhemina James, 58, from Florence. "This old gut hasn't failed me yet."
South Carolina has one of the nation's first presidential primaries, and African Americans make up about half of the state's Democratic electorate, so black support here is particularly critical.
Obama is vying with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and former North Carolina senator John Edwards for that backing. All three camps are wooing prominent African American politicians and courting black religious leaders, with varying degrees of success.
Obama also delivered a speech Friday to a more racially diverse crowd of almost 3,000 in Columbia.
Edwards was in Charleston, S.C., last week, while Clinton is scheduled to visit South Carolina on Monday.