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Prominent NY minister endorses Hillary

From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones
NEW YORK -- Hillary Clinton returned to Harlem's historic Abyssinian Baptist Church Sunday to pick up the endorsement of its minister, a prominent figure in New York's African-American community who made a point of explaining why he was supporting her and not her chief rival.  

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts cited his long relationship with the senator and her work on education and healthcare among the reasons for backing her and shared that he had received phone calls from people in the black community questioning his decision to support a white woman rather than Obama.  

"This was not and is not and will not become a race-based decision for me," Butts said, "and I hope that it has not and will not become a race-based decision for you either. I respect Sen. Obama. I applaud him and I love him as my brother, but a vote for Hillary is not a vote against Barack Obama or any community, be it African-American, Latino and others, for that matter. A vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote to elect someone who has proven through time to me and to this community and this country that she has the experience to make things happen and the vision to return us to a place of prosperity."

A shout out between small groups of Clinton and Obama supporters that began as reporters stood outside waiting for the press conference to start was revived for a moment during Butts' brief statement, as Hillary backers tried to drown out the people chanting for Obama.

Clinton followed Butts, echoing his remarks. 

"I have the highest regard and admiration for my friend and colleague Sen. Barack Obama," she said. "I am honored to be running with him. I hope that this election remains focused on the big challenges that confront us."

In response to a question, the senator said the Democratic Party would unite behind whomever becomes the nominee.

The announcement came after a worship service during which Clinton addressed a mostly black crowd.  Several state and city leaders and the actress Cicely Tyson were on hand to here her speak. 

She focused on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calling his "I have a dream" speech one of the "great speeches that has ever been given in the history of the world", before going on to deliver a speech similar to one she delivered at a black church in Compton, CA last week.

The senator heard King's sermon about staying awake through the revolution for civil rights and economic justice in the 1960s in downtown Chicago as a high school student and talked about how it inspired her.

"It's a revolution that has to keep going on inside the hearts and minds of each of us and inside every level of government and every institution in society. I always feel challenged on Dr. King's birthday and I think it's a challenge that each of us has to accept," she said, praising the work the church has done for the past 200 years.

Clinton also talked about her work to support single-sex educational opportunities like Harlem's Eagle Academy for young minority men and about how politics and strong leadership matter

The black church is a common stop for Democratic politicians running for office and while the senator has insisted she does not think of voters as "groups" but as "individuals", her campaign has been making an effort to reach out to the black and Hispanic communities -- with Clinton visiting the California church and interviewing with Spanish-language television network Univision Saturday in Nevada.

Polling data in South Carolina show much of the black vote trending toward rival Barack Obama, who also polled particularly well among blacks in the Silver State.

Obama also spent the morning at a famous black church. He visited Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor.

Abyssinian was once pastored by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., one of the first blacks to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in the post-Reconstruction era.

The church has played host to numerous political figures and community leaders over the years, like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter and Dr. King. Butts hosted the Clintons back in October for a celebration billed as a "Homecoming" for Hillary. Bill's office is in the neighborhood.