WASHINGTON — Growing up in the palest of Chicago suburbs, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had some of her earliest exposures to African-Americans through field trips. She sat in the back of her father’s Cadillac as he detoured through the inner city, cautioning her about the fate of people who, in his conservative Republican view, lacked the self-discipline to succeed.
She took a sociology course at Wellesley College that included a trip through Boston’s poor areas. On Tuesdays, she went to a housing project in Cambridge to mentor “underprivileged Negroes,” as she wrote to Don Jones, her minister back home, who had taken her to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Chicago four years earlier.
In a presidential campaign in whic race has become a dominant issue, Mrs. Clinton’s early brush with Dr. King has been a recurring theme, invoked as a kind of “a-ha” episode to explain her coming of age on race. Yet Mrs. Clinton’s passage from sheltered Park Ridge, through the ferment of the civil rights era, to competing for black votes across the South, has been more gradual and introspective.
She spent 1964 volunteering for the Republican presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, a fervent opponent of the Civil Rights Act. She awakened politically in the combustible 1960s, but took a cooler approach to the civil rights movement. She demonstrated for racial equality, but it was just one of the items on her activism list (which included protesting the Vietnam War, agitating to allow cars on campus and fighting for the legal interests of children).
In promoting her civil rights record, Mrs. Clinton takes a sweeping view, incorporating a great deal of her work for the vulnerable and underserved — taking on juvenile-justice issues for the Children’s Defense Fund, leading a commission on education reform in Arkansas promoting the Family and Medical Leave Act as first lady. (Her campaign’s two-page list of civil rights accomplishments begins, at age 14, with the King field trip.)
“I do have a broader definition,” Mrs. Clinton said in an interview. “Civil rights are what each of us as human beings are entitled to in relationship to our society. But it really is, at core, about the respect and dignity of each human being.”
Frayed Good Will
Mrs. Clinton has seen her support among blacks as central to her political identity. She has had many African-American friends and advisers, racially diverse staffs and a Senate voting record that has earned straight A’s from the N.A.A.C.P. Even her rival, Senator Barack Obama , said in a debate that he is “absolutely convinced” of Mrs. Clinton’s commitment to racial equality.
But that career’s worth of good will became somewhat frayed after supporters of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign — and chiefly, her husband — were accused of racially tinged attacks and innuendo against Mr. Obama before the South Carolina primary. Mr. Obama went on to rout Mrs. Clinton on the strength of strong support from blacks, a constituency Mrs. Clinton had courted hard.
The tone of the Clinton campaign deeply dismayed some African-Americans who had been close to the Clintons, including Eric Holder, a former top Justice Department official and Obama supporter. “It places their legacy at risk,” Mr. Holder said.
Even as the charged rhetoric of South Carolina subsides, race will no doubt persist as a theme for as long as Mr. Obama is running, the contest is close and emotions run raw. “I think everyone is trying to find their way, here,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Just as Mrs. Clinton has enjoyed the residual benefits of her husband’s popularity with blacks, she has also been tarred with the perceived failures of his administration. Any number of African-Americans, despite their support for Bill Clinton in the 1990s, still bristle over some episodes — from his criticism of the rapper Sister Souljah during the 1992 campaign to his welfare reform bill in 1996 to the number of black prisoners incarcerated during his administration.
“The policy record of the Clinton administration on civil rights is more mixed than people generally acknowledge,” said Christopher Edley Jr., the law school dean at the University of California, Berkeley, who served in the Clinton administration. He cited Mr. Clinton’s unwillingness to intervene in Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands died in tribal war, and his signing of what Mr. Edley called “a horribly punitive crime bill.” Mr. Edley said he remains fond of both Clintons but is supporting Mr. Obama.
Circumstances have put Mrs. Clinton in a delicate position: as the main obstacle to the first African-American with a serious shot of becoming president. “Hillary’s in a tough spot. We’re all in a tough spot,” said Representative James E. Clyburn, the Democratic House whip, and influential black leader from South Carolina. “You have two big dreams converging at the same time.”
While she has built her presidential campaign on “35 years of experience making change,” her first 25 years were arguably more central to shaping her views.
The city of Park Ridge, 15 miles northwest of Chicago, was mostly devoid of blacks, Hispanics and liberals — which was fine with Hugh Rodham, who was not shy about flinging prejudices across the dinner table. “He had the views that people of that age and time did,” Mrs. Clinton said.
She recalled her father’s driving her through rough parts of Chicago. “We’d go by skid row, which is what it was called in those days,” Mrs. Clinton said, “and we’d see some fellow leaning against a lamp post, and my father would start in on one of his usual lectures.”
Over time, she said, he mellowed. “His experience really undermined and contradicted” his earlier views on race, she said.
Mrs. Clinton recalled first being aware of racism a half-century ago, at age 10, when she saw the televised images of black students in Little Rock, Ark., being blocked from attending school by order of Gov. Orval E. Faubus.
"There were these pictures of these mobs, and these children trying to go to school, and it seemed so wrong,” she said in the interview, conducted by phone. “I used to go to Sunday school and sing ‘Jesus Loves the Children of the World,’ and I just couldn’t believe it.”
Her biggest early influence on race was Mr. Jones, who led the youth group at Park Ridge’s First United Methodist Church. He took the teens to meet with poor black children at a community center and chaperoned the expedition to see Dr. King, whose speech that Sunday night bemoaned the indifference of the privileged to the plight of the poor. The young Hillary Rodham was inspired to volunteer to baby-sit for the children of migrant farmers.
Still, she adopted her father’s staunch Republicanism, even working for Mr. Goldwater’s campaign. Today, she laughs off her “Goldwater Girl” period as a youthful indiscretion — and indeed, she was 16 at the time.
“One of the first things I knew about Hillary was that she was Republican and had been a Goldwater Girl,” said Janet McDonald Hill, a black Wellesley classmate. That biographical nugget comes up surprisingly frequently among Obama backers.
“Being a supporter of Barry Goldwater during the civil rights revolution is about as close to original sin as I can imagine,” said Mr. Edley, the Berkeley law school dean, who is African-American.
Mrs. Clinton made her first black friend in college: Karen Williamson, one of six African-Americans in her freshman class at Wellesley. They went to church together one Sunday, which upset Mrs. Clinton’s parents and led her to question her motives. “Look how liberal that girl is trying to be, going to church with a Negro,” Mrs. Clinton wrote to Mr. Jones, imagining her reaction if she had seen another white girl doing the same thing.
As a sophomore, Mrs. Clinton volunteered as a “Big Sister” to a 7-year-old black girl whose mother, a single housekeeper, needed child care. Mrs. Clinton helped the girl with homework, took her to movies, took her to dinner at Harvard .
Mrs. Clinton brooded over the nature of privilege, suffering and race. In a letter to a high-school friend, John Peavoy, she spoke of “the depression that descends on a person, especially one who has led a ‘sheltered suburban life,’ when he is confronted with the realities of city life.”
In the fall of 1966, she attended a “black power” meeting hosted by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee but disapproved of the group’s extreme “attitude toward civil disobedience,” as she wrote to Mr. Jones.
After Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, she attended a rally in Boston’s Post Office Square. Then the college government president, Mrs. Clinton discouraged a campus organization of black women from initiating a hunger strike to protest Wellesley’s sparse African-American enrollment and (non-existent) black faculty. She pushed instead for a two-day student strike.
Mrs. Clinton said she came to believe that “taking to the streets” and “giving speeches” was not enough to stir real change — a claim that would foreshadow much of her advocacy work, as well as one of her recurring critiques of Mr. Obama.
After Wellesley, she went to Yale Law School. Though it teemed with radical activism in the early 1970s — and New Haven was aflame over a Black Panthers murder trial — Mrs. Clinton immersed herself in the less inflammatory field of child advocacy. She provided legal help for victims of child abuse and volunteered at New Haven Legal Services, spending months on a case involving a foster mother at risk of losing custody of a 2-year-old girl.
A Move to the South
By the time Mrs. Clinton moved to Arkansas in 1974, she had acquired a number of African-American friends and colleagues. She also had difficulty accepting what she saw as remnants of the “Old South.” She was appalled that Mr. Faubus, the segregationist governor, still had a following and opposed Bill Clinton in the Democratic primary for governor in 1986. Mr. Faubus lost with 33 per cent of the vote. (“You could put a chicken on the ballot,” she says now, “and he’d get 30 percent.”)
In the interview, Mrs. Clinton recalled meeting Mr. Faubus in the mid-1970s. She described him as talented, beginning his gubernatorial career as a progressive who improved roads, schools and mental hospitals. “And then he made a Faustian bargain in 1957 because he threw his lot in with the forces of darkness,” she said.
In Washington, as in Arkansas, Mrs. Clinton viewed civil rights within her broader portfolio of causes. Maggie Williams, her former chief of staff as first lady and a current campaign adviser, said that those interests were inevitably fused. “Low wages, poor health care and lack of educational opportunities disproportionately impact people of color in this country,” Ms. Williams said.
Professor Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School, who is supporting Mr. Obama, said the key distinction between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton lies in how they view their relationship to power. In doing so, Ms. Guinier, whose nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993 was pummeled by conservative groups and aborted by the White House, referred to their respective biographies.
Mrs. Clinton “is the talented lawyer serving her clients,” Ms. Guinier said. Mr. Obama is the organizer, she said, “who sees the source of his power as the ability to inspire people to mobilize.”
Referring to the possibility of the nation’s election of a historic first, a black or a woman, Mrs. Clinton said last week, “In a way, it’s a good problem to have. But it is a problem