NEW ORLEANS — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton sought to regain the support of African-American voters Saturday, even as the Rev. Al Sharpton accused her campaign of using racially charged rhetoric and of trying to alter party rules to an unfair advantage.
Speaking at the State of the Black Union forum here, Clinton said she understood that the heated race between her and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has taken the African-American community and the rest of the nation into sometimes uncomfortable, "uncharted territory as a party, as a nation, as individuals."
"But uncharted territory means the way forward isn't always easy," she said. "Those us of us who have fought together for decades to right wrongs and break barriers cannot allow differences in our choice of who should be elected to undermine our fundamental unity and determination to change the course of this country starting in November."
Before she spoke, Sharpton, participating in a panel at the forum, said her campaign undermined that unity through surrogates' use of racially charged rhetoric during the primaries.
Sharpton said he was angry about comments about Obama's past drug use by Billy Shaheen, then a co-chair of Clinton's New Hampshire campaign, and from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter who said there are some conservative whites in his state that are not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.
"They have to explain the language we've heard," he said.
Sharpton said Clinton's campaign also was trying to subvert democracy and change the rules by seeking to have Florida and Michigan delegates seated at the Democratic National Convention.
The Democratic National Committee punished Florida and Michigan by stripping them of their delegates to the convention after the two states defined party rules and advance the dates of their primaries.
"This whole move by the Clinton campaign violates civil rights in Florida and Michigan," Sharpton said.
The Democratic presidential contenders agreed not to campaign in those states, essentially turning their primaries into beauty contests. Clinton won both contests handily and her campaign has since advocated having their delegates reinstated.
"Over two million people voted in Florida and Michigan and their votes should count," said Doug Hattaway, a Clinton campaign spokesman.
As for Sharpton complaints about surrogates, Hattaway said that Shaheen was dismissed from the campaign after his remarks.
"Hillary has spent a lifetime working to improve the lives of Americans, including African-Americans. Her record speaks into what's in her heart," he said.
Throughout the primary season, Clinton has steadily lost a once-commanding position among African-American voters, to the point where 80 to 90 percent routinely are backing Obama.
The only rules for the panelists at Saturday's State of the Black Union forum was that they stick to speaking on issues affecting the African-American community and check their 2008 presidential campaign allegiances at the door.
But Sharpton's comments and those of other participants quickly threw the rules out the door as they either overtly or coyly touted their presidential preferences for Obama or Clinton during the nationally televised forum.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former Democratic presidential candidate, put a strong pitch in for Obama.
"For America to hope to move from the racial battleground, to economic common ground, to moral high ground, it's Obama-rama," Jackson said to the cheers of a largely African-American audience that packed an auditorium inside the convention center.
Obama wasn't there to speak for himself. He was campaigning in Ohio Saturday after declining an offer to attend the forum, a move that caused a public flap between the Illinois senator and television and radio talk show host Tavis Smiley, the organizer of the forum.
His absence didn't appear to bother many members of the audience.
"This isn't a debate," said Metta Jones, of Westbury, N.Y. "I think he has to be campaigning at this time, that's what's important. Hillary at this time needs to be visible in this community now that she's losing and he's been getting a lot of the African-American vote."
Smiley scolded African-Americans who have let their passions about the Democratic presidential campaign gets the better of them. He noted that some African-American elected officials endorsing Clinton have had to change their home telephone numbers several times after receiving angry calls and even death threats for backing Clinton over Obama.
Smiley said he's received threats for blasting Obama for not coming to the forum. Smiley turned down the campaign's offer to have Michelle Obama attend the event on her husband's behalf.
"How can you have a conversation in black America where that kind of animus does not exist?" Smiley asked the crowd.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., a Clinton campaign national co-chair, bristled at criticism she's heard for endorsing Clinton from some African-Americans.
"I didn't leave my blackness at the door, I'm still a sister," Jackson Lee said. "I hope you are open-minded enough to realize that Sen. Clinton is someone you can have a dialogue with."