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Gingrich faces questions in S.C. of whether he’s racist, bigot

By Wayne Washington, McClatchy Newspapers –

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Eight days after saying he would have black Americans demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps, Newt Gingrich faced tough questioning from a mostly-black audience at Jones Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday afternoon.

One audience member asked if Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, was a racist or a bigot.

Gingrich, 68, had dropped the names of a few prominent black Americans as he discussed how he would work to create jobs and help establish a “habit” of work among children in poor communities. The former speaker noted that he had traveled around the country with the Rev. Al Sharpton to discuss the importance of charter schools.

The name-dropping, however, didn’t mollify many audience members, who peppered Gingrich with questions about why Republicans have refused to work with President Barack Obama, how working can prepare young blacks for higher education, and why bipartisanship would suddenly reign if Gingrich won the presidency.

One woman pointedly asked Gingrich if traveling with Sharpton had any impact on him.

“Does that change your way of thinking, or are you still known throughout the country as a racist and a bigot?” the woman asked.

Gingrich said he is not known as a racist or a bigot, but the woman persisted in her tough questioning, reminding Gingrich of his characterization of Obama as “the food stamp president.”

“Do you still think of President Obama as the food stamp president?” the woman asked. “How can you say that?”

Gingrich didn’t back down.

“I say that because more Americans today are on food stamps than ever before,” Gingrich said.

Figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, back up Gingrich’s assertion. But many black Americans were offended when Gingrich said he would attend an NAACP meeting and tell people there that black Americans should demand paychecks instead of food aid.

Many black Americans saw Gingrich’s remarks as an overtly racist and an inaccurate effort to connect black Americans with food stamps. Most of those who receive food assistance in the U.S. are white.

“Our country is a country in which the political logic assumes that most poor people are black and most black people are poor,” Benjamin Jealous, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, said in a telephone interview with The State early Saturday afternoon.

Jealous was among those who criticized Gingrich and one of his competitors for the GOP nomination, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who said he does not want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money.

“I’ve commented on the statements of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich because they were outrageous and they were wrong,” Jealous said.

Many of those at Jones Memorial seemed to share that view.

Gingrich was invited to speak at the church after saying he would attend an NAACP meeting and tell black Americans to demand a paycheck and not be satisfied with food stamps. He entered Jones Memorial through a side door, 17 minutes after he was scheduled to begin speaking.

Had Gingrich come through the front door, he might have gotten a taste of what the day would offer.

A bulletin board near the front entrance carried the heading “Men of Faith.” Under those words were two oval portraits, one of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other of Obama.

Audience members gave Gingrich credit for showing up, but they said they were not swayed by what he had to say. Many said they backed Obama in 2008 and will do so again this fall.

“He’s trying to clean up the garbage you all left after eight years,” Jones Memorial member E.T. Williams told Gingrich. “It’s going to take more than four years to clean up the trash — and he hasn’t even had the four.”

Gingrich listened politely as audience members described challenges many black community members face. Later, he said he was glad he came.

“I was honored to be invited and honored to be here,” he said.

As he spoke to a crush of journalists, Jones Memorial members ate a catered meal of fried chicken and green beans.

Jones Memorial’s pastor, the Rev. James Williams, said the Gingrich campaign paid for the meal.

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