bill_clinton.jpgMIAMI BEACH (AP) _ It was an unlikely title for the silver-tongued Arkansan, but long before America elected Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton was famously referred to as the nation's “first black president.''

A longtime champion of issues important to the black community, Clinton spoke at a fundraiser Thursday night for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to be built in Washington.

The event, of which the South Florida Times was a sponsor, comes nearly a year after some worried Clinton had alienated the community _ one of his most loyal constituencies _ during an ugly primary campaign between his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Obama.

Others said the former president was only doing what he needed to do to get his wife elected, and he was welcomed with a standing ovation at Thursday's event and honored with a humanitarian award.

Clinton, who said he would never have been elected if not for King, recalled his famous ``I Have a Dream'' speech.``I can still quote that speech today. It changed America in a profound way,'' Clinton said. He also praised Obama and his historic election to the presidency, but added America has a long way to go toward fulfilling King's dream.

Clinton said the address Obama will give at his inauguration and King's 1963 speech are closely linked.

``I cannot imagine that one would be occurring if the first had not been given,'' Clinton said.

Harry Johnson, president of the foundation planning the memorial, said Clinton's relationship with the black community has never faltered, brushing off what was said during the campaign as ``just politics.''

``President Clinton has been a friend to the civil rights movement and to the disenfranchised. The bottom line, President Clinton is the one that signed this bill into law allowing us to build the memorial,'' he said.

The $120 million, four-acre Memorial will rest on the National Mall next to the F.D.R. Memorial. It's fitting that Obama will unveil it, Johnson said.

``Like Obama, Dr. King was a change agent,'' he said. ``He is the first man of peace and the first man of color on the mall.''

Clinton played such an aggressive role in his wife's primary campaign that during one debate, Obama snapped at Hillary Clinton, ``I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes.'' But after Hillary Clinton conceded in the primaries, the former president dutifully hit the campaign trail for Obama.

``It's the nature of the game, said T.J. Tracey who attended the dinner. ``Any husband would have done the same thing.''

In typical Clinton style, he spent much of his speech Thursday at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel urging people to give to food banks despite hard economic times and addressing the importance of affordable health insurance and healthy lunches in public schools.The famous description of Clinton as ``our first black president'' came from a 1998 column in New Yorker magazine by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison.


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Pictured above is Bill Clinton.