NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- The annual State of the Black Union forum boasted a number of famous attendees in New Orleans on Saturday, but this year's event received much more attention for who wasn't there.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama campaigns in New Orleans on February 7.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, was the only major presidential candidate to accept an invitation to attend.
Her rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, declined, as did Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Clinton told the crowd Saturday evening the country stands at a historic moment.
"How many of our parents and our grandparents, and how many of us ever thought we would see the day when a woman or an African-American would be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States," she said. Watch Clinton address the forum »
But Clinton also acknowledged experiencing "painful moments" during the campaign, which she called very challenging and incredibly competitive.
"The high stakes and historic nature of Sen. Obama's candidacy and mine have invested this campaign with an intensity and an excitement seldom seen in the political arena," she said.
Meanwhile, Obama's absence at the forum has prompted both controversy and a backlash against Tavis Smiley, the organizer of the event who has openly criticized Obama's decision.
In a letter to Smiley earlier this month, Obama commended the forum for addressing important issues, but explained he needed to focus on his presidential run ahead of the critical March 4 primaries.
"In the final stretch, I will be on the campaign trail every day in states like Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin talking directly with voters about the causes that are at the heart of my campaign and the State of the Black Union forum," Obama wrote.
"That is why, with regret, I am not able to attend the forum." Watch the candidates stump in Texas »
Smiley has been vocal about his disapproval of Obama's decision.
"I think it's a missed opportunity on Mr. Obama's part," Smiley told CNN. "Now, I am not interested in demonizing him for his choice, but I do disagree with it." Watch a report on the controversy »
But Smiley's criticism has also prompted many people to come to Obama's defense. The talk show host told The Washington Post he has been inundated with angry e-mails and even death threats.
"I have family in Indianapolis. They are harassing my momma, harassing my brother. It's getting to be crazy," Smiley told the newspaper.
Several forum attendees seemed unfazed by Obama's absence Saturday.
"Personally, I don't think it's much of an issue," said Victor Reed. "I'm standing behind him 100 percent."
Clinton probably was at the event because "she needs it more than [Obama] right now," he added.
Another State of the Black Union attendee said many people at the forum wished Obama had come, but understood his reasons for declining the invitation.
"It's better for his campaign to be in Texas," said Tiffany Washington.
Some of the nation's top black activists and politicians attend the State of the Black Union.
Smiley said he picked New Orleans as the 2008 host city to highlight the continued plight of its residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"We owe it to them, those who survived, those who are still struggling to rebuild their lives," Smiley said. "We owe it to them to raise these issues louder than ever."
New Orleans continues to battle problems, including crime and lack of affordable housing. Entire communities still lack hospitals or emergency care.
Obama campaigned in the city before he easily won Louisiana's Democratic primary on February 9, taking 57 percent of the vote.
In a question-and-answer session with Smiley at the State of the Black Union, Clinton was asked about remarks her husband made while campaigning for his wife in South Carolina, including his reference to Jesse Jackson having won primaries in the state during the 1980s.
Critics complained the remarks suggested that Obama's success in that state would largely be based on his race.
In her answer, Clinton said many of the forum attendees knew her husband personally and knew his heart.
"If anyone was offended by anything that was said, whether it was meant or not, whether it was misinterpreted or not, then obviously I regret that. But I believe our task is to go forward with the agenda that all of us agree upon. That is what I have done my entire life, on behalf of civil rights and women's rights and human rights," Clinton said.
"I believe strongly that there is a shared and common purpose that we all hold very dear, regardless of who you are supporting at this time for the Democratic nominee as president," she added.
"It goes way beyond Barack and me. It goes way beyond politics. And I don't think there is any doubt that I and Bill have been part of that common purpose and that struggle our entire adult lives."
At least one Louisiana lawmaker praised Clinton for being there when the region needed help.
"I don't support people just because they are black," said Democratic state Rep. Juan LaFonta.
"I support people because they are qualified and committed to issues that affect my constituent base." E-mail to a friend
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