Hamil R. HarrisPolitics

Black Voters Make Key Difference in the South

After months of waiting and listening to predictions, African Americans went to the polls to revive the presidential campaign of Joe Biden as the battle for the Democratic bid is seemingly turning into a two-man race between him and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Biden won big in the South Carolina primary Saturday and scored another prominent victory in Virginia on Super Tuesday. He and Sanders are now battling for many of the same voters now that former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer have bowed out of the race.

Meanwhile, billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s once-promising bid has recently sputtered, evidenced by hecklers interrupting the former New York City mayor’s speech in a Selma, Alabama, church during the commemoration of Bloody Sunday.

“It’s time [to stop] taking African Americans and poor for granted,” said Charles Steele Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He talked to The Washington Informer on the eve of the South Carolina primary, where all the campaigns were focused on mobilizing the Black vote.

On Sunday, Rep. John Lewis, who recently announced his diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer, rode across the Edmund Pettus Bridge while joined by civil rights activists and several presidential contenders from Biden to Buttigieg.

“We can make the difference for Joe Biden,” said a voice in a commercial running Sunday on WHUR-FM that was sponsored by super PAC Unite the Country. “Joe Biden is the only person who can beat Donald Trump.”

The commercial was played on the eve of the Virginia Democratic primary, in which Biden and Sanders were both competing hard. Sanders spoke in Springfield and the Virginia Beach area while Biden was all over the country.

Prior to the Super Tuesday showdown, representatives from the various campaigns made their pitches to Black voters and offered a variety of policy proposals at the SCLC Public Policy Conference and Presidential Candidate Forum in Columbia, S.C.

During the Feb. 26 event, surrogates from the different candidates addressed an enthusiastic crowd at the Tin Roof Event Center in Columbia. The event included participants representing Biden, Buttigieg, Steyer, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Surrogates for Sanders, Bloomberg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar didn’t participate.

“This was a tremendously important event,” Steele said. “Presidential campaigns spoke directly to African Americans about how they would improve our quality of life, create racial equity and provide opportunities for our communities to succeed.

“The candidates did not disappoint. We heard a variety of plans, promises and proposals that will help Black voters in South Carolina, Super Tuesday states and across the country determine which candidates to support,” he said.

Steele noted that while Black voters are critical to the base of the Democratic Party, Black communities endure significant health disparities, a wealth gap, economic distress and ineffective education for their children.

“It’s time for candidates to give comprehensive proposals on how they will address these issues,” he said. “The SCLC forum presented that platform and we applaud those who participated. It demonstrates their seriousness in addressing the impact that racial bias has had on our communities.”

Trey Baker, director of African American Engagement for Biden, told the audience that, as president, Biden would aggressively use executive orders to counter policies and practices enacted by President Trump.

Baker said Biden would “protect the absolute right to vote” and “turn back some of the damage that Donald Trump has done to our government, to our bureaucracy and to the Constitution. He will do this through executive orders.”

Baker said the former vice president has a solid history of accomplishments.

“People are confused,” he said. “Being progressive isn’t so much about being liberal, being progressive is getting things done.”

Baker took direct aim at the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United vs. FEC case determining that during elections, the government cannot restrict independent expenditures by corporations, associations, nonprofits and labor unions.

“What Citizens United did was bring all this flow of money into campaigns,” Baker said, adding that Biden would seek a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling.

Kat Taylor, wife of Steyer, who had been making inroads with Black voters, spoke on her husband’s behalf and expressed strong support for the Voting Rights Act, proclaimed that her husband is a strong supporter of a “national referendum” on issues. But Steyer bowed out of the race Saturday after performing poorly in South Carolina, even though he spent millions.

The campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren was represented by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who emphasized the need to fix criminal justice as a route toward improving economic justice for people of color.

“When you mess up criminal justice, you mess up economic justice … the two cannot be separated,” Krasner said, citing research by the Brookings Institution showing that people from low-income backgrounds are 30 times more likely to be in jail than high-income people. “We know they didn’t commit 30 percent more crimes.”

Krasner also said that “the country is under the control of a shrinking number of incredibly wealthy people” who control policymaking on voting, health care, homeownership, criminal justice and other aspects of life. He cited Warren’s “plan for economic justice” and said she supports federal standards for elections.

He blasted conservatives who seek to prevent formerly incarcerated people from voting as “cheaters” for “trying to squash the vote of people more interested in progress.”

South Carolina state Rep. J.A. Moore, who represented Buttigieg, insisted that his candidate was the right person for the White House even though Buttigieg struggled to win support among African Americans.

“We need new generational leadership,” Moore said. “We need a president who does not just talk and tweet, but has fought for his country honorably. … We need a president who will bring integrity, dignity and grace back to the White House and we can be proud to [say], ‘that’s my president.'”

Combat veteran Joseph Metty represented Gabbard, who has so far performed poorly in the primaries. He said her platform includes reducing the money spent on endless wars and using it to help the American people.

In an emotional moment, Metty broke down and cried as he described the suffering of veterans, some of whom are committing suicide.

“We spent trillions of dollars since 9/11 on unnecessary wars,” he said. “Why? When we have communities in our state and across the nation that don’t have drinking water, people in many states who have two and three jobs just to keep the lights on, people who are essentially drafted into military service — it’s not an actual draft, but they can’t afford tuition for college or gas for their car to get to work, so that’s why they enlist.”

Metty also said the criminal justice system has been “racist” in the way it is applied to African Americans.

“Stop throwing people in jail for weed and minor drug violations,” he said, adding that Gabbard would end the prohibition on marijuana and treat drug addiction as a mental health issue, not a criminal issue. “It is already treated as a mental issue if you are rich.”

After the forum, Steele told The Informer that as a nonprofit, the SCLC does not make any endorsements.

“We don’t support a candidate, we support public policy,” Steele said, adding that the Black people have been waiting for real solutions to their issues.

“African Americans and poor people are very disgusted in their lack of upward mobility,” Steele said. “People have lost confidence, Black banks are about to go under, our folks have lost interest in the process and we have gone back to states’ rights.”

This weekend, many civil rights leaders will head to Selma, Alabama, to observe the anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery when civil rights workers were beaten and bloodied by the Alabama National Guard on a day that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Steele said many people forget that Hosea Williams of the SCLC led the initial march that sparked the bigger march after the workers were beaten.

“Selma was very important in terms of fighting for voting rights,” Steele said. “Hosea Williams doesn’t get the respect he deserved in terms of the Selma to Montgomery march.”

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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