NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. ― When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) traveled to South Carolina for the first time as a 2020 presidential candidate on Thursday, his devastating loss in the state’s Democratic presidential primary three years earlier seemed like a distant memory.
Mounting the stage in the gymnasium of a Baptist church to the Doobie Brothers’ “Taking It To The Streets,” Sanders received the kind of fawning reception to which he has become accustomed in larger and more liberal American cities.
The crowd, 1,600 strong, according to Sanders’ campaign, welcomed him with chants of “Ber-nie” and roars of support that initially made it hard for him to complete his sentences.
“Thank you for being part of a campaign which is not only going to win the Democratic nomination, which is not only going to defeat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern American history, but with your help is going to transform this country and, finally, create an economy and government that works for all ― not just the 1 percent,” Sanders declared.
Affectionate hecklers periodically interrupted his nearly hourlong sermon against inequality with supportive comments. As Sanders began to describe what the country needed to say “to the top 1 percent and large, profitable corporations,” an attendee called out: “Eat the rich,” prompting cheers.
“I don’t know how tasty that would be,” Sanders deadpanned in response, before returning to his exposition of the “political revolution.”
South Carolina, which hosts the third contest in the presidential primary season, carries special significance for Sanders as he embarks on a second bid for the Democratic nomination. The Palmetto State handed him one of his most decisive losses in the 2016 Democratic primary, setting the stage for a shutout in the American South that virtually assured Hillary Clinton the party’s nomination.
Perhaps more importantly, Clinton’s success there hinged largely on her dominance with middle-aged and older black voters, who make up an outsize share of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina and other Southern and mid-Atlantic states. Sanders’ loss in the state helped harden the impression that he had difficulty reaching black voters, the most reliably Democratic voters in the country and a key element of any successful Democratic presidential coalition.
Sanders has worked hard in the intervening years to strengthen his political network in South Carolina, and to reconfigure his message and campaign apparatus to better cater to black voters.
Although Sanders did not have a political candidate to stump for in South Carolina during the 2018 midterm elections, he made a point of stopping in the state capital of Columbia for a Medicare for All rally during a nine-state tour in October.
He also spoke at the South Carolina NAACP’s Martin Luther King Day celebration in January, taking an opportunity to discuss racial justice in more explicit terms than he sometimes did in 2016. Afterward, Sanders spoke at an historically black college in the area and met with South Carolina’s legislative black caucus, eliciting praise from a state lawmaker for his efforts.
Since announcing his 2020 presidential bid in February, Sanders has hired people of color to key senior staff and advisory roles, discussed his personal participation in the 1960s civil rights movement in greater detail, and made racial justice a more prominent feature of his stump speech.
He continues to devote the most rhetoric to the income and wealth inequality that he sees as a defining source of injustice in contemporary America.
But he now highlights what he calls “the disparity within the disparity” ― or the degree to which racial inequities exist at every level of the earnings and education scale, compounding the overall woes for African Americans.
Speaking on Thursday in North Charleston, where African Americans make up a plurality of the population, Sanders addressed, among other things, the enormous wealth and social mobility gaps between black and white families, the damaging legacy of “redlining” that excluded African Americans from buying homes, and far-reaching bias in the criminal justice system.
“There is disparity in criminal justice, when an African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience physical force in an encounter with the police,” Sanders said, eliciting boos from people expressing dismay at the racial discrimination.
We’re definitely hoping that more candidates will do what they say and support small, minority business owners. Bernie Sanders definitely did it right. Leroy Harper
To fight those disparities, Sanders touted his support for ending cash bail and the criminalization of marijuana, which disproportionately impact African Americans, as well as ensuring a new federal funding formula for under-resourced communities that matches their need.
“We are going to root out institutional racism wherever it exists,” he vowed.
If the event provided Sanders an opportunity to showcase his growth, it also underscored the persistent challenges facing him. African Americans were underrepresented in the audience relative to their share of the population of North Charleston ― notwithstanding the location of the rally at a predominantly black church.
Several African-American rally attendees nonetheless told HuffPost they appreciated Sanders’ discussion of racism.
“We know that the judicial system is corrupt and so one-sided. When he pitched that whole thing about the reform going there, that really got me pumping,” said Melanie Spell, a Charleston city employee who voted for Sanders in 2016 and plans to do so again.
Leroy Harper, 43, whose sound and lighting company produced the rally, applauded enthusiastically as Sanders spoke about racial discrimination.
“We’ve dealt with that with our business,” Harper told HuffPost after the rally. “We’ve dealt with a lot of discrimination.”
Harper added that producing the Sanders rally was a major break for his company, Southern Lighting and Sound. It was the company’s first presidential event.
“We’re definitely hoping that more candidates will do what they say and support small, minority business owners,” Harper said. “Bernie Sanders definitely did it right.”
The Sanders campaign told HuffPost it chose Harper’s company after asking the church hosting the event for suggestions.
Some of Sanders’ incipient political alliances in South Carolina were also on display on Thursday night. No fewer than four black state representatives introduced Sanders before he spoke: Terry Alexander, J.A. Moore, Krystle Simmons and Wendell Gilliard. However, aside from Alexander, who is a top surrogate, the other lawmakers have yet to formally endorse Sanders.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, pastor of Charleston’s Morris Brown AME Church, is fond of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sanders’ presidential rival, and is close to former Vice President Joe Biden, who has yet to enter the race.
Darby maintains that Sanders needs to engage black voters in smaller settings and to listen patiently to their concerns, rather than dictate an agenda, if he has any hope of gaining a significant share of the black vote.
“He needs to be able to engage with humility ... and face the fact that for most of his political life and all of his senatorial life, he hasn’t had those interactions with black voters,” Darby told HuffPost in Charleston on Thursday afternoon.
Several African Americans at the rally who voted for Clinton in 2016 said they simply did not know Sanders well enough at the time.
“I hadn’t heard of him until a couple years ago, when it was him and Hillary,” said Eboni Frazier, a 27-year-old social worker who was eager to hear about Sanders’ health care plans.
Harper, the co-owner of Southern Lighting and Sound, had a similar explanation for backing Clinton in 2016. He is seriously considering Sanders this time around, but he also likes Harris.
“I would love to see her and Bernie join forces together,” he said.