The Democratic presidential contender was here to meet with community leaders at a mostly black church located near Ferguson, Mo., where race riots last year sparked a national debate on discrimination and policing. Clinton — who called for the flag to be removed from South Carolina statehouse grounds eight years ago, during her first presidential bid — praised South Carolina officials for making the same call Monday.
“I appreciate the actions begun yesterday by the governor and others in South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse, recognizing it as a symbol of our nation’s racist past that has no place in our present or our future," she said. "It shouldn’t fly there, it shouldn’t fly anywhere.”
She also commended Wal-Mart, Amazon, eBay and Sears by name for announcing that they would no longer sell products that feature the flag, and called for other companies to follow suit.
Her emphasis on racial issues follows the tragic shooting at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where a gunman killed nine people last Wednesday as they gathered for a Bible study. The attack was at the center of Clinton’s “community meeting” Tuesday afternoon at the United Church of Christ in Florissant, Mo.
“Those nine righteous men and women who invited a stranger into their midst to study the Bible with them, someone who did not look like them, someone who they had never seen before, their example and their memory show us the way,” she told the audience of about 250 attendees. “Let us be resolved to make sure they did not die in vain -- not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.”
Clinton has confidently waded into conversations on race relations on several occasions in recent months, with a particular emphasis on discussing the need for criminal justice reform in the United States. Her most recent string of speeches and appearances also serves as a clear message to communities of color: I'm with you — and I want your vote.
"Despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished," Clinton said at the annual Conference of Mayors on Saturday. "I know this is a difficult topic to talk about. I know that so many of us hoped by electing our first black president, we had turned the page on this chapter in our history. I know there are truths we do not like to say out loud or discus with our children. But we have to."
Clinton’s visit Tuesday came amid questions over her ability to reassemble the “Obama coalition” during the 2016 election, a coalition she is aggressively courting as she seeks the Democratic nomination. But six years into President Obama's tenure, parts of that coalition of young, female and ethnically diverse voters has become discouraged by the lack of political progress they see in Washington.
Clinton's campaign is seeking to cast her as a transformative figure similar to Obama — a “fighter,” in the words of her campaign, and potentially the first female president — in hopes of sparking the same kind of political energy that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008.
"This is no longer what has been called a 'Ferguson issue.' It's a community issue. Change is needed," said Cynthia Donaldson, 54, a local resident and a Democratic voter who supports Clinton. "We also want to know her stance on unemployment and other issues. This is personal for me."
Donaldson, who says her daughter has struggled to find employment since graduating with a master's degree, says she is interested in hearing Clinton talk about expanding economic opportunity for everyone. "These things are not just happening in the black community."
Waiting outside before Clinton's address, many hoped that Clinton would talk about finding solutions to broad problems that affect all communities across the country, such as education reform and early childhood education. While most of those in attendance live in the community — the group included several local elected officials — several students who attend university in the area also arrived hoping to see the former secretary of state.
“I think it’s important to learn how to create diverse and inclusive communities, especially now and especially in St. Louis,” said Kalie Penn, 19, a student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, about 20 miles away from Florissant. "She's here to talk about equality in our community, which is such a hot button issue.... It doesn't surprise me at all — she's been an advocate for equality."
Clinton emphasized inclusiveness throughout her speech Tuesday and in comments she made during a community panel that followed her prepared remarks. At one point, Clinton told the audience that she "didn’t have any black friends, neighbors or classmates until I went to college...I'm so bless to have had so many since." She said that nonetheless, she jumped at the opportunity to see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak when she was a student.
"Whether you live in Ferguson or West Baltimore, in coal country or Indian country, you should have the same chance as any American anywhere to get ahead and stay ahead," Clinton said.
Already Clinton has shown that reaching out to black and Hispanic voters is a top priority for her campaign team. In her first major policy address after declaring her presidential candidacy in April, Clinton spoke at Columbia University in New York about criminal justice reform, calling for the "end to the era of mass incarceration."
"Not only as a mother and grandmother, but as a citizen, as a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families," Clinton said then. "We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America."
Clinton’s frank and, at times, highly personal statements on issues of gun violence and policy brutality stand in contrast to the responses by her GOP rivals, who last week fumbled questions about the motivation behind the attack in Charleston — the accused shooter has since been associated with white supremacist beliefs — and whether it is appropriate for the Confederate flag to continue flying outside the South Carolina state Capitol.
Her comments have also surprised many critics who accuse her of being politically guarded.
“It’s tempting to dismiss a tragedy like this as an isolated incident, to believe that in today’s America bigotry is largely behind us,” Clinton said Saturday. “But despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.”