GREENVILLE, S.C. — Bernie Sanders fired up a lively crowd of supporters Friday as he began a campaign swing through this early primary state that seven years ago helped to boost the candidacy of another senator who many thought couldn’t beat the odds of winning the presidency.
Sanders even made reference to President Obama’s historic election in 2008 as evidence that the country “has in fact made real progress of overcoming our legacy of historical racism … But the bad news is racism still remains a much too real part of American life.”
The reference to Obama and the acknowledgement of the need to continue working to vanquish racism was applauded by the predominantly white crowd, which was far smaller than the throngs that turned out for a series of Sanders events on the West coast, but no less enthusiastic. The campaign said between 2,600 and 2,800 people attended the event at the TD Convention Center. Greenville is close to the North Carolina border and several people in the crowd had driven in from the Tar Heel State.
Sanders, a self described socialist democrat, has struggled to attract black supporters and twice young activists from the Black Lives Matter movement have disrupted his campaign appearances. If Sanders is to continue to gain ground on frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton, he will have to be more competitive with black voters. African American voters make up about half of the state's Democrats.
Symone Sanders, his recently hired national spokeswoman, said the candidate still has work to do to introduce himself to black voters. Once they hear his platform for economic and social equality, she said they would support Sanders. Symone Sanders, who is African American, warmed up the crowd with a passionate introduction of the candidate. Another young black woman, Jayde Barton, a recent college graduate, praised Sanders's proposals for free tuition at public universities and reduced interest rates on student loans.
Before the rally started, Melinda Scott and two friends waited for more than an hour in a line that snaked through the hallways of the convention center. The three black women said they had come to hear Sanders’ pitch.
“I’ve heard Bernie Sanders on TV and he says the right things,” Scott said. “I know he’s a socialist and I don’t had that against him.”
Brenda Henderson agreed, saying that labels and party identification are not as important as the candidate’s proposals.
“I listen to the individual,” she said. The women said affordable health care, education, equal pay and racial justice were issues important to them.
Their list was not dissimilar to that of Tom Reek, who lives in nearby Spartanberg and waited in line with his young daughter.
Reek, who is white, said he is a committed Sanders supporter, and his excitement has grown watching Sanders draw big crowds in other cities.
“His biggest problem is not enough people know about him,” Reek said. “If people hear him they will like what he says.”
At the beginning of his remarks, Sanders noted the growing popularity of his campaign, pointing to crowds of 28,000 in Portland and 27,000 in Los Angeles earlier this month.
"The momentum from coast to coast has been extraordinary," he said, "those kinds of crowds, that type of enthusiam is what we’re seeing all over America and what we’re seeing here today in Greenville ... This is a campaign on the move and it's a campaign that going to win." The crowd roared its agreement.
Sanders is scheduled to hold a rally Friday evening in Columbia and on Saturday he will host a rally in Charleston, S.C. He also is meeting with local African American leaders.
It was the 2008 primary in South Carolina that Clinton saw her lead among black voters all but vanish as they began to rally behind then-Sen. Barack Obama’s bid to become the first African American president. It didn't help that Clinton and her husband angered black voters and political leaders with comments that many considered to be disrespectful. Clinton is again the favorite of black voters, who are the foundation of the coalition that sent Obama to the White House twice, a coalition that Clinton hopes to reassemble for her bid to become the first female president.
Clinton has visited South Carolina at least three times this summer. Earlier this week she picked up the endorsements of two former governors of the state and some of the top Democratic organizers and strategists are running her campaign, including Clay Middleton, a former aide to Rep. James Clyburn, the state only Democratic in Congress. But during a campaign event Wednesday in Columbia, S.C., her campaign chairman John Podesta heard from supporters worried that the ongoing inquiries and investigation of her State Department e-mails were overtaking her campaign.
Sanders has a small staff in the state, but an enthusiastic network of grassroots supporters have been working social media to drum up interest in his visit. This is his first visit to the state for the Vermont senator, who canceled plans to campaign in South Carolina in June after the slayings of nine black worshipers during bible study in a historic church in Charleston.
Black Lives Matter activists in Charleston have planned a Friday night forum to talk with Sanders supporters about their common interests in reforming the criminal justice system. An activist with the group declined to say whether they would try to disrupt Sanders’ Saturday rally.
After Black Lives Matter activists disrupted an event focused on Social Security and Medicare, seizing the microphone and yelling at Sanders, he released a position paper on racial justice that declared, “We must pursue policies that transform the country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color.” He calls for policies to combat physical, political, legal and economic violence directed at communities of color. He proposes better policing practices, a restoration of oversight provision for some states in Voting Rights Act, reducing the prison population and making college more affordable.
Muhiyidin d'Baha, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Charleston, called Sanders’ platform “a good effort.” He said that activists were holding a Friday night forum for Sanders supporters to discuss their shared goals and ideas for reforming the criminal justice system.
“What we want to do is mobilize some of the ground forces he has to align with Black Lives Matter,” said d’Baha. “We absolutely want to advocate the placement of community oversight over police. Our first demand was a citizen review board, and we’re still without one here in Charleston. So we’re going to use whatever leverage we can get nationally to uplift that.”
In addition to the June massacre at historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, there have been a few high profile police shootings in South Carolina, including the April killing of Walter Scott, a 50-year-old unarmed black man, was shot in the back while running away from a North Charleston police officer during a traffic stop. The officer, Michael Slager, 33, was arrested and charged with murder.
In interviews with the Washington Post, d’Baha has said that local activists are constantly debating how to approach electoral politics. Some favor reform within the current political system; some say they live in “revolutionary times,” and can work best if they propose “a whole other political party.”
Staff writer David Weigel contributed to this report.