Across the South, candidates are battling for the young black vote with the hope of carrying this important Democratic constituency. Growing support for Bernie Sanders has left many older voters, who favor Hillary Clinton, questioning the political judgement of the younger generation. (Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Hillary Clinton expressed regret Thursday for 20-year-old comments about young, black “super-predators” as she and Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders appealed to black voters likely to decide the upcoming South Carolina primary.

Clinton campaigned before largely African American audiences across South Carolina, while Sanders went to Flint, Mich., the majority-African American city suffering from a contaminated-water crisis that has prompted accusations of racism and government neglect.

Black voters, and her family’s long association with them, are the linchpin of Clinton’s strategy for winning the first Southern primary Saturday. The winner will have a strong claim to momentum going into the next round of voting in Southern and Midwestern states with sizable African American populations — starting three days later, on Super Tuesday.

“My life’s work has been about lifting up children and young people who’ve been let down by the system or by society, kids who never got the chance they deserved,” Clinton told Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart.

Sanders spent the day outside South Carolina, focused on three states with contests on the calendar in March: Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

Tracking the race to the Democratic nomination

The senator from Vermont drew a raucous crowd of 3,600 to a packed university gymnasium in a suburb of Cleveland. Recent polls in Ohio, which holds its primary March 15, have suggested a tight race. Sanders also stopped at a church in Flint, where he convened a forum on the water crisis.

At the end, Sanders tried to broaden the implications of a city with crumbling infrastructure, where a government decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water.

“As a nation, we have got to get our priorities right,” he told an audience that was majority-white. “This is the richest country in the history of the world.”

Clinton was confronted with her own 1996 comments about gang crime during a videotaped encounter with a young African American activist Wednesday evening, and the tense exchange hung over the Democratic contest Thursday, although Clinton did not address it during her public events.

Ashley Williams, a 23-year-old activist from Charlotte, interrupted Clinton during a private fundraiser in Charleston, S.C. Williams stood and demanded an apology from Clinton for the high incarceration rate for black Americans, and told the candidate: “I am not a super-predator, Hillary Clinton.”

At issue was a quotation from Clinton in 1996, at the height of anxiety during her husband’s administration about high rates of crime and violence. During his presidency, Bill Clinton shepherded a sweeping crime bill through Congress that was heralded at the time but has since been widely criticized for increasing incarceration rates and sentence durations, notably among black inmates.

“They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-
predators,’ ” Hillary Clinton said then. “No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

Hillary Clinton won the Nevada Democratic caucuses on Feb. 20, thanks in part to huge support from black voters and older voters. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Clinton has disavowed much of the 1994 crime law.

In a written response to Capehart on the issue Thursday, Clinton said, “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”

She also told NBC host Chuck Todd that her remarks had been “a poor choice of words.”

Her campaign did not respond to a separate request for comment on the encounter with Williams or explain whether the candidate disavows the idea of “super-
predators.”

In an interview Thursday, Williams said she wants all candidates to be held accountable for their past actions and statements that touch on racial justice.

“All the candidates who are running for president need to be held to the same kind of scrutiny in terms of the way that they have been complicit in mass incarceration and damaging communities of color across the United States,” Williams said. “Bernie can get it, too. They can all get it.”

The Clinton campaign has criticized Sanders for his support of the 1994 crime bill when he was a congressman. In a statement, Sanders’s campaign manager Jeff Weaver said that Sanders voted for the bill to protect provisions embedded in it that preserved the assault-weapons ban and included domestic-violence protections for women.

Weaver noted that Sanders criticized mass incarceration at the time that the bill was being considered.

“When this so-called crime bill was being considered, Bernie Sanders criticized its harsh incarceration and death penalty provisions,” Weaver said. “Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, resorted to dog-whistle politics and dehumanizing language.”

Clinton has also sought to put a spotlight on Flint, squeezing in a visit to the city in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, which she lost to Sanders.

Michigan holds its Democratic primary March 8.

Sanders also appeared Thursday night at a boisterous rally in Chicago that drew more than 6,500 people. Illinois is among the states that vote March 15.

In two stops in rural South Carolina communities, Clinton billed herself as a unifier who would solve the intractable partisan ills of Washington in order to solve the painful ills of South Carolina’s impoverished and under-educated.

Hours from any major city, Clinton sought to speak to the South which those in rural communities know all too well, addressing the lack of good schools or educational opportunities, health-care availability and rising prescription drug costs.

In drawing a contrast with Sanders, whose campaign has focused on the power of big banks and Wall Street, Clinton said she was ready to lead on the enormous issues facing many Americans. “We are not a single-issue country, and I am not a single-issue candidate,” Clinton said.

Also Thursday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said that they are preparing to endorse Clinton for president in an effort to help her campaign secure critical Hispanic votes in next week’s Super Tuesday primaries.

Wagner reported from Flint, Mich. Abby Phillip in Houston and Jeremy Borden in Florence, S.C., contributed to this report.