Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders discussed race relations, jobs and campaign reform during a campaign stop in South Carolina amid rising poll numbers. (Reuters)

As Bernie Sanders sought to broaden his exposure Saturday in the first presidential primary state in the South, he was joined by a controversial traveling companion: Cornel West, an African American academic who has been highly critical of President Obama.

West introduced Sanders to a racially mixed crowd of almost 1,000 people in the gymnasium of Benedict College, a historically black institution, as someone who could unite the country across racial lines and bridge other divisions.

“What I love about Brother Bernie is he’s a brother of integrity and honesty and decency,” said West, a prolific author and civil rights activist who is now a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “He’s not just on the move. He’s going to win.”

West, whom Sanders referred to as “my dear friend” and embraced onstage, joined the Vermont senator at two more events Saturday in South Carolina, where black voters could account for about half of those casting ballots in next year’s presidential primary.

The final event of the day, held on the campus of Winthrop University in Rock Hill, drew nearly 3,000 people, according to university officials.

Sanders, who represents a state that is about 95 percent white, has acknowledged that he faces a challenge in getting to know minority voters, who could be key to his fate after the first two Democratic nominating contests in predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire.

Recent polls have shown Sanders as leading Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire and either closing in on or in a dead heat with her in Iowa. But Sanders continues to lag far behind the former secretary of state in more limited South Carolina polling. At Sanders’s latter two events Saturday, in Florence and Rock Hill, white voters greatly outnumbered black voters.

West, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, was once a popular thought leader among African Americans, but his standing has been questioned more recently because of his harsh tone in criticizing Obama.

West has referred to Obama as “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface” and “a black puppet of corporate plutocrats,” among other insults.

In a book published this year, West said that Obama has betrayed the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“The dream of the radical King for the first black president surely was not a Wall Street presidency, drone presidency, and surveillance presidency with a vanishing black middle class, devastated black working class, and desperate black poor people clinging to fleeting symbols and empty rhetoric,” West wrote.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a White House contender in 2016, is known for his stances on budget issues and war. Here are his takes on Obamacare, Social Security and more. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

Sanders’s aides said that they welcomed West’s endorsement and that his support could help validate Sanders’s message with black voters.

“Cornel is a leading voice in the African American community,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said. “He’s a forceful voice for understanding the intersection of racial justice and economic justice. He understands very well Bernie’s message. He provides validation to many people that the agenda Bernie is putting forward is an agenda that would benefit people in the African American community and beyond.”

After introducing Sanders, West settled in among those seated on stage and gazed admiringly in the senator’s direction throughout his nearly hour-long stump speech.

West lifted his hands above his head and applauded as Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, said that “we need an economy that works for working families, not just a handful of families.”

West nodded as Sanders ticked off “tragic” statistics for “real youth unemployment” — highest among African Americans — and asserted that “we are turning our backs on an entire generation of young people.”

And West led the crowd in a standing ovation when Sanders said the country needs to “invest in jobs and education rather than jails and incarceration.”

He did the same when Sanders later ticked off the names of several African Americans who recently “died at the hands of police officers or in police custody” and said forcefully that officers who break the law “must be held accountable.”

At all three stops Saturday, West and Sanders were warmly received by the crowds. West got a particularly raucous welcome from the crowd assembled at Winthrop University’s auditorium. Sanders praised him there as a longtime friend and “one of the country’s great intellectuals.”

Tevin Spruill and Christopher Lewis, two students at Benedict College, said that they had not heard much about Sanders prior to his appearance Saturday but that they were leaving the gymnasium prepared to support him.

“Every single thing he said made complete sense,” said Lewis, 20, a junior majoring in social work.

Spruill said he wasn’t concerned about West’s criticism of Obama, saying it is different to criticize a sitting president than someone aspiring to the job. As for Obama, “he hasn’t done a perfect job, but he’s been a good president,” said Spruill, 21, a music major.

Sanders’s appearances in South Carolina are part of a four-day Southern swing. He held a low-dollar fundraiser Friday night in Atlanta, has a rally planned Sunday night in Greensboro, N.C., and multiple stops Monday in Virginia, including a convocation speech to students at Liberty University, the conservative Christian school founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell, and a rally in Manassas.

Friday’s fundraiser drew a boisterous crowd of more than 1,300 people to a venue in downtown Atlanta, part of a state where black support will also be key. The crowd was predominantly white, but several of the African Americans in attendance said they were optimistic that Sanders would develop more of a following among black voters once he becomes better known.

Tomiko Nichols, 48, blamed the media for not covering Sanders as much as some of the other candidates. She said her in-laws are not familiar with Sanders and that her teenage daughter only knows about him “because I make her.”

Nichols said she had been inclined to support Clinton until she discovered Sanders, and now she’s promoting him in conversations with friends and on Facebook.

“He does not just have supporters; he has soldiers,” said Nichols, who runs a franchise of Drama Kids International, a program that uses acting to build the social skills of youths.

Williams reported from Washington.