CHICAGO — The Rev. Ira Acree stood before a group of 400 mostly older African American women who had come to hear Hillary Clinton speak, but he had a message for the younger generation about Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“Bernie Sanders has made an unequivocal statement against reparations. He’s saying he, under no conditions, will support reparations,” the West Side Chicago pastor said. “He said that, and we want all the young African Americans who are for some reason supporting him to know where he stands on that issue.”
Acree did not mention that Clinton also opposes reparations.
In recent days, Clinton has courted African American voters intensely, in the hope that they will remain loyal to her in primaries in late February and March.
She has secured the endorsements of women she describes as “mothers of the movement,” whose children were the victims of violence. Geneva Reed-Veal, whose daughter, Sandra Bland, was found dead in a Texas jail cell after being pulled over for a routine traffic violation, introduced Clinton on Wednesday in a ballroom on the South Side of Chicago. The mothers of African American men such as Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton and Jordan Davis have also come on board to campaign for Clinton in South Carolina.
“I think we owe it to them,” Clinton said. “We owe it to them to reform police practices, to ensure that no other young woman like Sandra Bland is ever pulled out of the car for no reason and put into a jail where she is found dead.”
In courting black voters, Clinton has in large part employed a classic political strategy: enlisting the support of African American clergy and local political leaders to make the case for her candidacy. She has locked down dozens of prominent endorsers, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis and the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee. And on Tuesday, before delivering a sweeping speech on race in New York City, she met with black civil rights leaders including Al Sharpton and Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
Yet the Black Lives Matter movement, which has pushed the issue of race and policing to the forefront of the political agenda in the Democratic primary, has accelerated a generational divide, calling into question the civil rights-era model of movement leaders speaking for African Americans at large.
“I do not believe that anyone who is a part of the black political elite class speaks for anyone but themselves,” said Charlene Carruthers, 30, the national director of the Chicago-based civil rights organization Black Youth Project 100. “That’s one of the biggest flaws in how candidates engage black people: They seek out representatives for all black folks, when in fact no one represents us but us.”
That divide has created a challenge for both Clinton and Sanders — to court the support of well-known leaders from an earlier era in American history and expect younger African American voters to follow.
Sanders, who is less well known, has struggled to appeal to black voters broadly, but he has maintained that his overall advantage among the young will cut into Clinton’s support with minorities as well. He has stepped up his outreach by securing the endorsements of young activists including Martese Johnson, a University of Virginia student who was brutally beaten by campus police last year, and Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, a New York man who died after a police officer had restrained him in a chokehold.
Clinton’s comments came in a city that was rocked by the high-profile death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, a young black man who was shot 16 times while walking away from a Chicago police officer.
“These stories cannot be ones that provoke our emotions. They must move us to action,” Clinton said. “They must motivate every one of us to take on these issues, reforming police practices and making it as hard as possible for people to get guns who shouldn’t have them in the first place.”
McDonald’s death has brought new scrutiny on the city’s mayor, Clinton ally Rahm Emanuel, who has so far resisted calls for his resignation over his role in withholding video of the McDonald shooting.
James Britt, a 40-year-old African American consultant who attended Clinton’s event, dismissed the statements of her clergy endorsers as “empty rhetoric.”
“Many of the African American leaders have talked a good game, but they are in the pocket of Rahm Emanuel,” Britt said, adding that he is leaning toward Sanders. “That could have worked a few years ago. . . . I think she needs to change her political strategy.”
While Illinois’ primary is not until mid-March, Clinton returned to her birthplace to announce Reed-Veal’s endorsement and stand with a handful of other mothers like her, including Cleo Pendleton, whose daughter Hadiya Pendleton was killed in 2013 by a random act of gun violence in the same Bronzeville neighborhood where Clinton appeared Wednesday.
It is Clinton’s second visit to Bronzeville since announcing her candidacy. Her first visit focused on the cost and availability of child care. Her second comes days before critical contests in South Carolina and Nevada, which will put the interest of minority communities in the spotlight.
Clinton’s message was aimed at African American women, who are among the Democratic Party’s most reliable voters. She highlighted her commitment to ending gender pay discrimination and reforming the police practices and gun laws that have left so many mothers mourning their children.
As Clinton spoke, Sandra Bland’s sisters stood behind her wearing T-shirts that said “Remember Sandra Bland” and “Black Lives Matter.”
“This woman is dedicated,” Reed-Veal said, reciting a laudatory poem dedicated to Clinton. “Selfless in sitting down in a room full of mourning mothers who have violently lost their children, both sons and daughter.”
“I am one of those mothers who met with her,” Reed-Veal said, choking back tears. “And was able to make it through.”