Supporters listen to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) address a crowd March 14, 2019, in North Charleston, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The crowd packed into the gym of a century-old black church here cheered every time Sen. Bernie Sanders attacked inequities that hit disadvantaged African Americans especially hard, applauding his ideas to address “the disparity within the disparity.”

But the problem Sanders faces in appealing to black voters was staring at him as he spoke for an hour recently at the gym of the Royal Missionary Baptist Church: Of the more than 1,600 people who came to see the candidate, fewer than 40 were black.

Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren faced a similar dynamic in Greenville, S.C. More than 800 people filled the community center of a politically active church to hear her speak, but only about a dozen black faces were visible — in a state where about 60 percent of the Democratic electorate is African American.

Sanders (I-Vt.) and Warren (D-Mass.) share a liberal philosophy focused on helping those who’ve been hurt by the prevailing system, a message both say should resonate in black households. But both are older white candidates hailing from New England, and they often confront skepticism — if not ambivalence or indifference — from black voters, who have been notably absent from their campaign events.

Their challenges provide a preview of hurdles likely to confront other white candidates, including former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) and former vice president Joe Biden, should he join the race. The Democratic field for the first time includes two well-known black U.S. politicians, both of whom are attracting diverse crowds and interest from the black community.

A month before Sanders spoke at Royal Missionary Baptist Church, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) held a rally in the same room. Her crowd was much more racially varied, including a group of black women who showed up in church hats. The crowds showing up for Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also have included far more voters of color.


A woman grabs a campaign button for Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, in North Charleston, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

If Sanders or Warren hope to extend their primary campaigns beyond the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, which have predominantly white electorates, they must find ways to forge stronger connections with black voters, strategists from both campaigns say privately.

Showing connection

Black voters played a critical role in picking the last two Democratic nominees, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and it’s hard to see a path to the Democratic nomination without significant black support.

About 25 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2016 were African American, and in key states, including South Carolina, the figure was much higher.

Democratic candidates also are striving to show white liberals they can connect with the black community, strategists said. The Democratic base is increasingly sensitive to diversity issues, they said, and many Democratic voters of all stripes say a strong black turnout could be critical to defeating President Trump.

“For a lot of progressive white voters in the Democratic Party, they don’t want to nominate someone unless they are really conscious about a diverse coalition, actively seeking the votes of all kinds of people, of all races and ethnicities,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “And they look extra hard at what the white candidates do in this regard.”


Tonya Woodson, left, and Brianna Walton wait to meet Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in Memphis on March 17, 2019. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters)

Sanders and Warren are adopting different strategies. Sanders included a brief stop in Selma, Ala., site of a historic civil rights battle, during the campaign tour that launched his presidential bid. He’s also retooled his stump speech to focus on how racism has contributed to financial and social inequality.

Many of Sanders’s supporters say they are frustrated that he does not talk more about his own role in the civil rights movement, since they say he has a good story to tell. As a young activist, Sanders attended the 1963 March on Washington, was a leader of the Congress of Racial Equality chapter at the University of Chicago, and got arrested at an anti-
segregation protest.

“He was literally chaining himself to black women and being arrested in Chicago,” said Shaun King, a black journalist and activist who supports Sanders, referring to a protest Sanders attended against perpetuating segregation by educating black children in temporary classrooms called “Willis Wagons.”

But Sanders, more than most candidates, appears uncomfortable talking about himself. After mentioning his civil rights experiences at early rallies in Brooklyn and Chicago, he has largely returned to his familiar policy-heavy speeches.

King said Sanders does not talk about his civil rights credentials in part because he is reluctant to compare himself to the great civil rights leaders.

“He never wanted to make himself feel like he was on their level,” King said. “He mentioned it in Chicago . . . but I don’t think he’s going to keep mentioning it. I think he feels like it’s phony . . . like ‘I did that because it was right. I didn’t do it as a political device.’ ”

Ben Tulchin, Sanders’s pollster, said the candidate is working behind the scenes to build relationships with local black leaders. The senator met with South Carolina faith leaders Friday, despite having injured his head on a glass shower enclosure, requiring seven stitches and a large white bandage on his forehead all day.

“Last time, we started at zero, right? And we had to introduce the senator to voters around the country,” said Tulchin, acknowledging that Sanders attracted few black votes in South Carolina in 2016. “Now they know him — he’s well-known and well-liked, but they don’t still know his full story.”

Brady Quirk-Garvan, who spent the past five years as the head of the Charleston Democratic Party before endorsing Booker this month, said Sanders’s ­behind-the-lectern style of campaigning had made it hard for him to connect personally with black and poor voters in South Carolina.

“It’s not just that he’s a Yankee. It’s not just that he’s white. It’s not just that he’s old and that he sounds like a professor. It’s all of those things,” Quirk-Garvan said. “When Bernie Sanders speaks, it could be the lecture hall of the Harvard student union. And that’s good and great from a policy standpoint, but that is hard to get people as excited about.”


Warren, who is also running for president, waves to supporters in Memphis on March 17, 2019. Tami Sawyer, a city resident, is at left. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters)
Southern tour

As for Warren, who actually was a Harvard professor several years ago, after seeing her early campaign events fail to draw many black voters, she has decided to go to them.

She is on a campaign swing this week through the South, touring impoverished neighborhoods in the Mississippi Delta in an echo of the famous “poverty tour” taken by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in 1967 and 1968. Warren held town hall meetings in Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis, and visited Selma on Tuesday.

The tour, covered by national media outlets, is providing images of Warren meeting with local black leaders, walking through African American neighborhoods and paying homage to the civil rights movement. But some at the events suggest she has an uphill climb.

“When I see a white woman, it is my first reaction to be skeptical,” said Xytoi Miller, a 24-year-old human resources professional, who came to a pizza parlor in Jackson, Miss., to watch the broadcast of a Warren town hall. “There is that gap there, that racial gap.”

Miller warmed to Warren during the event, saying she’s “sharp” and “relatable.”

Warren’s campaign requested that CNN, which sponsored the town hall, hold the session at historically black Jackson State University, all but guaranteeing a diverse audience for her most-watched moment of the campaign.

She fielded more than a dozen questions from black audience members. Asked about compensation for slavery, she said, “It’s time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations in this country,” although she did not commit when host Jake Tapper asked if that included direct money transfers to descendants of slaves.

Warren also said the Mississippi state flag should be redesigned to eliminate the Confederate design it incorporates, and that Confederate monuments should be removed.

A day earlier, Warren held another town hall in a black neighborhood of Memphis, but the audience was far less diverse. About 15 percent of attendees were black, far less than candidates such as Harris and Booker have drawn.

“More will have to be done to get them [black voters] engaged in the campaign,” said Carol Johnson, a schools superintendent who attended the event and knows Warren from a stint in the Boston school system.

Johnson, who is black, applauded when Warren spoke about early-childhood education but said she was still unsure which candidate she would support.

Warren, asked about the purpose of her trip though the South, did not cite race directly but said she is running a broad campaign. “This is a 50-state campaign strategy,” she said. “I’m running to be president of all the people.”

When she toured Selma, Warren visited historic sites and wandered through downtown, although she did not cross the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of a famous 1965 march when civil rights workers were attacked. That meant Warren missed meeting Betty Boynton, who said she was beaten on the bridge as a girl and had hoped to meet Warren. Warren’s campaign said the senator later gave the woman a call.

The swing through the South was in part a conscious homage to Kennedy, another Northeastern Democrat and one who had strong relations with the black community. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group that has backed Warren’s policies, sent out an email featuring photos of Warren’s tour along with archival shots of Kennedy’s visit to the Mississippi Delta.

In Cleveland, Miss., Warren even stopped at a home once owned by an activist who led Kennedy on his walk through the same neighborhood.

Warren introduced herself to residents standing in their yards, including several who recognized her from television. She offered details about her housing bill and promised that under her administration, the federal government would be “a better partner.”

She ended her tour of Cleveland by going table to table at the Senator’s Place, a cafeteria-style restaurant that serves plates of chicken, rice, black-eye peas and sweet potatoes. The restaurant is owed by state Sen. Willie Simmons (D), who had helped shepherd Warren around Cleveland.

“I’m impressed that she came,” said Simmons, who said he had never before hosted a presidential candidate.

But even after an hour with Warren, he wanted to see more candidates before he makes up his mind.

Linskey reported from Memphis, Selma, Ala., and other locations. Sean Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.