SUMTER, SC — — Ahead of the Democratic primary in South Carolina, the debate over which candidate deserves the black vote has intensified.
The Palmetto State’s black community has long supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, but prominent black intellectuals have recently spoken out against Clinton. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, published an essay arguing that Clinton does not deserve the black vote. She pointed to the crime bill and welfare reform Clinton lobbied for in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was president, policies that have contributed to the inequalities in the criminal justice system wreaking havoc in the Palmetto state and across the country today.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates has also spoken up. “I’m very, very concerned about where her positions were in the 1990s, when we had some of the most disgusting legislation in terms of our criminal justice, really, in this country’s history,” Coates told Democracy Now, adding that he would be voting for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
But these criticisms are not resonating with five mothers who have reluctantly embraced fame after their children were killed during racial encounters with police or guns.
The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton, and Jordan Davis have all joined Clinton on the campaign trail in South Carolina to help make her case to black voters.
We’re supporting her solely based on her own merits, not what she did as First Lady.
The mothers told ThinkProgress they think Clinton should not be defined by her husband’s policies. And they said the arguments against her are discounting the fact that Sanders also voted for the 1994 crime bill.
Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was shot and killed in Jacksonville, Florida in 2012, told ThinkProgress that she constantly reminds people that Clinton’s actions as First Lady do not define who she is as a politician today.
“She was First Lady at the time, so she had no opportunity to vote for the 1994 crime bill,” she said. “She has publicly started over and over again that she understands there have been a lot of implications in the minority community based upon that crime bill. She definitely plans to create and stimulate some kind of changes, because disproportionately, our communities have been impacted by the crime bill.”
The five mothers all shot down criticisms of Clinton as they spoke to black churches across South Carolina, arguing she should not be judged for her actions while her husband was president.
“I want everyone to know that we’re not looking at what Bill did,” said Geneva Reed-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother. “We’re not looking at his campaign, so we’re not judging her based on what he did. Let’s give her her own shot. We’re supporting her solely based on her own merits, not what she did as First Lady.”
Billy Murphy, the attorney for Freddie Gray’s family and for residents of Flint, Michigan who are suing the city, told ThinkProgress at a Clinton campaign event in Columbia, South Carolina that even black leaders signed onto that crime bill.
“Black leadership was not in a position to predict that mass incarceration would result from being tough on crime,” he said. “Now Hillary Clinton has seen, just as black leadership has seen with complete clarity, that mass incarceration is probably the worst thing that’s happened to the black community in the last 50 years. She has a program to solve the problem.”
The five mothers are touring the state, holding a series of “breaking down barriers” events to explain how exactly they think Clinton will address racial injustice in office.
Clinton supports legislation to prevent racial profiling and laws that would help individuals released from prison, McBath said at one of the events. She has also worked to address the disparities in sentencing for crack and power cocaine. And most importantly for McBath, who also advocates on behalf of gun control groups, she said Clinton is the best candidate to address the country’s existing gun laws.
Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, said specific policies aren’t as important to her as the fact that Clinton was willing to meet with her last year.
“Nobody else listened to us,” Fulton said. “She never made the first promise about what she’s going to do when she gets in office. What she did say was that she’ll make every effort to make change, and we believe that.”
Maria Hamilton, Dontre’s mother, told ThinkProgress she is working with Clinton on the issue of mass incarceration and trying to implement a program to help former inmates transition through employment and housing services. She also said she supports Clinton’s stance on banning the box, or preventing employers from automatically screening out job candidates who have criminal records.
Concerns about Clinton’s role in the crime bill do not seem to be hurting her among South Carolina’s black voters. A recent Monmouth University poll found that two-thirds of South Carolina voters believe she would do an “excellent” or “good” job of helping African Americans, compared to 51 percent who believe Sanders would.
At the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Sumter, the audience didn’t need much convincing to support Clinton. The president of the local Democratic Party broke into tears as he thanked the women for sharing their stories and said that he doesn’t know what else he can do to help them. “Vote Hillary!” Reed-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother responded. The pastor’s wife also expressed her gratitude for the women, saying she had just voted early for “the big H.”
Patty Wilson, a 66-year-old Sumter resident who has supported the Clintons for decades, told ThinkProgress that any argument tying Clinton with the 1994 crime bill is a “bunch of crap” because she has always supported the black community.
“A lot of times when a person says something, it gets blown out of proportion, and you never go back to figure out what did happen,” she said. “There’s nothing that can be done to take away the pain of those mothers that have lost their children to gun violence. Hillary’s saying that she’s going to really regulate that.”
With endorsements from a number of prominent black leaders, Sanders is also fighting to rally minority voters in the South.
Fresh off his loss in Nevada, Sanders hit the campaign trail in South Carolina. On Sunday, he held a rally in a Greenville arena where more than 5,000 voters came to hear him speak about economic inequality. Former NAACP President Ben Jealous introduced the candidate, along with actor Danny Glover. Though Sanders peppered his usual stump speech with mentions of the country’s broken justice system, his remarks were tailored to the largely white, young audience.
Sanders was one of the first candidates to announce a racial justice platform, but he is still criticized for voting to give gun makers immunity against legal action and for voting against other gun control measures in the Senate.
Jonathon Allmond and Diana Harvey, two young black voters who attended the rally, told ThinkProgress they believe Sanders should appeal to the state’s minority population because of his history of supporting civil rights.
“I think personally, he’s been talking about it from the beginning, and that speaks a lot,” Allmond said. “I think Hillary just kind of jumped along. Since he’s been speaking in these issues for so long, that’ll resonate more and seem more genuine.”
Earlier on Sunday, Sanders also made a surprise visit to a black church in Columbia where his reception was less than ideal. Many members of the church barely recognized his presence as he tried to work the room.
Still, younger black voters have been more willing to give the Vermont senator a chance. Eric Garner’s daughter, Erica, has been on the South Carolina campaign trail with Sanders and is featured in an ad in the state that also uses footage from her father’s death.
The division in the Garner family highlights the same tensions among Democrats across the country. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, who joined the other mothers at the Clinton events, said she has not tried to convince her granddaughter to support Clinton.
“You know how young people are,” Carr said. “Sometimes they get fed something and they believe it. The only thing I can say is, do your research. Do your research and then make your decision. Don’t make your decision because your friends and peers are doing this. Look at Bernie and what Bernie has done. Look at Hillary’s track record and see how it weighs out.”