A day after getting shellacked in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton is laying every chip on the table. By morning, while her opponent was in New York having breakfast with Rev. Al Sharpton and making an appearance on The View, the Clinton campaign began unleashing one endorsement after another from African-American leaders.
The move is largely seen as a counter-punch to a stingingly brutal assessment of the Clinton record published in The Nation. Best-selling author and college professor Michelle Alexander spared nothing in her rebuke of Clinton and her husband’s record on black issues. By mid-morning, acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates—who is perhaps best known for “The Case for Reparations”—announced that he would be voting for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Alexander did not make an endorsement and Coates was quick to say that he represents no one but himself. However, the news comes at a time when many believe the Clinton campaign is in dire need of a re-set.
While Clinton’s enormous support among black voters does not appear to be in jeopardy, the latest round of endorsements is an attempt to send a clear message to big donors and white liberals. No Democrat can win without black support. And that means Bernie Sanders has no path to victory.
In addition to a flock of South Carolina elected officials, Clinton now counts the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and at least 28 prominent black preachers among her strongest supporters. Announced just ahead of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, the former secretary of state unveiled a list of some of the most politically powerful pastors in the country—including Dr. Otis Moss Jr. and Dr. Raphael Warnock.
Both Moss and Warnock are camera-ready and have a proven record of turning out votes in hard-fought Democratic primaries at the local, state, and national levels. Warnock, who is senior pastor at Atlanta’s Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church situated in the center of The King Memorial site, was once rumored to be a potential U.S. Senate candidate in Georgia. Ahead of the 2012 mid-term elections, the 45-year-old co-led one of the largest voter registration drives the South has ever seen. Warnock, the son of a Savannah preacher who doubled as a junkman, is frequently featured on cable news and has emerged as a national voice on social justice issues.
Otis Moss Jr. is a theological giant whose storied activism dates back to the civil rights movement. He is the pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and a local health center at University Hospital bears his name. He also is the father of Otis Moss III, the pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, where President Obama and his family once worshipped. Moss, who was once co-pastor at Ebenezer, enjoyed a close and personal relationship with Dr. King. The late civil rights icon presided over Moss’s wedding to his wife, Edwina, over 50 years ago.
That they and others are standing up for Clinton now should come as no surprise. The black church has long proven to be a ready and necessary refuge for former President Clinton and now, as his wife makes her own bid for president—first in 2008 and now in 2016—the Clintons appear to be answering the altar call again.
The playbook was first forged in 1992, when the only viable black candidate for president abruptly dropped out of the race. The exit of Douglas Wilder, a popular Virginia governor, opened the window for Clinton to win over black voters and he was embraced like family by black pastors.
Twenty-four years later, the Clintons are attempting to harden support among key African-American influencers ahead of the South Carolina primary. Once again, black pastors are a key element of that strategy. Unlike Iowa or New Hampshire, 56 percent of those eligible to vote in the Palmetto State Democratic primary are black, and nearly 56 percent of all South Carolinians attend church at least once a week. Home to Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, black evangelicals are a powerful force in state politics. Notably, after a white supremacist slaughtered a black state senator and eight people at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, the community came together and prayed.
According to a Marist Poll released Feb. 5, the Clinton “firewall” has not cracked and she is leading Sanders nationwide by a hefty margin: 64-27 percent. And the most recent poll shows Clinton beating Sen. Bernie Sanders among black voters by a 4-to-1 margin.
Still, she is stacking the deck.
South Carolina House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, and 25 other General Assembly Democrats have endorsed Clinton. Former UN Ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young (also a pastor and former House member), as well as Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee, Maxine Waters, and Gwen Moore have all stumped for Clinton. Many of the surrogates, including D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congressman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina—who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus—have been dispatched to houses of worship in every corner of the state.
“He only really started talking about these issues,” Rep. Rutherford said of Sanders during an endorsement press call Wednesday afternoon. Clinton, Rutherford added, has been talking about these issues for the “last 40 years” while Sanders has only stepped up “in the last 40 days.”
“What we’re about do in South Carolina is what we are known to do,” former South Carolina Rep. Bakari Sellers told The Daily Beast. In other words, despite Sanders’s substantial ground operation, don’t expect South Carolina to “Feel the Bern.”
Some, however, are neither impressed nor amused.
“Black pastors are opening their church doors, and the Clintons are making themselves comfortably at home once again,” wrote Alexander in The Nation. Alexander, best known for her groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow, says black people are getting “played.”
“Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote” was a stinging repudiation of Clinton’s public record on African-American issues and codified the conversation unfolding in some quarters of black America: Can we trust Hillary Clinton?
“In her support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, she used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals,” Alexander wrote.
“They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” the then-first lady said, two years after the passage of the 1994 crime bill. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
The legislation, which was also supported by then-congressman Bernie Sanders, resulted in the mass incarceration of black men and opened what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline. It was an extension of the “war on drugs” and it had a devastating impact on black neighborhoods, crippling some for generations to come. Blamed for the largest increase in prison populations that this country has ever known, the bill expanded the number of capital crimes and created a federal “three strikes” law that mandated life sentences for some repeat offenders.
Despite public mea culpas for the outcomes wrought, many believed statements like those made by Clinton nearly 25 years ago would leave her vulnerable in 2016. And while that may have been true, no candidate emerged—including Bernie Sanders—who could make a meaningful challenge among black voters. And without a viable alternative, the black church, writ large, hasn’t held the Clintons accountable. To do so would mean turning some of the blame on themselves.
The 1994 law was not passed “under the nose” or “behind the back” of black preachers and elected officials. Rather it was done with their overwhelming support. At the time, black mayors around the country touted the virtues of putting more police officers on the street.
The Pat Moynihan-esque approach to combatting black unemployment, escalating poverty, and violent crime rates was a failure of both conscience and policy—and fully embraced by the respectability politics of the black church. There were no marches on Washington or other protests led by black pastors in cities across the country. Instead, the Clintons found eager reception for the bill, written by then-Sen. Joe Biden, in black pulpits. People were more concerned about the presence of bloodshed than any destruction that legislation might cause. Black mayors, including Atlanta’s Bill Campbell, applauded the administration’s funding of more police officers on the street.
It should be said that neither Sanders nor Clinton has sufficiently rebuked those failings or crafted a comprehensive, timeline-driven proposal to turn back the tide. Maybe that’s because both will need a coalition of liberal white votes and strong African-American support to win the nomination. While running against mass incarceration is proving to be good politics in the 2016, no candidate wants to be seen as returning to the murderous days of the early 1990s.
Ultimately, it appears that black pastors and elected officials—at least those who are supporting Clinton—are making the same bet in 2016 as many made in 1992, 1996, and 2008 (at least before President Obama sent shockwaves through the political establishment by winning Iowa). They are betting on familiarity and viability. After all, Clinton and Sanders both broadly support the pastors’ basic approach to economics, justice, and individual rights.
Clinton is making her bet, too. She’s taking her black support, and doubling down.
Edit: An earlier version of this article dated Clinton’s quote to 1994 instead of 1996.