Sybrina Fulton, left, mother of shooting victim Trayvon Martin, endorses U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a town hall meeting at Central Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 23, 2016. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign entered a new phase on Tuesday evening at an emotional event at a Baptist church in Columbia, where she linked her campaign platform with a powerful appeal to the Black Lives Matter movement. The roots of this moment were planted about 118 miles away and 252 days earlier at another house of worship.
On June 17, 2015, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study group at a historical African-American church in Charleston and opened fire. Roof, who later said he hoped to ignite a “race war,” prayed with members of the congregation at the “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church before drawing his gun and shooting the people who had welcomed him into their flock moments before.
Clinton was in California the day Roof killed nine African-American churchgoers and wounded one other. That morning, as the terrible story unfolded, Clinton called Marlon Marshall, the director of states and political engagement on her campaign. Marshall is Clinton’s highest-ranking black staffer and one of the key architects of her national African-American outreach program.
“That day was a terrible day for this country. I think a lot of African-Americans had strong feelings that nine African-Americans could die just from being black. And she called me that morning while she was traveling just to check in and to have a conversation of, ‘How do we as a campaign do something about what happened and have a broader conversation about race?’” Marshall recalled in an interview with Yahoo News on Tuesday.
Marshall said the campaign conversation that started over eight months ago “culminated” in Tuesday’s event where Clinton sat on stage at Columbia’s central Baptist Church flanked by five women she called the “mothers of the movement.”
Standing in the lobby of the church, Marshall, whose shaved head tops a thick beard, paused as he reflected on the path that led to this moment.
“Just talking about it actually, it’s a little powerful, you know,” he said.
The mothers all had children who died while in police custody or in incidents of apparent racial profiling that turned deadly. Their names have become rallying cries across the nation: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Dontre Hamilton and Jordan Davis. After introducing the mothers — Sybrina Fulton, Gwen Carr, Geneva Reed-Veal, Maria Hamilton and Lucia McBath — Clinton made a pledge to address the issues that led to the deaths of their children.
“That’s too many deaths. Too many young lives cut short. Too many questions still unanswered. Something is very wrong when we have these incidents where kids can get arrested for petty crimes and lose their lives,” Clinton said to loud cheers and applause from the largely African-American crowd.
Clinton went on to vow that as president she would work to provide federal resources to support states and local jurisdictions that have “police involved shootings and in-custody deaths” so they can be investigated by “independent authorities.”
After her introduction, Clinton yielded the stage to the mothers, whom she’d previously met during an emotional private gathering in Chicago last November. At the event on Tuesday, several of the mothers indicated they were motivated to endorse Clinton because she was the only presidential candidate who had reached out to them.
Fulton, whose son Trayvon Martin was killed at the age of 17 by a man who believed he appeared “suspicious,” choked up as she recalled sitting down with Clinton last November.
“We each have a personal story, and we each have a reason why we feel the way that we do about Secretary Clinton, and that’s because we met her. And I don’t want to look, because it’s going to make me tear up,” Fulton said as her voice cracked and she glanced away from Clinton.
People take part in a Black Lives Matter march around Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., June 20, 2015, where Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old with a criminal record, is accused of killing nine people at a Bible-study meeting in an attack U.S. officials are investigating as a hate crime. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Martin was killed in Florida in 2012. George Zimmerman, his killer, was acquitted in the summer of the following year. The case helped spark the movement Black Lives Matter, which focused on addressing issues of police brutality, racial profiling and inequality. Black Lives Matter gained tremendous steam since its founding in the wake of several other killings, including the deaths of the children of many of the women who sat with Clinton on Tuesday.
Fulton suggested that initial meeting last November showed Clinton’s support for Black Lives Matter.
“We poured out our heart when no other candidate would listen to us,” Fulton said. “Mrs. Clinton did. No one reached out to us. Nobody listened to us. Nobody said ‘Black Lives Matter’ until this brave and powerful woman stood up for us.”
Maria Hamilton, whose son, Dontre, was shot by a white police officer in Wisconsin in 2014, noted his death was not as “high profile” as some other recent police shootings. Still, she said Clinton and campaign staffers stayed in touch with her family to see how they were feeling and “how everything was going with the case.” She also said Clinton quite literally gave her a shoulder to cry on when they first met in person.
“I broke down on her shoulder. I owe her a cleaning bill, but she allowed it,” Hamilton said of Clinton. “At first I was kind of embarrassed, but then she told me, ‘I’m a mother and a grandmother and I feel your pain.’”
Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, famously told an AIDS activist heckler, “I feel your pain,” during a 1992 campaign stop. The phrase ultimately came to stand as shorthand for President Clinton’s sensitive baby boomer style of leadership.
Marshall said the conversations between Clinton and the mothers began when Fulton met LaDavia Drane, the campaign’s director of African-American outreach. Fulton told Drane that she wanted to meet with Clinton, and the former secretary of state eagerly began communicating with her and the other mothers. Marshall said Clinton’s policy ideas have been partially inspired by these discussions.
“The secretary and staff have just been in conversation checking in, but also getting their thoughts and ideas on how you move forward on some of the issues that you face as mothers and then that culminated into a meeting,” Marshall explained.
Since then, the conversation between the campaign and the mothers has been ongoing. Marshall said the mothers always wanted to campaign for Clinton in South Carolina, where black voters have made up a majority of the Democratic electorate in the past and the presidential primary is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 27.
The event on Tuesday wasn’t only about Clinton’s connection to the mothers and her plans to address police brutality and racial profiling. She linked the issue to two other parts of her campaign platform — gun control and what Clinton described as “systemic racism.”
“Something’s wrong when African-Americans are three times as likely to be denied a mortgage as white people are, when the median wealth for black families is just a tiny fraction of the median wealth of white families,” Clinton said, adding, “And something is terribly wrong when African-American men are far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than white men convicted of the same offenses. There’s something really terribly wrong when little children in Flint, Michigan, are poisoned by the water they drink and bathe in.”
Hillary Clinton is applauded during a campaign event at the Central Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, with mothers of victims of gun violence. From left, Lucia McBath, Maria Hamilton, Sybrina Fulton, Clinton and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Clinton also addressed what Marshall, her staffer, described as “unseen” racism in the country.
“We need real justice and accountability across America. We need to face the reality of systemic racism, and we need to break down all the barriers in our economy and society that hold people back and disproportionately hold back African-Americans,” Clinton said. “We need to be building ladders of opportunity in the place of those barriers, and we need to rebuild trust in our justice system for the mothers here and the mothers everywhere.”
Clinton has been promising to battle “systemic racism” since giving a Feb. 16 speech in Harlem, in New York, that focused on the issue. A former U.S. senator from New York, she also launched her campaign in the city and has deep ties to the state’s political leadership and urban issues. Carr’s son, Eric Garner, died while being taken into police custody. The video of his killing sparked widespread protests.
Clinton’s event on Tuesday tied her argument about “systemic racism” to the argument about gun control she also has been making from the stump for months. Along with the “mothers of the movement,” Clinton was joined on stage by Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman who survived being shot in the head during a mass shooting in 2011 and whose determination to recover from her devastating injuries has made her a figure of inspiration as well as a fierce campaigner for stronger gun laws. Giffords has joined Clinton on the campaign trail before to make a call for stricter gun control measures.
At the church in Columbia, Clinton tied the deaths of African-American youths to the larger “epidemic of gun violence.”
“The epidemic of gun violence stalking our land is another barrier holding us back. Thirty-three thousand Americans every year are killed by gun violence. Many more are wounded,” Clinton said, adding, “Gun violence is by far the leading cause of death for young African-American men, more than the next nine causes combined.”
Marshall made clear all three of these things — gun control, combating “systemic racism” and dealing with police brutality — will be core parts of Clinton’s platform going forward. He described it as “a focused discussion on some of those barriers” people face in this country.
“You’re going to hear that more as we move on; obviously, tonight you’re hearing a lot about systemic racism and gun violence. You’re going to hear about economic opportunity as we move on as well too,” Marshall said.
Along with highlighting Clinton’s platform, the event on Tuesday helped draw a contrast between Clinton and her top Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders. After entering the race as an underdog, Sanders nearly tied Clinton in Iowa, scored a big win in New Hampshire and was just about five points behind in Nevada. He has fueled his challenge by tacking to Clinton’s left with a “democratic socialist” message about taking on income inequality.
Clinton has countered Sanders with two of the themes that were on display Tuesday. She has argued he is not a staunch supporter of gun control. In the lead-up to the South Carolina primary, which will be the first Democratic electorate with a large African-American presence, Clinton has also suggested that, with his relentless focus on economic problems, Sanders is taking a “single issue” approach and ignoring the multiple unique concerns faced by members of the black community as a consequence of bigotry.
“We’re going to continue to highlight her vision and, I think, while highlighting her vision it will show some important contrasts between us and Sen. Sanders,” Marshall said of Tuesday’s event.
Marshall also said the rally with the “mothers of the movement” highlighted something that motivated him to work for Clinton. Clinton began her campaign last spring in Iowa with a listening tour. Marshall pointed to that trip and the “very emotional” conversations Clinton has had with the mothers and said it shows Clinton has a clear strategy of forming policy ideas through intimate meetings with voters.
“I think one of the reasons I support Secretary Clinton is because these are the kind of conversations that … give her a view of what she wants to do as president,” Marshall said, adding, “Not just like, ‘We should be doing that,’ but to hear directly from them helps shape how she will be as president of the United States. And it makes her the fighter that she is and that’s the president I want.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, right, clasps hands with Sybrina Fulton, mother of shooting victim Trayvon Martin, as she and other families of gun violence victims endorse Clinton during a town hall meeting at Central Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 23, 2016. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)