FLORISSANT, Missouri – Hillary Clinton on Tuesday called the massacre at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week “an act of racist terrorism.” She also said the Confederate flag – which flies at the South Carolina statehouse – has no place in American society today.
“How do we make sense of such an evil act?” Clinton said of the shooting while speaking at a black church here, calling the horrific attack “an act of racist terrorism perpetrated in a house of God.”
That goes beyond what FBI Director James Comey said Friday, when he told reporters in Baltimore that the massacre likely does not meet the federal definition of “terrorism.”
Clinton came to discuss race here at Christ the King Church, about four miles from where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was killed last summer by a white police officer, tipping off weeks of racially tinged protests.
Clinton called on parishioners to turn their grief and anger over events like that into action to address poverty, racism and inequality. She also commended South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s call to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol’s ground.
The flag, Clinton said, is “a symbol from our racist past that has no place in our present nor in our future.”
“It shouldn’t fly there, it shouldn’t fly anywhere,” Clinton added to applause.
Clinton went to say that she applauded retailers like Wal-Mart that have pulled merchandise with the Confederate flag from their shelves.
Her comments go beyond Republicans’ calls to take down the flag from the South Carolina state capitol, and could put them in a tight spot if they’re asked if they agree more should be done to limit the symbol.
The church’s pastor invited Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, to attend the Tuesday event and potentially meet with Clinton privately, the family’s lawyers told msnbc. But McSpadden did not make it.
Last week, Clinton called the mother of Walter Scott, the North Charleston, South Carolina, black man who was killed by a police officer in April. The officer in the case has been charged with murder for the fatal shooting.
Clinton spoke for about 10 minutes on race relations, education and the need for new gun control laws before turning over the microphone to local elected officials and community leaders, almost all of them black, for a roundtable discussion.
Clinton’s reception was largely positive. Attendees said they appreciated her focus on local issues and her eagerness to hear from them, instead of just delivering a speech. And they approved of her strong remarks on the Confederate flag.
There was one sour note from Clinton, however, for some attendees.
Clinton riffed on the phrase “black lives matter,” which has become synonymous with the movement tipped off by the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others. Speaking about the struggles her mother faced after being abandoned by her parents, Clinton said, “What kept you going? Her answer was very simple: Kindness along the way from someone who believed she mattered. All lives matter.”
The tweak, some said, missed the point of the phrase. “‘All lives matter’ – we all looked at each other like, oh boy,” said Patricia Bynes, the Democratic National Committeewoman who represents Ferguson. “This is a black audience, in a black church, and yes all lives matter, but it seems black lives don’t seem to matter.”
Outside the church, a banner hung reading “black lives matter.” And Clinton did use the words ”black lives matter” in December while speaking before a mostly white audience in New York City.
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson, said she also took notice of Clinton’s “all lives matter” line.
Chappelle-Nadal has been pleading, coaxing and occasionally shaming her state’s white Democrats to get more aggressive on race. She hoped Clinton could help get her party there, but said the Democratic presidential candidate “didn’t move the needle” in this appearance alone.
Still, Chappelle-Nadal said she was extremely grateful that Clinton came and said she heard “85%” of what she wanted to hear from the candidate. “I adore her,” Chappelle-Nadal said of Clinton.
Former President Bill Clinton was popular among the officials who filed in, and could help his wife win over black voters, said Vinita Park Mayor James McGee. “It’s very important she carry on the legacy of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama,” he said.
Hillary Clinton has waded into the thorny issue of race as she embarks on her second presidential campaign. Tuesday was third time in six days Clinton discussed the issue since the Charleston shooting alone.
She has made voting rights and criminal justice reform key components of her campaign, and has already spoken to black audiences in South Carolina and Texas.
Clinton’s emphasis on race is personal, her campaign says, going back to a speech she saw of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s as a teenager, which was a key moment in her political awakening.
African-Americans are a key constituency in the Democratic primary, especially in the early nominating state of South Carolina.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, her current top opponent for the nomination, hails from a state that is nearly 95% white. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, another top opponent, may have difficulty shedding baggage from his tough-on-crime record in Baltimore.
By locking down the black vote early, and earning support of key leaders, Clinton could effectively build a firewall in South Carolina and other states in case a challenger surges.
And she’ll need to energize black voters to get them to the polls in the general election, should she make it, to avoid too much drop-off from the coalition that elected President Obama twice.
This post has been updated to provide more context for Clinton’s “all lives matter” remark.