Attempting to soar where her rivals have recently floundered on issues of racial justice, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressed a crowd of nearly 400 in South Carolina Thursday and said unequivocally: “Yes, black lives matter.”
“We all have a responsibility to face these hard truths about race and justice honestly and directly,” the former secretary of state said.
Standing alongside several mayors in the packed Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, South Carolina, Clinton championed the work being done at the local level and called for what she termed “flexible federalism,” a system in which the federal government and local communities work hand-in-hand.
“We have worked hard to come back from the Great Recession,” Clinton said. “With President Obama’s leadership and the determination of the American people, we are standing. But we need to start running together.”
Clinton earned big applause for her lines on income inequality and women in the workforce. But her most powerful remarks came early on, when she addressed the recent killings of African-Americans in South Carolina.
In April, Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer during a daytime traffic stop. The officer, Michael T. Slager, has been charged with murder. Two months later, nine African-American parishioners were killed during a Bible study session at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The accused shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, has been charged with murder, hate crimes, firearms violations, and obstructing the practice of religion.
“I think it’s been a remarkable time for South Carolina and, as President Obama recently said, an example of true grace,” Clinton said. “That did not come from above; that came from people in communities rising up, speaking out, acting together.”
The Charleston shooting sparked a national conversation over the Confederate flag, a symbol that appears frequently in photos of Roof. Clinton said Thursday that “we were all grateful when the leaders of this state did the right thing and removed the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds.” But, she added, “the work of healing our communities and taking on the challenges of systemic racism is far from finished.”
Clinton also addressed the recent death of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who apparently committed suicide after being arrested during a traffic stop in Texas.
“I was heartbreaking to read about,” Clinton said of Bland. “It is essential that we all stand up and say loudly and clearly, ‘Yes, black lives matter.’”
The line, as well as the sentiments expressed in the speech more broadly, stood in stark contrast to recent fumbles on the same topic by Clinton’s primary opponents, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Last weekend, black activists interrupted a presidential candidate forum at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona, forcing Sanders and O’Malley into uncomfortable territory as they struggled to respond to questions on race relations and police violence from representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement. O’Malley has since apologized for adding “white lives matter, all lives matter” to the protesters’ calls.
On a larger scale, however, the exchange targeted the progressive movement as a whole for allowing racial justice issues to fade into the background.
Clinton, who skipped this year’s Netroots, was spared from the ambush. But she’s far from perfect on the issue of racial justice in activists’ minds.