All of the Democratic presidential candidates gathered at the Statehouse Monday in what has become a rite of passage for those seeking the party’s nomination in South Carolina: the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rally.
Over the last decade, the South Carolina NAACP event in Columbia has become synonymous with calls to remove the Confederate battle flag off Statehouse grounds. Since the legislature voted to remove the flag in July, the tone shifted this year towards reducing racial gaps in education, income and criminal justice reform.
Roughly 2,000 people gathered in front of the Capitol steps, according to early estimates by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. But organizers say they were thrilled to no longer hold the rally beneath the former battle flag, which was removed weeks after a self-proclaimed white supremacist was accused of killing nine black churchgoers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The gunman had posted several online images of Confederate flag-related memorabilia before the attack.
“What a good feeling it is to stand here and not stare at that flag I used to have to look at in previous years,” Dr. Ronald Epps, a former Columbia-area schools superintendent, said to cheers. “For once, this feels like my Capitol building.”
“America has surely made progress,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, shortly after thanking Gov. Nikki Haley and the legislature for supporting the flag’s lowering. “But today we should pay tribute to people who helped to bring us to this point and be challenged to continue their work.”
Clinton said the “spirit” of the Civil Rights Movement “should live within everyone who strives to uproot the systemic inequities that remain,” including the “Black Lives Matter” movement, criminal justice, and even gun violence.
“When black people are killed worshipping at Mother Emanuel (AME Church in Charleston) with a gun bought through a legal loophole, this isn’t just a public safety issue, it’s a civil rights issue,” she said.
Vermont US Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has made reducing the income gap a cornerstone of his campaign, noted Dr. King had been supporting a strike by Memphis sanitation workers when he was killed in 1968. “It is terrible important that we don’t just look at him as a museum figure, as somebody from the past,” Sanders said. “What is important is that we remember his vision.” He equated his own campaign as a continuation of that work.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley railed against a 2011 Voter ID law South Carolina passed and other legislation he claimed restrict voting rights. “You look at the Republican candidates for president, they seem to all want to make it easy to get a gun and hard to vote,” he said. “I say we should make it hard for criminals to get guns and easy for all Americans to vote. Don’t you?”
Illinois businessman Willie Wilson, the sole African-American in the Democratic race, noted he grew up in a Louisiana culture that would not allow him to vote until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 (the Wilson family moved to Chicago that year). He called for all contracts and jobs to be “given out fairly,” and for the forgiveness of student loan debt.
“If China can have free education (and) Cuba can have free education, we can have free education here in America,” he said.
The Confederate flag was mentioned several times during Monday’s rally, although usually only in acknowledgement of its absence. However, the NAACP’s South Carolina chapter president Lonnie Randolph said his organization was eyeing other symbols on the grounds they consider inappropriate or racist.
“We now have a clean Statehouse grounds as far as flags are concerned,” he said towards the end of Monday’s rally. “But we still have an unsanitary Statehouse grounds for some of the people we recognize and honor for the very dastardly things they have done in their lifetime.”
Randolph did not call for the removal of any specific monuments, but said he would like to see signs “tell the truth” about “bigots,” and “hate-mongers” who were honored on the grounds. The NAACP has previously criticized statues of former Gov. Benjamin Tillman (who was accused of participating in the massacre of black militia prior to his election and supporting “Jim Crow” laws to restrict black elective power after it) and J. Marion Sims, a Lancaster County physician widely credited as a founder of gynecology (but who also conducted much of his research by experimenting on conscripted female slaves).