Hillary Rodham Clinton, shouting over protesters, promised black Americans Friday that she would address systemic racism and, if elected, follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, the country’s first black president.
At multiple campaign stops, the Democratic presidential front-runner outlined her plans for criminal justice reform, an issue that she and her rivals — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — each pitch as they court black voters who will help choose a nominee. But for Clinton this time, a mostly friendly audience at Clark Atlanta University included several protesters from the Black Lives Matter Movement.
They sang and chanted for nearly 12 minutes as Clinton tried to speak over them. Rep. John Lewis, a hero in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, urged them to stop, as did the musician Usher. But they persisted until the crowd of more than 2,000 students, most of them black, chanted, “Let her talk!”
“I’m sorry they didn’t listen, because some of what they demanded I am offering and intend to fight for as president,” Clinton said of the protesters. “We have to come together as a nation,” she added.
The former secretary of state encountered no such trouble later Friday in North Charleston, S.C., where she was warmly received at an NAACP banquet held less than 10 miles from Emanuel African American Episcopal Church, a historic black congregation where a white gunman killed the pastor and eight others in June.
Clinton sat silently through a ceremony for the families of “The Emanuel 9,” then during her later remarks praised them for their “grace and resilience.”
She also used the venue to emphasize her support for tougher gun laws. “The murder of nine innocents at Bible study has renewed the call to do something about the senseless gun violence that stalks our country,” she said. “The question for us is how many more people have to die before we take action.”
Clinton’s Southern swing comes as she works to solidify her advantage over Sanders, her closest rival, among African-Americans. Black voters could make up more than half of the primary electorate in the early voting state of South Carolina and several other Southern states that hold March primaries.
The criminal justice issue, in particular, resonates among both traditional civil rights organizations like the NAACP and among younger activists of Black Lives Matter, though that movement’s leaders say they aren’t interested in participating in conventional politics by endorsing Clinton or anyone else.
Clinton called Friday for eliminating sentencing disparities between crack cocaine crimes and those that involve powder cocaine. The changes would build on a 2010 act of Congress that narrowed the disparity between crack crimes — which are concentrated among minorities — and powder crimes, which are more likely to involve whites. Clinton’s plan would make the change retroactive.
She proposed a legal ban on racial profiling by police. The policy would forbid federal, state and local officers from “relying on a person’s race when conducting routine or spontaneous investigatory activities,” unless they have information linking a suspect to a crime. Clinton hasn’t detailed how her idea would go beyond existing law, but her campaign cited previous congressional proposals that would make it easier for alleged profiling victims to recover damages from government agencies in civil court.
Clinton also embraced the movement to “ban the box,” or prevent the federal government and contractors from asking about criminal history during initial job applications. Studies have shown that employers are reluctant to consider applications with a criminal history, but job prospects improve for former felons if hiring managers hear about their qualifications before their criminal records.
“I believe in second chances,” Clinton said in South Carolina.
Clinton has made frank discussion about the country’s lingering racism a central theme of her primary campaign, in an effort to woo the coalition of minority, young, and female voters who twice catapulted Barack Obama into the White House.
In Atlanta, she stressed her determination to build upon Obama’s legacy. “It will be up to me assuming we get this done to be a president who builds on what we have achieved and goes even further,” she said.
She also flaunted the support from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the former presidential candidate and civil rights leader who introduced her, saying, “It’s healing time. It’s hope time. It’s Hillary Clinton.”
Jackson’s support is meaningful given his longstanding ties to Clinton and Sanders, her chief rival. Sanders endorsed both of Jackson’s presidential bids in 1984 and 1988. And despite Jackson’s long relationship with the Clinton family, he backed Obama in the 2008 primary, though his wife endorsed Clinton.