Democratic presidential candidates and a focus on education drew throngs to a cold but clear King Day at the Dome Monday in Columbia, the first rally since the Confederate flag was removed from the State House grounds.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley joined marchers who walked from a prayer service at the AME Zion Church to the State House rally, which drew about 2,000, state public-safety officials said.
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton noted the occasion was momentous.
“That flag always belonged in a museum, not at the State House,” the former secretary of state said of the Confederate flag that flew nearby until last summer.
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“I want to thank (S.C.) Gov. (Nikki) Haley and the Legislature for finally taking it down,” Clinton said. “We couldn't celebrate him (slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King) and the Confederacy. We had to choose, and South Carolina finally made the right choice.”
The event was a chance for the Democratic candidates, including Chicago businessman Willie Wilson, to appeal to African-American S.C. voters, who make up more than half of the state’s Democratic primary voters.
The candidates also touched on the theme of Monday’s King Day: Education.
Clinton tied education to gun violence, including the slaying of nine African Americans in a Charleston church last summer – an issue she is making central to her campaign.
“This day is devoted to promoting education. And I hope for the sake of the children of South Carolina, progress is possible because the spirit of those who came before should live within everyone who strives to uproot the systemic inequities that remain,” Clinton said.
“It lives on in the mothers who are fighting for an end to gun violence nationwide. Because at a time when guns kill more young black men than the next nine leading causes of death combined – and when black people are killed worshiping at Mother Emanuel with a gun bought through a legal loophole – this isn’t just a public-safety issue. It’s a civil-rights issue.”
Sanders focused his comments on income inequality, and inadequate access to health care and education, noting King was engaged in a “poor people’s campaign” when he was killed.
“Let us remember where Dr. King was when he was assassinated,” Sanders said. King “was standing with sanitation workers — oppressed workers, low-paid workers — and he was saying the lowest workers in America, the lowest paid people in America deserve dignity. I will stand with them."
O’Malley, a former mayor of Baltimore, took a swipe at the Republican presidential candidates.
"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,” O’Malley said. “I say we should make it hard for criminals to get guns and easy for all Americans to vote."
‘Still work to be done’
King Day started in 2000 to protest the Confederate flag flying on the S.C. State House dome. A compromise that year lowered the flag from the dome to the grounds. However, in July, state lawmakers agreed to remove the flag and display it in a museum.
“For once, this feels like my capitol building,” former Richland 1 superintendent Ronald Epps, president of an interactive education company, told the crowd.
Johnny Floyd, 78, said it was unbelievable the flag finally was gone, something he never thought would happen because of the hatred some people have in their hearts.
“Some people probably still have hatred,” said the Clinton supporter.
Priscilla Preston of Columbia said she likes Sanders because he says he will fight income inequality. The 65-year-old also said she supports Sanders’ universal Medicare-for-all health-care and free-college tuition plans, saying they would expand public access to both.
Looking forward, other speakers said South Carolina has much more work to do to improve public education. Inequities, based on race and class, still exist, they said.
State lawmakers are working on proposals to address a S.C. Supreme Court ruling ordering the state to improve its public schools.
“Yes, we have made leaps and bounds ... but there is still work to be done,” Frelicia Tucker of Aiken, an NAACP youth activist, told the crowd.
“When my fair-skinned friends are urged to take honors classes, and I’m asked, ‘Are you sure?’ – there is work to do done. When I walk into class and I’m negatively judged because my educators assume my skin color represents a dim mind, there is work to be done.
“It is as though we have been cheated out of our equal learning opportunities promised by the Brown v. Board of Education ruling 62 years ago,” Tucker said.
Patricia Boswell-Glasgow brought her 8-year-old twin daughters Tyra and Trista to King Day. Tyra was helping her mother gather signatures in support of gun control.
Even though she is a decade away from being allowed to vote, Tyra said she likes Clinton, adding she likes the idea of a woman president. Tyra even told people holding Bernie Sanders signs to vote for Hillary, her mother said.
Education a focus on MLK Day
S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman pitched her plan for improving the state’s public schools Monday, speaking at a Columbia Urban League breakfast in West Columbia.
Spearman criticized the emphasis on high-stakes testing, adding partnerships with the business community are helping bring project-based learning into S.C. schools.
“There still are barriers,” she added.
“There are walls of immense poverty. There are walls of disparity. There are walls that block equality for all of our students. These walls are tall. They’re thick. They are found across the state, particularly in our most rural communities.”
The state is under order from the state Supreme Court to “tear down those walls,” Spearman reminded the audience.
Recruiting teachers and principals into rural areas, providing access to 4-year-old kindergarten, improving transportation for students and school-funding are among the challenges the state faces, she said.
“There is still one fundamental block that we’ve all got to tower over, the belief ... that all children can learn no matter where they live, who their parents are, their situation in life.
“We have to have high expectations for all children and give them the support that they need.”