Politics & Government

How SC’s King Day rally became a must-stop event for presidential candidates

When thousands of people marched on the S.C. State House 19 years ago, it was for one reason — to get the state of South Carolina to take the Confederate battle flag off the State House’s dome.

Nearly two decades later, the flag is gone from the State House grounds and the King Day at the Dome rally has become a coming-out party for prospective Democratic presidential candidates.

But the day may not be too far off — 2020, perhaps — when GOP candidates for president, too, will address the thousands of marchers.

This year, the S.C. NAACP’s rally will feature remarks from U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Both men are considered likely candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, although neither formally has announced they are running.

The two senators follow a long line of Democratic candidates who have spoken at the annual Martin Luther King Day rally, including President Barack Obama and 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton, who has spoken at the event twice.

For Adolphus Belk Jr., professor of political science and African-American studies at Winthrop University, it is obvious why the MLK Day event has become a fixture on the radar of Democratic candidates.

“We know that in any given (S.C. Democratic primary) cycle, African-Americans make up 55 to 60 percent of the voters,” Belk said. Candidates “start showing up in Iowa and New Hampshire,” less-diverse states that hold earlier votes, “but South Carolina is the first state that starts to look more like the party.”

With the Democratic primary field in 2020 expected to be large, Booker and Sanders are hoping this year’s rally will give them an early introduction — or in Sanders’ case, reintroduction — to the Palmetto State’s voters.

“Sanders will have to make the case that his economic populism can speak to racial justice issues, especially for older African-American voters,” University of South Carolina political science professor Todd Shaw said. “Booker is trying to introduce himself. He’s a member of the Senate, African-American, a younger candidate, so he’ll try to remind voters of the aura of Obama.”

Focus on the flag

The first King Day at the Dome rally was held in 2000, the height of the controversy over the Confederate flag flying over the State House. Roughly 46,000 people descended on the Capital City to protest the flag, which had flown over the State House since 1962.

But even though 2000 was an election year, no presidential candidates came out to address the thousands of S.C. voters at the rally. The flag was lightning-rod issue that national candidates mostly tried to avoid.

By the next year, the flag had been removed from the dome and placed on a flag pole near the Confederate Soldiers’ Monument on the State House grounds, near Gervais Street. But the NAACP continued the rally, focusing on the group’s economic boycott of the Palmetto State.

By 2003, Democrats — looking ahead to South Carolina’s first-in-the-South presidential primary — were descending on the state but mostly kept their distance from the event.

Pastor and civil rights activist Al Sharpton spoke at the annual prayer service at Columbia’s Zion Baptist Church that precedes the State House rally but skipped the march for “other engagements in South Carolina,” The State reported.

U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., was also in town to speak at Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Greene Street. The S.C. native attended the State House rally but didn’t have a place on the speaker’s platform.

In subsequent years, the rally started to attract more candidates.

Sharpton and retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark spoke at the 2004 rally, betting on a strong performance in South Carolina’s primary while other Democratic candidates focused on Iowa, which held its caucuses the same week.

In 2007, U.S. Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn., both took a similarly early shot at launching their 2008 presidential candidacies at the State House rally. But both ended up dropping out early in the Democratic nominating process.

Campaign pile-up

In 2008, MLK Day at the Dome established itself as a mandatory campaign stop for top-tier Democratic candidates.

Frontrunners Clinton, Obama and Edwards all spoke at the rally, held days before the hotly contested Democratic primary, which Obama won on his way to the White House.

Lonnie Randolph, then president of the S.C. NAACP, told The State all the 2008 Republican candidates also had been invited to speak. But the event was held two days after South Carolina’s GOP presidential primary, and the GOP candidates were off to other states.

So far, only Democratic presidential candidates have spoken at the event.

But USC political scientist Shaw doesn’t see a reason that should continue to be the case.

“From the standpoint of a Republican moderate, it would be the place to try to make the case that you’re a strong critic of (President Donald) Trump,” he said. “Someone like (former Gov. John) Kasich of Ohio could demonstrate their bona fides as a president with respect to civil rights.”

The rally didn’t attract many high-profile office-seekers during the Obama presidency. But, in 2012, then-Attorney General Eric Holder — a possible 2020 Democratic candidate — spoke about Justice Department efforts to oppose South Carolina’s voter ID law.

In 2016, the event again featured Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. O’Malley and Sanders also took part in the march from Zion Baptist to the State House ahead of their speeches to a crowd of about 2,000.

Voters didn’t hold skipping the march against Clinton — she won the state primary in a landslide a month later.

If history is any guide, next year’s King Day rally might need a bigger speaker’s stage.

“Looking at President Donald Trump, he’s strong with Republicans. But he’s proving to be somewhat vulnerable,” said Winthrop’s Belk. Democratic candidates — “who would have sat out otherwise — are going to run because of that, and people who sat out 2016 because it was seen as Secretary Clinton’s turn are going to run, too.”

King Day at the Dome 2019

The schedule for Monday’s King Day at the Dome rally

8:30 a.m. Prayer service at Zion Baptist Church, 801 Washington St.

9:30 a.m. March to State House starts outside Zion Baptist

10:15 a.m. Rally at the S.C. State House, Main Street and Gervais

About 1 p.m. Town-hall discussion with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Zion Baptist Church

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.