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Here's What's at Stake for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in South Carolina

The Democratic debate in Charleston on Sunday comes at a pivotal moment ahead of the first-in-the-South presidential primary next month in South Carolina.

by Liz Fields
Jan 17 2016, 5:20pm

Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Waltrina Middleton had to swallow the anger she felt in the weeks after her first cousin, Rev. DePayne Middleton, was gunned down along with nine other black churchgoers on June 17, 2015. The massacre, committed by a white supremacist who crashed a bible study class at Charleston, South Carolina's Emanuel AME Church, ripped open wounds for the community that had seethed since the days of slavery in the heart of the South.

"Forgiveness is something we all strive for, but after the murders of our loved ones, we weren't even allowed to grieve — we didn't have permission to show anger or any type of natural reaction that any human being would have when they lost someone in such a tragic way," said Middleton, a community organizer and activist.

A narrative of resilience and forgiveness took hold after some relatives of victims showed compassion to the gunman at his bail hearing, but Middleton said that didn't tell the whole story.

"There was such pressure through media headlines and government officials to say 'I forgive,' almost as if to wash the blood off of the hands of those who are also just as responsible through complacency with normalized violence and the culture of racism that exists, not just in Charleston, not just in the South, but throughout this country," she said.

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Race and injustice will be pivotal themes in the lead-up to South Carolina's Republican primary on February 20 and the Democratic primary on February 27. The "first-in-the-South" contest is a bellwether that will establish the preferred presidential nominees in states below the Mason–Dixon line. Days later, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Tennessee, will simultaneously hold their own contests on what is known as "Super Tuesday" on March 1.

The fourth Democratic debate, hosted by NBC and moderated by Lester Holt, will be held on Sunday night in Charleston at 9pm ET. The venue is less than a 5-minute walk from the site of the shooting at AME church, which has since reopened to worshippers. 

Waltrina Middleton, right, cousin of shooting victim DePayne Middleton Doctor, embraces Claudia Lawton, Sunday, June 21, 2015, at Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

For the Democrats, who are heavily dependent on black voters, success in South Carolina is far from guaranteed. Since 1964, the state has voted almost exclusively Republican, even though African-Americans, who account for 28 percent of the population, overwhelmingly vote Democrat. Although the prospects of overall success in South Carolina are slim, the early state assumed added bearing for Democrats in the last contested primary in 2008 after exit polls showed that a record 54 percent of primary voters were black.

In recent weeks, Democratic candidates have sought to position themselves as President Barack Obama's successor in an attempt to maintain or augment the unprecedented turnout of African-American voters energized by the country's first black president. They have also held private — but visible — meetings with Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists, campaigned on black radio stations in South Carolina, and each trumpeted their ties to prominent African-American civil rights activists.

Early in the 2016 cycle, BLM protesters disrupted rallies held by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley, the three hopefuls for the Democratic nomination. The protesters challenged the candidates to address the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police. After the run-ins and criticisms were met with wobbly responses, the candidates hastily developed a series of policy proposals on policing and prisons.

Related: Former US Attorney General Eric Holder Endorses Hillary Clinton for President

The latest Republican debate was also held in South Carolina on Thursday. At that forum, some candidates offered condolences to families of the Charleston shooting victims, but simultaneously expressed outrage at the president's new gun control measures. The candidates ignored the issue of systemic racism, and praised law enforcement. At one point, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump proclaimed that "police are the most mistreated people in America."

In the months following the Charleston massacre, Middleton, who is an organizer for the BLM movement and splits her time between Charleston and Cleveland, Ohio, where she is involved with the group Cleveland Action, channeled some of her grief by joining protests that called for state lawmakers to acknowledge and correct the systemic issues underpinning gun violence in the state.

"People like to talk about gun violence exclusively as the key issue, but you can't just talk about gun violence and not talk about systemic issues like racism and poverty," she said. "Dylann Roof had a gun, but he had a gun with the motivation to kill black people."

"I want to hear candidates talk about the elements that feed into the rage that results in gun violence — the culture of racialized violence and poverty, the prison industrial complex, poor educational and job opportunities — all of those things are important and relevant," she added.

'In South Carolina, people vote for what's familiar, and there is this nostalgic appreciation or loyalty for the name Clinton.'

The demographics of Charleston, nicknamed the "Holy City" for its many churches, broadly mirrors the racial makeup of the state. African-Americans comprise 29 percent of the city's population, while whites constitute more than two-thirds of its residents. But the city has typically higher levels of poverty than averages across South Carolina, which is the ninth poorest state in the country, according to US Census Bureau data. The Palmetto state also has the fourth highest unemployment rate and consistently places near or at the bottom of rankings on education and child poverty.

Middleton said that in the wake of the shooting, politicians were quick to "carry the narrative of 'they forgive'" and invent South Carolina as a beacon of strength. "At the same time they shut down BLM protesters as angry, or violent, or inappropriate in their lament," and failed to offer solutions to the real social problems plaguing the community, she said.

While Middleton welcomed the removal of the Confederate flag from the lawns of the state capital after weeks of debate over its racist symbolism and roots in slavery, she also accused Republican Governor Nikki Haley of political opportunism. She fears that presidential candidates could similarly exploit the BLM movement in 2016.

"You have to wonder if the [presidential] candidates are committed to these issues or if they are pandering to the pulse of the community right now," she said. "Some speak with a more progressive and liberal rhetoric, but at the end of the day, it's their track records that show where they are truly passionate… It is not enough to say 'yes, black lives matter.' You just don't get to say those words and get a pass."

Related: South Carolina Governor Signs Off on Bill to Remove Confederate Flag

Currently, Clinton has an edge in South Carolina, with a lead of some 40 percentage points over Sanders, a senator from Vermont, one of the whitest states in the country. The former secretary of state has also secured several high-profile endorsements from African-American politicians in the South Carolina, including Representative Justin Bamberg and Senator James E. Clyburn, the most senior African-American Democrat in Congress.

"Hillary [is] the right person to lead the much-needed conversation on race, justice and power," Bamberg, who is also an attorney representing the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man fatally shot by a Charleston police officer last April, wrote in a letter endorsing Clinton. "She'll fight every day to fundamentally change the way we approach punishment, recidivism and the school-to-prison pipeline."

But Clinton has hardly clinched a primary victory in South Carolina. Donors and establishment Democrats have become increasingly concerned about Sanders's surge in the polls nationally, especially in the first primary polling states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Some noted that in January 2008, just two months ahead of the primary, pollsters projected Clinton to beat Obama. Clinton ultimately lost to Obama by 29 points, with the future president capturing 78 percent of black votes compared to Clinton's 19.

"It's just like the weak spot for Barack Obama was his skin color, but he got cured of that in Iowa," Clyburn, a longtime and outspoken Clinton supporter, told the Washington Post on Friday. "If [Sanders] comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire with big victories — if it's close in both places, that's one thing — but if he comes out of there with big victories, hey, man, it could very well be a new day."

Middleton said that while the BLM movement has not endorsed a candidate in 2016, she believes that Sanders "has a track record connected with grassroots causes that sets him apart."

"He has demonstrated long before running for office a commitment to addressing social injustices, particularly along racial discrimination and working with communities who are impoverished," she said. "When he speaks, I'm more inclined to believe in his authenticity, but that doesn't mean he doesn't need to be held accountable as well."

However, Middleton added that "it's very difficult for someone like Bernie Sanders" in South Carolina because of traditional allegiances and voting patterns. She said Sanders still "has a lot of work to do."

"In South Carolina, people vote for what's familiar, and there is this nostalgic appreciation or loyalty for the name Clinton, even if there isn't any demonstrated evidence that the Clintons did anything that benefitted the black community," she said. "What he will need to do in order to prevail, is to show allegiance to issues and causes that impact communities of color and the working class and poor because we are the communities that are excluded from the narrative."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields