COLUMBIA, SC – Aside a wall of 2-foot-tall letters spelling out “Black Women Lead,” behind a podium bearing a “Black Women for Kamala” sign, Kamala Harris made an appeal Saturday to black women in South Carolina, a contingency whose support she sees as crucial to the viability of her presidential candidacy.
“When we talk about black girl magic, we know that it is something special,” Harris told the crowd of about 300, most of whom were black women, in a ballroom at Benedict College, a historically black institution in downtown Columbia. “But that magic is born out of hard work. ... It didn’t just magically appear. ... We worked hard for that.”
Part of a “Black Women’s Weekend of Action,” the California senator’s campaign framed the event as one to focus on issues important to black women, like pay equity and maternal health. Emceed by actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, the round table discussion also featured U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, a Congressional Black Caucus member who is backing Harris.
It also included Glynda Carr, whose Higher Heights organization officially endorsed Harris earlier this month. The country’s largest online political organization aimed at electing black women, Higher Heights provided significant support during the 2018 midterms to candidates who helped usher in the most diverse Congress in history.
To a roomful of affirmations and applause, Carr noted that black women “don’t vote alone,” hitting directly on the girl-power style Harris is aiming to harness this weekend in South Carolina, with female-focused, civic engagement that stands in contrast to some less personalized stops in the campaign. Saturday began with phone banking and voter canvassing around Columbia. Sunday promised a day full of visits to black churches in the state’s northeastern corner.
“Black women want you go come in and have a cup of tea,” Carr said to the audience, as well as those watching via livestream. “This is her having a virtual cup of tea.”
South Carolina is a critical state for Harris and the other Democrats vying for their party’s nomination. The first Southern state to vote, it’s also the first to feature a heavily black electorate, where success can bode well for a candidate’s future in the other southern states whose primaries follow.
Ahead of the round table, Harris officially signed her papers to be a candidate in South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary, joining former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg on the ballot.
Many Democratic hopefuls are courting the state’s black voters. But Harris’ efforts underscore the emphasis that she is placing specifically on winning over black women, the Democratic Party’s most loyal and consistent voters. Languishing in many polls, Harris has lagged with black voters, who comprise about two-thirds of the state’s Democratic primary electorate.
Campaign staffers continued to bring more chairs into the room throughout the event as more people filed in. The room was dotted with dozens of women decked out in the traditional pink and green of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Harris’ sorority and network of support into which she has tapped in South Carolina and other places.
Asked about hesitation she faces from voters skeptical of her past as a prosecutor, Harris said she knew she’d see some challenges but argued the importance of having a seat at the criminal justice table.
“I knew I was going up the rough side of the mountain,” Harris said, of her decision to become a prosecutor, referencing a popular black gospel song, written by the Rev. F.C. Barnes and recorded by various artists. “Prosecutors have an incredible amount of power. Don’t we want that the people who are making the decisions are also the people who attend our church, whose children play with our children? ... Don't we want that? Are we saying that we should not be prosecutors?”
Lawrence called on the women in the room to be part of the history of Harris’ campaign.
“The women sitting in this room are the hopes and dreams of slaves in this country,” Lawrence said. “How dare anyone in this room not exercise that right?”
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP