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Dream State

How Critical is SC’s MLK Day for 2020 Presidential Hopefuls?

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King Day at the Dome crowd and portrait

Citizens march at the 2018 King Day at the Dome rally in Columbia. The annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event often draws high-powered political speakers. 

It’s hard to overstate the cultural impact of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Though the reverend, orator and civil rights trailblazer was killed by an assassin as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis more than half a century ago, his legacy has continued to cast a long shadow, particularly in Southern states and cities where the fight for equality was fierce.

That is certainly the case in Columbia, a diverse capital city governed by a majority African American City Council and an African American mayor. As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — the federal holiday that this year falls on Jan. 20 — approaches, Columbia is set to host a number of events and commemorations remembering King, gatherings that could draw an elevated spotlight in a presidential election year.

With South Carolina’s “First in the South” Democratic Primary set for Saturday, Feb. 29, MLK Day — and the days surrounding it — will likely hold significance for the more than a dozen Democratic candidates looking to gain a foothold in South Carolina. Following caucuses in Iowa (Feb. 3) and Nevada (Feb. 22) and a primary in New Hampshire (Feb. 11), South Carolina marks the first contest in a state with considerable racial diversity, as black voters make up roughly two-thirds of the state’s Democratic primary electorate.

“I still believe the road to Heaven and the White House runs slam through South Carolina,” Antjuan Seawright, a Columbia Democratic operative and CBS political pundit, tells Free Times. “You cannot be the Democratic nominee without strong, deep and wide support in this state with the most loyal constituency in the Democratic Party.”

In the past the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP’s King Day at the Dome rally at the Statehouse, in particular, has, been a popular platform for presidential hopefuls. 

In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards spoke at the event. Obama would go on to handily win the state’s Democratic primary, and the presidency, that year. 

In 2016, Clinton once again offered remarks at King Day, as did fellow Democratic hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. Sanders, the progressive U.S. senator from Vermont, and New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker each spoke at 2019’s King Day at the Dome, a move that signaled they were serious about presidential campaigns more than a year ahead of the 2020 primaries.

Steve Benjamin 2019 city council

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin co-chairs the Mayors’ Task Force to Save Minor League Baseball. John A. Carlos II/Free Times

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin says the King Day at the Dome rally has, in the last decade-plus, served as a critical vessel for candidates to reach some of the state’s most plugged-in and coveted primary voters.

“It’s very important, actually,” Benjamin tells Free Times. “The reality is that these are the most socially conscious and politically active citizens. If you have the opportunity to get them all in one place at one time, on a day that means a great deal to so many Americans, it’s an incredibly compelling opportunity for anyone who wants to be the president of the United States.”

But, as Free Times was going to press, it was unclear how much of a presidential vibe the 2020 King Day at the Dome march and rally will hold. 

Some of that uncertainty undoubtedly rises from the fact that the Iowa Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum — said to be the nation’s oldest minority-focused presidential forum — also is taking place on Jan. 20, ostensibly leaving campaigns torn between a key event taking place just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses and one in a state that has a more significant base of African American voters.

There are 14 Democratic candidates still in the race, and Free Times reached out to a number of the higher-polling campaigns to gauge their plans for the MLK holiday in South Carolina. All of those contacted indicated that plans were still under discussion. 

State NAACP President Brenda Murphy says the organization has invited all of the Democratic candidates — and Republican President Donald Trump — to King Day at the Dome. Murphy says a number of candidates have said they’d be there, but Free Times could not independently confirm their participation before the paper went to press.

[Editor's note: Since the print edition went to press, Sanders' campaign confirmed he will be at King Day at the Dome.]

“It may be tricky for a lot of the campaigns, because of the Brown & Black Forum in Iowa, two weeks out from the caucuses,” Seawright says. “But I suspect there will be a lot of surrogates [in South Carolina], and there will be a lot of activity in the state the weekend leading up to King Day, and on that day.”

Tameika Isaac Devine 2019 city council

Columbia Mayor Pro Tem Tameika Isaac Devine.

Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who is also the city’s mayor pro tem, has been active during primary season in South Carolina and has hosted campaign stops at her home for several Democratic hopefuls, including former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, billionaire Tom Steyer and businessman Andrew Yang.

Though former Vice President Joe Biden continues to lead polls in South Carolina — a December Post and Courier/Change Research poll showed Biden polling at 27 percent, followed by Sanders at 20 percent, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 19 percent, and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 9 percent — Devine insists she thinks it’s “anybody’s game” in the Palmetto State, and that appearances before the state’s black voters connected with the MLK holiday are almost necessary.

“When you consider holidays that are important to the African American community, clearly MLK Day is right near the top, maybe next to Christmas and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ,” says Devine, who was the first, and still only, black woman elected to Columbia City Council. “Other than [Christmas], this is the most important holiday in the African American community.

“I would say that, if you are still looking to tap into what’s going on in the African American community and be seen in the African American community, then you need to be here in South Carolina, somewhere [in connection with MLK Day]. It doesn’t have to be Columbia, because there are events all over the state.”

Bakari Sellers 2016 MLK Day Kingstree

CNN political pundit Bakari Sellers speaks at a 2016 MLK Day event in Kingstree.


The more perfect union?

Bakari Sellers is succinct when stressing the consequence of MLK Day for 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls. 

“The importance cannot be quantified,” Sellers says.

Whether they appear at King Day at the Dome or at other South Carolina events connected to the MLK holiday, Sellers — a former state representative and current CNN political pundit — says he thinks the Palmetto State could be a proving grounds for candidates who have had issues connecting with black voters.

“It takes the candidates out of New Hampshire, takes them out of Iowa, takes them out of Nevada. They must be in South Carolina, and they must be surrounded by black folks,” says Sellers, who endorsed California Sen. Kamala Harris before she dropped out of the 2020 race. “The unique part about this is this is the first time we’ve seen such a pronounced disconnect with ‘top tier’ candidates and black voters.”

Sellers says South Carolina is “the ballgame” when it comes to early primaries, the state that will offer perhaps the best glimpse of how candidates will perform on March 3 — Super Tuesday — when a large number of states, some quite diverse, will have their primaries. 

He says he is intrigued to see how certain Democratic hopefuls resonate with black South Carolina voters, particularly if they participate in events connected to the MLK holiday. He specifically calls out Buttigieg, Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“I’m honestly interested to see if Pete, Liz and Amy are capable,” Sellers tells Free Times. “I believe them to be. I’m interested to see if they will give the electorate in South Carolina something to remember, or whether they will kind of vanish away like the Avengers.”

Some, however, see a fine line between candidates earnestly looking to honor the legacy of King and using the day to pander to African American residents. 

Columbia’s Kevin Gray, an African American activist and author who is set to open a barbecue restaurant on Hampton Street, says he wants to see presidential candidates going out into the neighborhoods of the Capital City and connecting with residents about the issues that are affecting them.

“No question, a politician wants to be on the stage in South Carolina at a Dr. King program,” Gray says. “That’s when the cameras will be rolling. I just think, if you are talking about South Carolina being the ‘black primary’ where 50 percent or more of the primary voters are black, so you come and get a reading or a gauge on the black vote, maybe you ought to go and do something besides the big rallies where the cameras are rolling or going to fish fries or going to colleges and churches. Get out in the communities and engage people in communities.”

Benjamin, meanwhile, says candidates using the MLK Day as a platform pairs with King’s hard-fought efforts to give African Americans access to the ballot box.

“Dr. King was very clear about the power of the ballot, and the way the ballot should be used to try and create the country that we are all trying to create, the more perfect Union,” Benjamin offers. “I don’t see it as pandering, or anything else, by strongly encouraging people [to vote]. … It was part of who Dr. King was. I don’t think he would feel disrespected by the men and women who want to serve as the leader of this country — and the leader of the free world — coming here and encouraging people to participate in this process.”

But while the King holiday undoubtedly has a political bent in South Carolina, there are those who wonder whether the celebrations and events are leading to outcomes that the late civil rights giant would have lauded.

Looking for results

Two decades later, J.T. McLawhorn vividly remembers the first King Day at the Dome rally, and the energy and sense of purpose it held. 

That initial rally, which took place on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2000, has become legendary in Columbia, both for its attendance — an estimated 60,000 people were there, flooding Gervais Street and Main Street north of the Statehouse — and its direct mission: To push for the removal of the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse dome.

The peaceful-but-spirited rally is thought to have been a critical moment in getting the flag off the dome. It was moved to a spot on the Statehouse lawn in July 2000. In 2015 it was removed from the Statehouse grounds entirely, following a shooting rampage by a white supremacist at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.

While, in the years since, the state NAACP has continued the tradition of King Day at the Dome, that initial 2000 rally came together through the planning of a coalition of various individuals and organizations. McLawhorn, the African American civil rights leader and longtime president of the Columbia Urban League, was one of the key organizers of that 2000 event.

“We do think that that particular event in 2000 was the catalyst that brought down the Confederate flag,” McLawhorn tells Free Times. “People talk about [the 2019 teacher rally at the Statehouse] where there were 10,000 people. We had 60,000 people. This was the largest nonviolent assembly for social justice in the history of South Carolina.”

McLawhorn says he thinks events such as the subsequent King Day at the Dome rallies — which he did not help organize — are important in highlighting political and social issues that impact the black community, but notes he would like to see them lead to actionable results.

“It puts the spotlight on some of the inequities in South Carolina,” McLawhorn says. “And that’s important to put the spotlight on them. But I can’t tell you any outcomes from that spotlight. We know what happened [with the Confederate flag] after the rally in 2000. … But I do think it is important to enhance people’s awareness of inequities. The first step is to make people aware. But the next step is to put an action plan together, and the third step is to execute.”

Gray, the Columbia activist and author, thinks King Day has perhaps become overly politicized, losing some of its focus toward the ideals King championed.

“Setting aside [the original] King Day at the Dome, with the 50,000 or more people, it’s become something for politicians coming into the city, or politicians in general,” Gray posits. “It ain’t about change. It’s about folks being seen. I don’t go. … To me, what’s the focus after someone makes the speech and it’s on TV and people report the politicians that have been in town? It doesn’t set any agendas for us anymore.”

Cory Booker Bernie Sanders King Day Columbia 2019

U.S. Senators and current presidential candidates Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders march on King Day in Columbia in 2019.

Murphy, the state NAACP president, tells Free Times the organization continues to use King Day as a platform to advance issues important to the African American community. 

“The focus has changed,” Murphy says. “As a matter of fact, our focus last year was on the need to improve education. The theme was related to that. We still have needs in terms of healthcare access, education. We know the [education reform] bill is still being tossed around. We want to make sure it is inclusive to meet the needs of all of our children.”

Gray notes he wants to see advancement in Columbia as it regards some of King’s core principles, including addressing income inequalities between the white and black communities. As noted in an August 2019 piece in The New York Times Magazine, white Americans have seven times the wealth of black Americans, on average.

“Dr. King was against racism, war and poverty, which he called the three evils,” Gray says. “Now everybody talks about supporting our troops and saluting at the football games and ‘Thank you for your service.’ Poverty and poor people? Well, we might talk about them at Christmas. … In this city, as in every city, low-income people and people in need are being pushed out and made invisible.”

Devine notes the strides Columbia has made in representation, with an African American majority on City Council, an African American majority on Richland County Council and local black legislators holding key positions in the General Assembly, such as state Rep. Todd Rutherford’s status as House Democratic leader.

But she admits there is much work to still be done to meet King’s dreams of equality.

“Looking at it economically, have we achieved what Dr. King would have wanted?” she wonders. “I think when you look at the wealth gap, particularly the racial wealth gap, I would say that we haven’t. I think sometimes you are so focused on saying, ‘Yes, we want to have a diverse group of people in positions of power.’ But the people who are in positions of power need to be effecting policies and doing things that are making things better for the lives of all the citizens that we serve. I don’t think we’ve kind of gotten there yet.”

For his part, Gray remains unconvinced local leaders are focused on the change that is needed.

“It seems like some of the politicians in this city are more concerned about social media than they are about social justice,” he says, matter-of-factly. 

Here are a few noteworthy Columbia events taking place in connection with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Columbia Urban League’s Keeping the Legacy Alive Breakfast with guest speaker USC President Bob Caslen

When: 8 a.m., Monday, Jan. 20

Where: Brookland Baptist Church

Info: 803-799-8150 x 127

 SC NAACP’s King Day at the Dome

When: Monday, Jan. 20

Where: March lines up at 9:30 a.m. at Zion Baptist Church at 801 Washington St. Statehouse rally is at 10:15 a.m.

City of Columbia 32nd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration with guest speaker Bobby Donaldson

When: 4 p.m., Monday, Jan. 20

Where: MLK Park and Community Center, 2300 Greene St.

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