U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton told the biggest annual gathering of Lowcountry civil rights leaders Saturday that she will take five specific steps to help their cause if she wins the presidency next year.
Clinton addressed almost 1,000 people during the Charleston NAACP's 91st annual banquet, and she chose the occasion to unveil her plans for bolstering civil rights.
The Democratic hopeful also praised the decision of a Louisiana appeals court throwing out an aggravated battery conviction against a black teenager accused of beating a white classmate. The incident occurred in the racially tense town of Jena, where the NAACP plans to march Thursday.
"This case reminds us that the scales of justice are seriously out of balance when it comes to charging, prosecuting and sentencing African-Americans," Clinton said. "The case in Jena cries out for a full investigation by the Civil Rights Division" of the U.S. Justice Department.
Clinton said if elected, she would direct her attorney general to investigate charges of improper, politically motivated hiring and whether any laws were broken and to increase the Civil Rights Division funding by $30 million.
Her other four steps are: helping school districts pursue voluntary integration measures; extending full voting rights to Washington, D.C. citizens and fight voter ID laws that negatively impact minorities; strengthening federal hate crimes law; and fighting race and sex discrimination in the workplace.
"We have to have a Justice Department that functions again," she said. "Anyone who says we have gotten beyond racial discrimination is not living with their eyes open."
Addressing the NAACP banquet was a political coup for Clinton, whose main rival in South Carolina is U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Black voters are expected to make up about half of those voting in the state's Democratic presidential primary on Jan. 29.
Rep. and Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., has remained neutral to date but spoke highly of Clinton as he introduced her.
"I don't think there has been anybody in public life that has had to weather the criticism that she was weather, and she was refused to wither under that criticism," Clyburn said.
Clinton also said too many Americans feel their problems are not visible to the nation's leaders, whether the problem is access to health care, dilapidated schools or discrepancies in court sentences. She said if you're a Hurricane Katrina victim in New Orleans, "you're invisible to this president even when you're on CNN."
Both Clyburn and Clinton made jokes about the banquet occurring at the same time South Carolina State played a historic football game at the University of South Carolina. Clinton said when she heard about the game, "I thought for a moment it might just be (Charleston NAACP) President (Dot) Scott and me here."
She also wasn't the only politician seeking election who spoke to the crowd. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who is up for re-election in November, said the critical civil rights issue of our time is ensuring every child gets a quality education. State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who gained a primary opponent last week, urged people to contact his senate office if they think they may have suffered discrimination when they took out their mortgage.