COLUMBIA — King Day at the Dome, an annual event held on Statehouse grounds that serves to memorializes Martin Luther King Jr., jump-started the 2020 presidential contest in South Carolina.
U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., — among a host of potential contenders set to challenge Republican President Donald Trump — headlined the event, a big draw for African-American voters in the early primary state.
The event organized by the NAACP has become a staple stop for Democratic presidential hopefuls seeking the nation's top job since South Carolina is the first contest with a significant portion of black voters.
"There is no accident that Sen. Booker and Sen. Sanders both are here in this cold," Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, told the crowd of over 1,000 ahead of their speeches in 30-degree weather.
She told attendees of the rally they must weigh all the candidates who will soon be crisscrossing the state.
"The rest of the country is counting on the voters of South Carolina to run these candidates through the hoops," said Cobb-Hunter, the state's longest-serving black House member ever at 27 years in office. "Whoever the next president is, he or she will have a real mess to clean up. Learn what these candidates stand for. ... This is not a popularity contest. This is serious business."
Booker broadly challenged the audience to honor King by getting involved and working for change.
"We are all our ancestors' wildest dreams. We’re the physical manifestations of their struggles and sacrifice, but we’re still in a nation where too many do not experience the greatness in the dream," said the former mayor of Newark, N.J.
"We need folks who are going to mend up wounds and bind us back together," he said. "Let us swear the oath that America will be the land of liberty and justice for all."
Sanders, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, offered more specifics, outlining a potential platform that includes free health care for everyone, free tuition at all public colleges, a nationwide minimum wage of $15 an hour, high quality K-12 schools for all children and affordable child care for all parents.
The lack of those reforms is evidence racism is still prevalent in America, he said.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, also called for an end to minimum prison sentences and advocated automatic voter registration for everyone on their 18th birthday.
"If you are 18 years old, if you're black, white, Latino, you’re registered to vote — end of discussion," said Sanders, who gave Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton a tougher-than-expected challenge four years ago.
At a panel discussion later Monday, Sanders did not directly answer a question as to whether he's running again. He said he's still assessing what to do as he travels the country. But the question alone brought a standing ovation in the historically black church.
"There are some really good people who have announced and they’re friends of mine," Sanders said, adding that will likely include Booker. "My views are maybe a little different. ... If we go forward, we're going to take on every powerful interest in this country."
Potential contenders are sure to seek the backing of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Sumter native who again holds the third-highest post in the House after November's election put Democrats back in control of the chamber.
But Clyburn, the state's most veteran congressman, said Monday no one will get his endorsement ahead of the state's primary, set for February 2020.
"I will not take sides in this primary. I want everybody to come" to South Carolina, he said. "But I'll give no official endorsement prior to the primary."
Shawn Peay of Columbia said all candidates do themselves a favor by speaking at the MLK rally at the Statehouse. He said he comes every year because "so many people have died for me to be here and for my right to vote."
"It's great for them to be here and be seen," Peay said of presidential contenders, though he added he's currently backing Booker, who has yet to officially announce his White House bid.
Sally Dickerson of Columbia said both Booker and Sanders gave powerful speeches.
"It was highly uplifting," she said. "Either one would have my vote."