Cory Booker wasn't going to let President Trump be the only voice when it came to addressing the rise of hate-fueled violence in America, and neither was Joe Biden.

In a pair of speeches Wednesday, one inside Charleston's Emanuel AME Church and the other at a community event in Iowa, the two Democratic presidential candidates separately sought to confront the uptick of white nationalism after a pair of mass shootings over the weekend, including one in El Paso, Texas, where authorities say the gunman wanted to divide the United States into territories based on race.

Two days after Trump condemned white supremacy and racism, the New Jersey senator and the former vice president said this moment in America's history requires leadership the White House is not providing.

The pair of formal speeches marked a unique political moment, illustrating how fractured the nation has become — to the point where presidential candidates are attempting to lead in ways typically reserved for sitting presidents.

"We could be getting to a point where your political party of choice is going to deliver its own message to the people in the wake of these tragedies," said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. "The reality is there's probably at least 50 percent of the country which, no matter what Trump says, are just muting it out or viewing his remarks with skepticism. With the nation so divided, it's clear these candidates are sensing that people want somebody to speak to the other swath of the country."

Standing inside the sanctuary of the Charleston church where nine black parishioners were gunned down by a white supremacist in 2015, Booker called for love. He never mentioned Trump by name.

"Our work is not complete by calling out the shortcomings of our leaders. It is hard, but it is necessary to recognize the decisions we collectively make every day that perpetuate this dangerous reality. Each person, each generation, has a decision to make: Do you want to contribute to our collective advancement or — through inaction or worse — to our collective retrenchment?" Booker said.

He later added, "You can't lead the people if you don't love the people — all the people."

Meanwhile, Trump was taking questions from reporters in Washington, D.C., before he prepared to visit both Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso — the two cities where 31 people died and 53 were injured in a pair of mass shootings over the weekend.

Trump dismissed critics who have suggested his rhetoric on race and immigration is partly to blame for the rise in hate violence.

"My critics are political people that are trying to make points. In many cases, they're running for president and they're very low in the polls," Trump said.

"I think my rhetoric brings people together," Trump said. "I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate."

"I don't like it," he said. "Whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy."

Hours later, Biden gave his own speech at a previously scheduled community event in Burlington, Iowa. He said Trump's words and actions since taking office have encouraged and emboldened racists.

"We're living through a rare moment in this nation's history where our president isn't up to the moment, where our president lacks the moral authority to lead, where our president has more in common with George Wallace than he does with George Washington," Biden said.

Taking aim at Trump for his response to the shootings, Biden said, "Hatred isn't a mental health issue."

Sign up for updates!

Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.


Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist who advised Hillary Clinton's presidential campaigns in the state, said the speeches were not typical of a presidential campaign. But, in South Carolina, the first-in-the-South presidential primary state where African Americans make up a majority of the Democratic primary, inaction on these topics would come with its own political risk.

"It's a moment that people will remember because they will be reminded of it," Seawright predicted. "This may end up being a campaign ad that the candidates will run here over and over to make people remember it."

Back at Emanuel AME Church, keeping these issues top of mind is not only deeply personal for some of its members, but it is also a core value of the church. 

"We feel very comfortable with anyone who would be willing to come and speak out against the hateful, negative rhetoric that's permeating the airwaves," said the Rev. Eric Manning. 

Melvin Graham lost his sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, in the Emanuel shooting.

He listened in the pews as Booker referenced the tragedy and the community response that followed. Graham called the speech "heart-felt" but admitted there is emotional fatigue each day with yet another call to action after yet another mass shooting.

Graham depends on his faith, not politicians. As he talks about his children and grandchildren, Graham inhales sharply. Even now, he fears their skin color could make them future targets.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.