CHARLESTON, SC — At a historic Black church in Charleston where a hate-fueled massacre shocked the nation in 2015, President Joe Biden evoked the memories of that horrific night as he campaigned for a second term.
“The word of God was pierced by bullets of hate, rage, propelled by not just gunpowder but by a force, a force that for too long has poisoned our nation,” Biden told an audience of several hundred supporters at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “What is that force? White supremacy.”
Emanuel AME Church is known as Mother Emanuel because it’s the oldest AME church in the South. That’s why an avowed white supremacist chose it for his murderous plot, which he hoped would spark a race war. After being welcomed into a Wednesday night Bible study and praying with his victims for an hour, he opened fire. The nine people killed included the church’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Their murderer is on death row in federal prison.
Instead of fueling a race war, the crime sparked an outpouring of collective grief and a coming together, as then-President Barack Obama led an impromptu singing of “Amazing Grace” at Pinckney’s funeral and the Confederate flag came off the Statehouse grounds for good.
Biden opened his campaign speech with the slayings and recalled visiting the church as vice president afterward.
He then turned to what he saw as future threats in the erasure of history, including the claim by former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election had been stolen.
“Losers are taught to concede when they lose — and he is a loser,” Biden said of the former president.
In contrast, Biden said, “instead of erasing history, we’re making history.”
Biden made clear who he credited for the outcome of the 2020 election — the people before him.
“I’m here to speak to another truth,” he said. “It’s because of this congregation, the Black community of South Carolina and, not an exaggeration, Jim Clyburn, that I stand here today as your president.”
In 2020, South Carolina gave then-candidate Biden a significant win in the Democratic primary following a key endorsement by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn. Until then, Biden had trailed with a fourth-place finish in Iowa and fifth-place finish in New Hampshire.
Clyburn opened for Biden at Monday’s event and harkened back to four years ago.
“Presidential candidate Joe Biden offered himself to the American people, and he made a lot of promises and commitments,” Clyburn said.
He contends Biden has fulfilled those commitments, to include appointing more women of color as judges and trying to relieve student debt.
Biden continued with that theme, saying he wants to close the wealth gap between Black and white Americans. He closed with a tribute to the historic role of the Black church itself in America.
South Carolina’s racial diversity is why national Democrats moved it to the front of their voting calendar. The Palmetto State has a far larger Black population than either Iowa or New Hampshire, and they make up an even greater share of South Carolina’s Democratic base. (New Hampshire is still technically holding an earlier, unauthorized presidential primary on Jan 23, for which Biden refused to register.)
Biden needs to shore up his support among Black voters. Recent national polls show a big drop in their enthusiasm for Biden.
Betty Doctor came from Ridgeville, about 45 minutes away, to see the president. She called the visit a “blessing.” She plans to vote for Biden in the February primary.
The 70-year-old retiree’s top priority is “getting the right person” in the election.
“That’s it,” she said.
The speech largely centered around domestic policies. But several minutes in, half a dozen attendees stood up and chanted “Ceasefire now,” calling for Biden to support a full ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas.
“I understand your passion,” Biden said as the protestors were led out of the event. To drown out the protestors, other attendees began chanting “four more years.”
Dozens of protestors held a rally calling for a ceasefire in a park near the church.
Marcus McDonald, 27, a lead organizer with Charleston Black Lives Matter, said Emanuel is his family’s church.
“We find it so disrespectful that President Biden has come to the place of a massacre while actively benefiting and promoting a genocide and a massacre in Gaza,” McDonald said at the rally following Biden’s speech.
The president’s visit follows one by Vice President Kamala Harris on Saturday, when she spoke to the annual retreat of the 7th Episcopal District AME Church Women’s Missionary Society.
On Saturday, the state party is starting a get-out-the-vote bus tour, and two days later Harris will speak at the Statehouse for the NAACP’s annual King Day at the Dome for Martin Luther King Jr. event.
Even Democratic leadership acknowledges that South Carolina is likely to vote for a Republican in November.
His win Feb. 3 is all but guaranteed. Biden faces two extreme-long-shot candidates on Democrats’ presidential primary ballot here: U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota and author Marianne Williamson. A recent poll puts his support among Democratic primary voters at 69%.
But the party is still hiring a number of staffers with a “six figure” investment ahead of the primary. They include six regional directors, a campus organizer, and 12 event coordinators who will work through mid-February, as well as 30 workers hired specifically for the week before the primary to encourage people to vote.
This report was first published by the South Carolina Daily Gazette.