Sen. Bernie Sanders brought his progressive populism to deeply Republican South Carolina and found enthusiastic crowds totaling 10,000 during a two-day campaign swing as he made a pitch to connect with the black voters that provide most of the Democratic support in the early primary state.
It was the Vermont senator's first visit to the state since announcing his candidacy in late April, in a challenge to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Sanders had canceled a planned appearance in Charleston in June in the wake of the massacre at the city's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine dead.
In each of his South Carolina stops, Sanders linked his progressive agenda to issues and challenges important to the black community. He called for restoring sections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court overturned and pledged to fight 'institutional racism,' with a particular focus on the criminal justice system.
Sanders criss-crossed South Carolina Friday and Saturday:
- Friday morning, Sanders held a rally in Greenville, a conservative enclave in the northwest corner of the state, that drew an enthusiastic crowd of over 2,800, according to the campaign.
- Friday afternoon, Bernie met with 50 pastors and community leaders, most of them black, at the Springfield Baptist Church in Greenville.
- Friday evening, another 2,800 supporters crammed into a sweltering ballroom at the Medallion Conference Center in Columbia, the state capital, to hear Sanders, with the diverse crowd also filling up overflow areas. Sanders also met with met with black pastors in Columbia.
- Saturday morning, over 600 turned out for Bernie in Sumpter.
- Saturday evening, a crowd of over 3,100 people packed into the Charleston Convention Center in North Charleston where Sanders invoked the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Walter Scott, all unarmed black men who died in the hands of police officers in a little over a year. "We are going to end institutional racism and we are going to transform and make changes in the criminal justice system that isn't working," he said to the loud cheering crowd.
"When a police officer breaks the law, that police officer must be held accountable. We need new rules on the use of force." He also mentioned the Charleston slayings, which authorities have called racially motivated. "I'm not just talking about somebody who walked into a Bible study class, prayed with the people in that group and then took out a gun and killed nine people. I'm talking about the hundreds of hate groups that exist in this country today whose only function is fomenting of hatred of African Americans, gays, immigrants, Jews."
Between campaign events, Sanders met with groups of black leaders, including ministers and business owners, and visited with Black Lives Matter activists after his rallies.
Also, Sanders' campaign staff met with the Charleston chapter of activist group Black Lives Matter on Friday night, said local activist Muhiyidin D'Baha who attended Saturday night's Charleston speech. "They've been really good in receiving critique. We're really hoping that we have impacted his message."