World·CBC in S. Carolina

Black votes matter: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders court African-Americans before primary

South Carolina’s Democratic primary marks a pivot in the election towards the black vote. But as Hillary Clinton builds on the goodwill of two former presidents popular with African-Americans, Bernie Sanders is showing appeal among younger minorities.

As Clinton leads in favourability among African-Americans, Sanders woos younger voters

Roland Martin, the host and managing editor of TV One's News One Now, speaks with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton before a town hall meeting hosted by the South Carolina legislative black caucus in Nov. 2015 at Claflin University in Orangeburg, SC. Next week's South Carolina Democratic primary will be the first to involve a significantly black electorate. (Richard Burkhart/Associated Press for TV One)

Black lives matter. Black ballots decide Democratic primary outcomes.

Here in South Carolina, at least, this is established political wisdom ahead of Saturday's vote.

It's not only clear this week to candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who have crammed their campaign schedules with stops at Baptist churches and meetings with civil-rights lawyers; this new phase in the election cycle resonates deeply for African-American voters.

Rev. Al Sharpton talks with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, at Sylvia's Restaurant in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York. Ahead of the South Carolina primary, Sanders and his rival Hillary Clinton are mounting a push to court African-American voters. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Archie Fair, the 55-year-old owner of Fair's Professional barbershop in the predominantly black city of Orangeburg, an hour southeast of Columbia, sees the vote as a time to make himself known in the electoral conversation.

"This election is vital. Especially to us. Especially to the community," Fair said, waving an electric trimmer as a customer awaited a fresh cut.

Iowa and New Hampshire were mostly-white contests. Nevada's caucus at least introduced a Hispanic element.

Clients at Fair's Professional barbershop in Orangeburg, S.C., await their turns for a fresh cut. Most patrons and barbers in the shop last weekend said they would be voting in Saturday's Democratic South Carolina primary for Hillary Clinton. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

But the South Carolina primary marks a turn in the election — one that pivots towards a significantly black electorate. More than 29 per cent of the population in this state is African-American.

Between Clinton and Sanders, black voters regard either candidate as their best hope for electing a president who's serious about untangling America's ongoing racial tensions. Political experience counts. But so does a genuine commitment to racial-equality causes, likely more so now than any other time this election cycle.

Jordan Cutler, 19, a student at the historically black college Claflin University, says she supports Bernie Sanders in the upcoming South Carolina primary, despite Hillary Clinton's alliances within the African-American community. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Judging from the walls in Fair's shop, where sun-faded airbrush portraits of Obama hang next to art featuring Martin Luther King quotes, a suitable candidate would be the best surrogate for the current president.

"And if you want someone who's going to keep what president Obama started," Fair says, "It'll be Hillary Clinton."

Carrying Obama's legacy

Over a din of fraternal teasing and a boxy TV blaring the Duke University college basketball game, the stylist laid out his case for Obama's former secretary of state.

Tyrone Boneparte, who goes by the moniker Rudy Da Barber, lines up a client's haircut at Fair's Professional barbershop in Orangeburg, S.C. Boneparte, 34, sees the appeal of Bernie Sanders, but as with other older voters at the barbershop, he consider Hillary Clinton to be a more electable presidential candidate. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Fair worries about legacy. He wants a candidate who can build on Obama's progress. Mostly, he thinks about the Affordable Care Act, the president's signature legislative achievement. Its passage in 2009 has helped millions of low-income minorities receive health care, even as it has drawn the ire of the conservative right bemoaning an expected uptick in overall costs.

"I believe Hillary, if she does anything, may improve it or tweak it," Fair said. "You've got people who have never had health insurance before who now have health insurance. It means a lot to our community. We want to make sure it continues."

Chris Evans, a resident of Orangeburg, S.C., says what matters to him most in a Democratic presidential candidate is how loudly that candidate will be able to speak on behalf of the African-American community. 'Bernie Sanders marched with Martin Luther King. That pulls me towards him more,' he says. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

From customer to customer, stylist to stylist, the answer at Fair's shop was the same last weekend.

"It's Hillary," said patron Freddie Antley, 73. "She's been there for us ever since the '70s with her husband, and she's shown that she has really shown an interest in us as a people."

Tyrone Boneparte, wielding electric clippers at the next chair, conceded Sanders has some compelling, if not impractical, plans for expanding social security.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, husband of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, sings along with a black church choir in this 2000 file photo. African-American author Toni Morrison wrote of Clinton in 1998: "White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President." (Reuters)

"But Hillary's got the experience," the 34-year-old concluded.

None of this should be too surprising. South Carolina has been regarded as a shoo-in for Clinton. Her civil-rights cred and alignment with the Obama administration likely give her a boost among black voters, as does reverence for her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

But ask younger African-American voters who they're leaning towards for next week's primary, and it becomes evident Clinton doesn't have a monopoly on goodwill among this segment. Millennials are also showing serious interest in Sanders, the Brooklyn-born junior senator from Vermont.

Undecided voter Eleja McClerklin, 23, shown at the Brookland Baptist church in Columbia, S.C. McClerkin says she has been interested in Bernie Sanders as a Democratic candidate ever since he visited her college months ago to speak on his civil-rights record. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Dressed in a smart Sunday suit at Columbia's Brookland Baptist church, 23-year-old Eleja McClerklin said she was considering a political departure from her parents, both Clinton supporters.

"My vote is going to go towards the person who is going to impact the African-American community the most," McClerklin said as the early morning service let out.

"I have seen what Bernie has done, some of those old photos," she said, referencing a newly verified 1963 photo of a 21-year-old Sanders being dragged by Chicago police away from an anti-segregation demonstration.

Dexter Weathers, a sophomore at the historically black college Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., was undecided for several months about whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the South Carolina primary. He eventually decided to go with Sanders, partially for the Vermont senator's commitment to police reform. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Most affecting to her was when Sanders spoke about his race-related activism at her campus at Winthrop College.

"When he came to democratic forum, he told us about his history, his past, his work in the civil-rights movement," she said. "As far as Hillary, I'm unsure of where she stands as far as impacting us as African-Americans."

'But I met Hillary'

It was a powerful example of the merits of outreach, given the Congressional Black Caucus's alliance with the Clinton family, and progressive icon John Lewis's remarks this month outlining his first-hand knowledge of Sanders's civil-rights record.

Barbershop owner Archie Fair, 55, prepares to cut pastor Vincent Sanders's hair at Fair's Professional barbershop in Orangeburg, S.C. Both barber and patron support Hillary Clinton's campaign. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"I never saw him, I never met him," Lewis said of Sanders. "I was involved in the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and directed their voter education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton," Lewis added.

At Orangeburg's historically black Claflin University, 19-year-old sophomore Dexter Weathers said that until about two months ago, he, too, was wavering in his support for Clinton. He is now advocating for Sanders in the South Carolina primary, citing the 74-year-old's plans for police reform and appeals for ending systemic racism.

There was something else that swayed him: Weathers' personal research into Bill Clinton's 1994 "tough on crime" agenda, which some have blamed for implementing mass incarceration.

Retired firefighter Freddie Antley, seated at Fair's barbershop in Orangeburg, S.C., is a vocal supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. 'She's been there for us ever since the ’70s,' he says. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"That's why we have 2.8 million black and women now [in prison]," Weathers said. "I know it wasn't Hillary, but she's still associated." (Sanders, it should be noted, also voted 21 years ago for the very crime bills he has since denounced.)

Sanders still trails Clinton in a big way when it comes to securing the minority vote, with Clinton garnering a 71 per cent favourability rating among likely South Carolina primary voters, compared to 39 per cent favourability for Sanders, according to a Feb. 16 release from Public Policy Polling.

Tyrell Jamison, a 20-year-old biology major at Claflin University, views Hillary Clinton as the most plausible Democratic nominee. 'I don’t think anybody can fix institutionalized racism. All Hillary can do is try and encourage people to steer people away from racial inequality,' he says. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Still, it isn't just the candidates' records on race issues that matters to black voters in the Palmetto State.

Another Claflin student, 19-year-old Jordan Cutler, is throwing her support behind Sanders, mainly for his plans to make college tuition free at public post-secondary institutions. This, despite admitting she feels Clinton has done more for the black community.

As for what gives Cutler pause about backing possibly the first female commander-in-chief, she gets less specific.

"It's just something uneasy. Something about the vibe I get about the Clintons," she said. "Sometimes it's just a feeling."


  • An earlier version of this story included a photo of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with New York Rep. Charles Rangel that mistakenly identified him as South Carolina television host Roland Martin.
    Feb 22, 2016 10:14 AM ET


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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