Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

Reporter

Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy@motherjones.com.

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Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the only black Democrat in the Senate, took a subtle jab at Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Thursday for ignoring issues affecting African Americans in his own state of Vermont.

Campaigning for Hillary Clinton at a black church in Florence, South Carolina, on Thursday, Booker fired up the crowd with invocations of past violence against African Americas—from "gas and billy clubs" on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to the martyred teenager Emmett Till—while framing Clinton as the only candidate in the race voters could trust to fix the criminal justice system. "If you don't mind all this talk in this campaign about race, I want to get real with y'all for a minute," Booker said. His support for Clinton, he explained to the church audience, was because "she was here when it wasn't election time. I'm here because she was supporting criminal justice reform before it was [popular] to talk about it on the campaign trail."

In case the contrast he was trying to draw wasn't clear, Booker got more specific. "This is not just a South Carolina issue," he said. "I don't care what state you come from. Heck, Vermont! People told me, 'Cory, they don't have black people in Vermont.' I'm sorry to tell you this, there are 50 states; we got black people in every state! That's true!"

He continued, "And the problems of racial disparity did not begin in this campaign. They go deep in every state. Vermont has 1 percent African Americans. But their prison population is 11 percent black! You want to speak about injustice—I see campaigns and candidates running all over this country. Don't you come to my communities, talk about how much you care, talk your passion for criminal justice, and then I don't hear from you after an election. And I didn't hear from you before the election!"

Clinton has focused on winning black voters in counties where she lost big to Barack Obama (including Florence County, where Obama beat her by 42 points), emphasizing Sanders' votes against gun control measures and her friendship with a group of African American women who lost their children to gun violence or in police custody. But her aggressive push on criminal justice is in part defensive; she's been criticized on the left for supporting, among other things, welfare reform and the 1994 crime bill. At a fundraiser in Charleston on Wednesday night, she was confronted by a young black woman about comments she'd made as First Lady in support of the crime bill, alleging that "super-predators" were threatening urban communities. Clinton said on Thursday, "I shouldn't have used those words."

Barack Obama's last campaign stop of the 2008 South Carolina primary was a five-minute cameo at the "Pink Ice Gala" in Columbia, hosted by Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation's oldest African American sorority. The senator from Illinois was reluctant to attend, the New York Times later reported, but his consigliere, Valerie Jarrett, was insistent. "You want to win, don't you?" she asked. "Well then, you need to go to Pink Ice."

Obama did win South Carolina, and it wasn't because he stopped at Pink Ice. But it was a useful symbol for why he won. Over the final weeks before the primary, college-educated African American women who were supposed to be one of Clinton's core constituencies—former President Bill Clinton had himself courted Alpha Kappa Alpha members months earlier—broke for Obama in large numbers, with 80 percent of black women in the state voting for him over Hillary Clinton.

To state the obvious: Clinton would like to avoid that scenario on Saturday, as she tries to fight off another primary challenge from an underdog senator. With her opponent, Bernie Sanders, spending most of the week campaigning in other states, she hunkered down, sending five African American mothers whose children lost their lives in police custody or to gun violence to speak to church groups in places like Orangeburg County (where she lost by 42 percentage points in 2008) and Sumter (which she lost by 53). She's stumping with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in the state's impoverished "corridor of shame" along I-95, and she's booking trips to churches and historically black colleges and universities. Her husband flew in for a last-minute blitz in predominantly white cities.

They don't just want to win; they want to win in a way that shows Sanders can't. So with three days to go before the South's first primary, Clinton did what people who want to win do: She put on the sorority's colors (or a green coat, anyway) and went to talk to some Alphas.

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