In a black church outside St. Louis Tuesday, Hillary Clinton bowed her head, folded her hands across her lap and patiently accepted a ceremonial blessing.
“Lord, we lift up our collective voices to say, it’s not enough,” prayed local reverend Karen Anderson. “There are those who are still suffering from injustice, there are those who are still fighting for basic human rights, those are those who are feeling helpless and hopeless and those who still live on the margins.”
Clinton was sitting in a folding chair in Christ the King Church just a few miles from last summer’s violent unrest in Ferguson, the result of a late-breaking decision to visit a local church in Missouri to talk about race and a broader campaign goal. In the week since the Charleston massacre, she has addressed race directly in her public appearances and spoken about the persistence of prejudice. It’s part of Clinton’s decision to tackle racial issues head on, in a departure from her 2008 campaign.
“America’s long struggle with race is far from over,” she said on Tuesday shortly before the prayer. “The truth is, equality, opportunity, civil rights in America are still far from where they need to be.”
There is an electoral realism to Clinton’s foray into Ferguson: she will need black voters to turn out in large numbers for her if she wants to win the general election. President Obama won a sweeping victory in 2012 off the strength of black turnout. In that election, turnout among blacks exceeded that among whites, with 66% of blacks showing up compared with 64% of whites. Polls show strong support for Clinton among black voters this cycle, but there’s no telling how many will actually show up at the polls.
As Clinton sat in the church with a panel of community leaders and framed by a massive silver and golden organ, she made a direct appeal to the voters in the pews.
“If people voted for people who would represent them about these interests—that’s the way we run! It’s still not going to be easy but its going to be a whole lot easier if you elect people who actually are committed to addressing” the community’s problems, she said, pointing directly at her fellow roundtable participants.
“The hardest thing to do in a campaign is to convince people to actually take the time to vote,” Clinton continued. “If you don’t have to even to go to the communities that are making these demands because you know they’re not going to vote and you don’t have to pay attention them, then nothing changes.”
Though she has stepped up her discussion of the racial divide in recent weeks, this is not the first time she’s talked about racial issues. Clinton has spoken earnestly and passionately about race before, and she counts African-Americans among her friends and top campaign staff. She has recalled seeing Martin Luther King speak in Chicago, and much of her legal work after leaving Yale Law School in the 1970s dealt with impoverished and African-American communities.
Much of Clinton’s talk in recent weeks has also echoed President Obama’s. Obama sat in for a candid interview released Monday in which he spoke about America’s ongoing racial legacy. “Racism: we’re not cured of it,” Obama said. “It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n-gger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination.”
Clinton, too has discussed racism in recent days as pervasive and often subtle. On Saturday, speaking to a conference of mayors in the San Francisco, she said “our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen. It’s also in the cruel joke that goes unchallenged. It’s in the off-hand comments about not wanting ‘those people’ in the neighborhood.”
Her poll numbers among African-Americans closely mirror Obama’s, too. Obama has an 86%-2% favorable-unfavorable rating among blacks, while Clinton has 81%-3%, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. And among blacks, Clinton outperforms a generic Democratic candidate against the Republican frontrunners. Moreover, her approval rating among blacks has risen from around 73% earlier this year.
Clinton and her husband have long been popular in the African-American community. In the 2008 election, Hillary led Barack Obama 57% to 37% among black voters as late as October 2007, according to a CNN poll, despite talking little about race eight years ago. Black voters swung toward Obama after he won in Iowa and it appeared he had a strong prospect of winning the nomination.
This year, the themes of her campaign have changed. During the Baltimore riots shortly after she began her campaign, Clinton called for reforming the criminal justice system and reducing incarceration among African-Americans. Since then, she has spoken repeatedly about the unequal treatment at the hands of police, citing data showing African-Americans are more likely to be searched, imprisoned and shot by police than whites.
Her appeal to black voters has extended beyond rhetoric. She called on Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and require 20 days of early in-person voting and automatic, universal voter registration. Last week, she announced a plan to give $1,500 tax credits to businesses that hire apprentices, which her campaign promoted by pointing to the high preponderance of unemployed young African-Americans. And she has voiced support for greater gun control, an issue that garners wide support in urban areas and among African-Americans.
“We need to come together for common sense gun reforms that keep our communities safe,” Clinton said in the church on Tuesday, one of her loudest applause lines.
Clinton also weighed in forcefully on the Charleston massacre, calling Dylann Roof’s shooting of nine black churchgoers an “act of racist terrorism,” going further than FBI director James Comey, who has said the killing likely does not meet the definition of terrorism. She’s called for the removal of the Confederate flag in the past, and on Tuesday, she said it “shouldn’t fly anywhere.”
Missing from Clinton’s remarks on Tuesday, however, was any specific mention of the Ferguson riots and the place she stood. The fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in August 2014 set off a wave of protests in the St. Louis suburb as well as around the country, with residents of cities from New York to Oakland uniting behind the Black Lives Matter movement. It has reshaped the conversation around race in the United States, bringing criminal justice and institutional prejudice to the forefront of this election cycle.
Though on Tuesday she sat a mere four miles from the street where Brown was and members of the roundtable panel several times raised Brown’s death, Clinton did not say his name. Last year, she did not comment on the Brown for more than two weeks before telling an audience in San Francisco that Americans “cannot ignore the inequities that persist in our justice system.”
Her audience stood up and applauded throughout her remarks though she said little about their home.
“We still know racism is alive and well, and it has no place,” said Ella Jones, a 61-year-old member of the Ferguson City Council. “It means a lot to the residents here, that she comes so close.”
Reverend Karen Anderson’s prayer, which was at the end of the event, finally turned toward Clinton herself.
“Lord, would you bless Secretary Clinton as she continues on this journey?” the reverend continued as several hundred people in simple wooden pews listened along. “Would you allow her to keep her ears open as she listens to the concerns of those she wishes to serve?”
The blessing received, Clinton unfolded her hands and spoke with the flock. She exited the church out of a side door fifteen minutes later, due on a family estate south of St. Louis for a house event.