By Trevor Hunnicutt and Nandita Bose
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris warned Americans that their freedom is under threat as she commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day in early-voting South Carolina on Monday, wielding the civil-rights icon’s legacy to urge Black voters to join Democrats to win the 2024 election.
Harris headlined an annual event by the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights group, which included a prayer service and a march to the South Carolina House of Representatives in Columbia. She pressed one of Democrats’ central election messages – President Joe Biden and his Democrats need voters’ help to protect Americans’ rights from Republicans.
Harris said that freedom in the country is under “profound threat,” citing the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, long lines for voting and the prevalence of gun violence. She quoted King’s late widow, Coretta Scott King, who said “Freedom is never truly won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”
Voters need to “roll up our sleeves,” she said. “We were born for a time such as this.”
“We will fight,” Harris concluded. “And when we fight we win.”
Ahead of her speech, a group of chanting protesters, some waving Palestinian flags, massed outside the venue, a sign of the dissent within the Democratic Party over Biden’s Israel policy.
Biden marked the holiday by volunteering for Philabundance, a hunger relief group in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a state his aides regard as must-win in November, where he loaded packages with fresh fruit and milk onto a conveyer belt in a warehouse.
Republicans, including that party’s front-runner, former President Donald Trump, are wrapping up their Iowa campaigns on the day of their first nominating contest. The state is honoring King by “exercising true grassroots democracy,” said Jeff Kaufmann, the chair of the Republican Party in Iowa.
Biden, top Democrats and some Republicans have warned that Trump’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol and his pledge to punish his political enemies suggest he could destroy democratic norms in the country if he wins the White House again.
Trump has dismissed the accusations against him as politically motivated and accused Biden of being a threat to democracy.
Biden, in a radio interview with Black civil rights advocate Reverend Al Sharpton on SiriusXM, said Trump was a motivating factor in his decision to seek re-election, noting the Republican’s desire to seek revenge against his political adversaries.
“Trump is just saying things that are off the wall,” Biden said.
Harris, the country’s first Black vice president and its highest-ranking Black and Asian elected official, is tasked with outreach to people of color and younger voters, groups whose support for Biden has waned.
Long the Democratic Party’s most reliable backers, these voters are wavering over economic anxiety and policy disappointments in divided-government Washington. Echoing other recent public-opinion polls, an Economist/YouGov survey found that only 67% of Black U.S. adults had a favorable view of Biden.
LIFT EVERY VOICE
Hundreds gathered on Monday morning at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, a historic Black church dating to the 19th century, ahead of remarks by U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, the top Democrat in the chamber and Representative James Clyburn, a Democrat whose endorsement helped Biden win the South Carolina nominating contest in 2020.
As the sounds of a Hammond organ rang through the sanctuary, the audience swayed and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn also known as the “Black National Anthem.”
Once a major global entry port for enslaved people, South Carolina is where the first volleys of the U.S. Civil War were launched in 1861. Under post-war Jim Crow laws, the state’s schools and public facilities were segregated through law and intimidation, while Black people were largely excluded from voting and serving in elected office.
The movement associated with King, the NAACP and others used nonviolent protest and public pressure to overturn the Jim Crow system.
Still, economic inequality remains pronounced, as in much of the United States. Six decades after the federal government started forcing South Carolina to end legal segregation, some 24% of Black residents in the state live in poverty, compared with 10% of white South Carolinians.
BIDEN’S SOUTH CAROLINA WIN
Biden asked the Democratic National Committee to put South Carolina first in the party’s nominating schedule this year, elevating a state where more than half of Democrats are Black and all but shutting out a serious primary challenge.
Democrats hold their primary here on Feb. 3, followed by Republicans on Feb. 24.
The president’s triumph in the state’s 2020 Democratic contest rescued a broke and flailing campaign, convincing rivals that no one could match his strength with the Black voters who vote 9-to-1 for the party in national elections, a larger share than any other ethnic group.
More than a quarter of the state’s population is Black, about twice the national average.
Now, Biden wants an overwhelming win here over long-shot challengers to quiet doubts about his re-election bid, which has been plagued by voter concern over the economy, the country’s direction and his age, 81. Trump is 77.
Lachanda Reeves Canty, 48, of Columbia, said Biden’s age is a concern not because of his ability to do the job but because he brings the perspective of an older man to challenges being faced by younger people.
“The Democratic Party has to do something to get the energy among the younger voters,” Reeves Canty said. After voting for Biden in 2020, she said she is leaning toward supporting him again.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Columbia, South Carolina, and Nandita Bose in PhiladelphiaAdditional reporting by Steve Holland in WashingtonEditing by Heather Timmons, Paul Simao, Mark Porter and Matthew Lewis)