WASHINGTON – The top Democratic presidential candidates walked arm in arm on Monday to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in South Carolina, a brief show of unity in an increasingly contentious race.
Standing behind an NAACP banner, the candidates led hundreds down Main Street in Columbia, marching and singing as they headed to the Statehouse.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were side by side, seemingly marking a détente after a week of campaign-trail tensions over comments Warren claims Sanders made in a private conversation about whether a female candidate could win in 2020. To their right, Joe Biden linked arms with Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard, and on the other side, Pete Buttigieg walked with Tom Steyer.
The procession concluded at the Statehouse where Buttigieg was the only candidate who didn't give a short speech. The others did, reflecting on King's legacy and how it informs their visions for the country.
"Our job is not just to remember the history of Dr. King," Sanders said. "It is to absorb his revolutionary spirit and use it today."
South Carolina is the only state holding its nominating contest in February where the majority of the Democratic electorate is black. Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar have struggled to appeal to black voters.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg added the King Day stops to their calendars over the weekend after facing criticism for staying in a majority-white state, Iowa, on the birthday of the civil rights leader.
Meanwhile, Biden, who holds a commanding lead among black voters in the state, spent an extra day campaigning in South Carolina. On Sunday, he attended a service at Bethlehem Baptist Church and then an oyster roast in Orangeburg hosted by a local elected official. Most of the other candidates flew in late Sunday night.
The celebration of King's legacy began Monday morning at the Columbia Urban League breakfast in West Columbia.
Biden recalled ties to the national organization and its Delaware chapter going back decades. He spoke in personal terms about King, recalling his assassination as a formative moment of his young adulthood, and said the country is at a "second inflection point" on civil rights.
Buttigieg spoke next, sprinkling in jokes and applause lines that got mixed reactions. "I'm conscious that I'm sharing a room with leaders from generations that have delivered great advances at great cost," he said.
Vanessa Berry, 55, of Columbia sought out Buttigieg in the breakfast crowd and asked for a picture with him. He's her first choice as of now but only because no one else has won her over on the issues that matter most in her community.
"There is really no standout candidate that represents the black community, the things that are important to us," she said, pointing to the inequities that blacks face, including police violence.
Angela Bishop, 58, said she's torn between Biden and Warren, drawn by the former vice president's experience and Warren's policy ideas. She understands that Buttigieg, 38, is appealing to some because he's "fresh and new" but thinks this is a time when she would prefer someone "more mature, somebody with experience" in the Oval Office.
She shrugged off any discussion of Buttigieg's difficulties with black voters, instead saying that what matters to her is just that "black voters get out to vote."
Still, with candidates spending most of their time in Iowa and New Hampshire, voters in South Carolina are looking for more investment of time from the Democrats.
"It's one day," Berry said. "They all need to make a better effort at representing things in my community."