COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Democratic presidential contenders celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy at a Baptist church Monday and linked arms with each other and civil rights leaders in a march of tens of thousands to the Statehouse.
At Zion Baptist Church before the march, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren engaged in the handshake that didn’t happen in the frosty aftermath of the last debate.
“This is THE handshake,” presidential contender Tulsi Gabbard said as Sanders and Warren reached across her to shake hands in the front row. They and rival Amy Klobuchar attended the service before they joined Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and other contenders in the march to the Statehouse.
In last week’s debate, Warren and Sanders clashed in an exchange over what was said during a private conversation about a woman’s chances of becoming president. Sanders extended his hand afterward, and Warren pulled back.
Now, in the closing days before the first votes are cast in the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, the party’s leading hopefuls are splitting their time between the critical early-voting states of South Carolina and Iowa at events celebrating King.
The march brought together more candidates than engaged in the last two debates. They arrived at the Statehouse as King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech played over loudspeakers.
While Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats vote first for their nominee, South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary is a crucial proving ground for a candidate’s mettle with black voters. The state’s showcase holiday celebration, Columbia’s King Day at the Dome, is a notable event for Democratic politicians.
Sanders spokesman Michael Wukela said the King event in South Carolina was about “respect pure and simple,” noting that racial inequality in areas including criminal justice and poverty highlights the relevance of commemorating a civil rights icon here.
“If you can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with people who face these challenges every day yet still manage to embrace a vision of hope and grace, then you don’t deserve their respect, much less their vote,” he said.
King Day at the Dome began in 2000 as a reaction to state lawmakers’ decision that year to keep the Confederate battle flag flying from the Statehouse’s copper-covered cupola, a place of prominence that drew opposition. Tens of thousands of people marched through Columbia’s downtown from the prayer service to the Statehouse.
Lawmakers eventually agreed to a compromise that moved the flag to a flagpole, albeit one prominently situated in front of the building. The deal also recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the state and created Confederate Memorial Day.
In 2015, following the racist massacre of nine Bible study participants at a historic black church in Charleston, lawmakers voted to remove the flag from the grounds.
In years past many Democratic presidential hopefuls have made their way to the north-facing facade of the Statehouse, including John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Last year, Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker, who has dropped out of the 2020 race, attended.
Many of the candidates in the wide field planned to travel to Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday for the Brown and Black Forum, recognized as one of the nation’s oldest minority-focused presidential candidate events of its kind. Traditionally a debate, the event in recent years has been more of a one-on-one candidate forum.
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is not competing in the early-voting states but has put some of his multimillion-dollar ad spending there — plans to join a King Day parade in Little Rock, Arkansas. Tech businessman Andrew Yang is in the midst of a 17-day bus tour of Iowa and plans to remain there.