Biden in Mississippi: Credits the 'African American Community' for Comeback | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Biden in Mississippi: Credits the 'African American Community' for Comeback

Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden addresses the crowd during a rally at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi on March 8, 2020. Photo by Seyma Bayram

Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden addresses the crowd during a rally at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi on March 8, 2020. Photo by Seyma Bayram

Themes of unity and overcoming hate penetrated the remarks of former Vice President Joe Biden and his supporters during the Democratic presidential hopeful's visit to Jackson yesterday. It was Biden's first trip to Mississippi since he announced his campaign for the presidency last April and timed just two days before Mississippians vote in the primary election.

U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., introduced Biden at New Hope Baptist Church on March 8 and at the historically black institution Tougaloo College later that day, referring to Biden as the "come-back kid." Before winning the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29—which Thompson described as a "decisive victory"—Biden had seen low voter turnout in New Hampshire, Iowa and Nevada, losing those states to Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders.

But Super Tuesday concretized Biden's popularity among the black electorate, particularly with older black voters. In Alabama, for example, Biden won 72% of the black vote, compared to just 9% for Sanders, The New York Times reported. Biden's appeal to black voters was on display in North Carolina and Virginia, too; he secured Virginia by more than 50 points.

"If I am the comeback kid, which I ain't there, yet, but if I'm the comeback kid, there's only one reason I've come back—the African American community all around the country," Biden said before an applauding black congregation inside of New Hope Baptist Church in northeast Jackson.

Sanders, meanwhile, was in Michigan. On March 4, the Sanders campaign notified Mississippi press that the Vermont senator would visit Jackson on March 6, but cancelled his trip within 24 hours of announcing his Mississippi appearance. Commentators around the country suspected that the former Vermont senator had effectively conceded the state with the largest black population—38% of Mississippians are African American—to Biden.

Promise to Invest in HBCUs, Restore Voting Protections, Fight Racism

At Tougaloo, Thompson lauded Biden for his ability to unite black and white Americans as well as the Democratic Party.

In his remarks, Biden reaffirmed his commitment to black Americans. At Tougaloo, he repeated his promise to invest $70 billion in historically black colleges and universities, which lost nearly half their funding sources between 2003 and 2015, and pull in 70% less in endowments than their non-black public and private counterparts, causing many HBCUs to shutter their doors.

Biden stressed the urgency of restoring Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required federal oversight of states with track records of disenfranchising black voters. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder allowed that section to be gutted, thus paving the way for southern states—including Mississippi—to enact restrictive and discriminatory voter ID laws.

Biden vowed to continue building on the work he had carried out as vice president to former President Barack Obama by supporting measures like expanding the Affordable Care Act. As president, he would "reward work, not just wealth," he said.

"I think we're in a position for a new awakening, I think we're at a second inflection point," Biden had said earlier in the day at New Hope Baptist Church, referring to rising white-supremacist sentiments in America in the wake of the 2016 elections.

"I underestimated that hate is never defeated, it only hides," Biden said, adding "I never thought I'd see a day that y'all saw in 2017 in Charlottesville." He called out President Donald Trump's remarks in the aftermath of the violence, which resulted in the death of activist Heather Heyer after neo-nazi and white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. drove into a crowd of protesters. Trump responded to the violence then by pointing to "very fine people on both sides" that day in Charlottesville.

"Presidents have to heal; presidents cannot hold grudges," Biden added later at Tougaloo College. Though he vowed to beat Trump and his supporters, he insisted that "we cannot become like them."

Espy: 'We Need A Real Leader Who Can Unite Us, Heal Us and Excite Us'

Before and during his visit to Mississippi, Biden had garnered endorsements from the Mississippi House Democrats, Congressman Thompson, former Secretary of Agriculture and Mississippi Congressman Mike Espy, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1529, and others.

"We need a real leader who can unite us, heal us and excite us. Someone who not only can win the presidency but can also usher in down ballot victories—because we need to hold the House and flip the Senate," Espy wrote in a statement emailed to the press on March 8.

Journalists like Astead W. Herndon and Elie Mystal have commented on what Biden's success in South Carolina, Alabama and other southern states with large black populations.

Writing in The Nation, Mystal pointed out that "Biden's actual history and policy record also makes him a weird choice to be the leader among African American voters." He was the architect of the 1994 crime bill under former President Bill Clinton, and his treatment of Anita Hill during the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, during which Biden sat as Senate Judiciary chairman, have also come under scrutiny in recent months.

Ashton Pittman of the Jackson Free Press reported early in 2019 on Biden's track record of working with, and sometimes lauding, racist Dixiecrat politicians.

Last fall, The Intercept reported that one of Biden's aides, Amit Jani, is a supporter of Nahendra Modi, the authoritarian and extreme right-wing prime minister of India. That country has been swept up in violent riots for the past few weeks after the announcement of a new citizenship law that would make it harder for Muslims to obtain citizenship. Anti-Muslim mobs have attacked and killed more than 38 people, many of them Muslim, while Indian law enforcement have done little to intervene.

But Mystal brushed off allegations that South Carolina voters were ill-educated on Biden as a candidate, calling such arguments both offensive and short-sighted.

Instead, he contextualized support for Biden by pointing out a crucial feature of his black voter base: their age. Most of Biden's black votes in South Carolina—75%—had come from voters over the age of 60. These are people "who have a living memory of oppression and violence," Mystal wrote.

"Older black voters in South Carolina have a lifetime of education and experience dealing with the most persistent threat to their safety and rights in this country: white people," Mystal added.

"Voting for Bernie Sanders requires that black people believe that white people will do something they've never done: willingly and openly share the economic bounty of the United States," Mystal added, quoting Dr. Jason Johnson of The Root.

In another article for the New York Times, Herndon quoted a 39-year-old black voter, Chris Richardson, who said: "Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves. ... So yeah, we'll back Biden, because we know who white America will vote for in the general election in a way they may not tell a pollster or the media."

While Sanders has gained the support of younger black voters—even the Mayor of Jackson, Chokwe A. Lumumba, endorsed him—Biden continues to gain popularity among more pragmatic, older black voters.

Healthcare for Mississippians, Overcoming Divisions

Retired math teacher and football coach Nathaniel Davis, 91, remembers a time when he and his friends had to remember parts of the United States Constitution in order to vote. On the eve of the Mississippi primary election, the long-time Jackson resident reflected on how the past four years have shaped American life and politics, particularly in the South.

“The confusion we have and the division have—we have all kinds of divisions in our government. We need somebody with a level head. We need somebody who we can talk to that doesn’t have all the answers. And that makes quite a bit of difference. We don’t need a dictator who will tell us everything to do,” Davis told the Jackson Free Press while waiting on an order at Bully’s Soul Food Restaurant, a popular family-owned establishment in the Virden Addition neighborhood.

Davis, who is voting for Biden, lived through the Jim Crow era and is concerned about the impact of Trump’s divisive and hurtful rhetoric today. “That’s what I didn’t like in the president and I think that’s what most of us didn’t like,” he said. “What he says is law. And it doesn’t matter who he’s hurting when he says it,” said Davis, who said he values leaders who can admit and apologize for their mistakes.

Like some other Jackson-based Biden supporters also shared with the Jackson Free Press, Biden’s experience in the White House and his promise to expand the Affordable Care Act appeals to Davis.

“(Biden) knows the ropes of what is going on and I think we had a pretty good president in Obama. So why not—he’s going to take up some of those things, especially healthcare. He’s not going to fight it like we’ve been fighting the healthcare. He’s going to try to find out different things that he can do with it, if it’s broken and needs to be fixed, and I think he’s one of those people who will go out and find somebody who will help to do that. I’m not saying that the other guy (Sanders) wouldn’t do that, it just so happens that I follow the trail of Biden and some of the things he has done as vice president,” Davis explained, adding that “either one of them I think would be a good thing for us.”

Marvin Dale Jr. overheard Davis’ remarks about Biden. Dale, 27, explained that Biden’s criminal justice policy record—including his endorsement of drug war policies in the 1980s—makes it difficult for him and his peers to relate to Biden. He will vote for Sanders, whom he first heard speak in 2016 when Sanders came to Dale’s alma mater, Tougaloo College.

“I think a lot of millennials—black millennials—are uncomfortable with … the policies that (Biden) supported in the past,” Dale said. “A lot of us want to imagine, (with) him working so close with Barack Obama, that he was able to probably learn more about black issues or identify more with black issues beyond what you see in present day and to understand that it is historical and to understand that it is a cycle—that crime is a cycle and poverty is a cycle. But many of us aren’t banking on that and are going with Bernie Sanders,” Dale said.

Dale is particularly interested Sanders’ promise of student loan debt forgiveness and marijuana legalization at a time when criminalization of the drug contributes to the country and state’s high incarceration rates and education debt cripples young Americans. Such policies, Dale said, are tangible “things that would affect our lives right now, today,” which is why he believes his peers also support Sanders.

The Jackson Free Press asked Dale if he had noticed a change in Mississippi’s racial dynamics in the wake of Trump’s election.

“I’ve definitely felt it change,” he responded. “I think one overlooked superpower of being African American… is that you can kind of feel the places you are unwanted. You (can) feel the hate. And since Donald Trump has been elected, I think that has kind of emboldened a lot of white supremacists,” explained Dale. He relayed anecdotes of friends experiencing racial slurs for the first time in their lives over the past four years as evidence of growing tensions between some white and black Mississippians.

Desiree Reed, 27, works at Youth Villages as a primary services coordinator. Her dream is to open up a group home for young girls and women who are victims of sex trafficking and other abuses. For Reed, Biden’s promise to deliver on healthcare access for Mississippians is why she is voting for him on March 10.

“I think a big issue for Mississippi is healthcare and I really feel like we really don’t take it as seriously as we should,” Reed said. She described lack of mental health services and rising HIV/AIDS rates in the state as well as the pain of seeing her young clients and families unable to access critical medical services because they do not have health insurance. One young person Reed knows suffered an act of violence but is unable to afford surgery and mental health supports in the aftermath of the traumatic encounter, Reed said.

“I still feel there is nothing really set up to help us if we fall,” she said, emphasizing the need for “some type of foundation” to support Mississippians who continue to struggle without adequate healthcare.

Greta Brown-Bully, co-owner of Bully’s, emphasized the need for a more robust healthcare system in the state. Like Reed and Davis, she will vote for Biden.

“I like Sanders a lot. … It’s just that Biden already has that experience of being in the White House and working with president Obama, which makes that key factor a difference for me,” she told the Jackson Free Press on Monday.

“We have wasted a lot of time last year with Trump. It was like a reality show. We never really got anything done. Maybe (Biden) can go back and help restore some of the things that President Obama had put in place, such as help people with healthcare, which is so important,” she said.

“I know we’re in a Southern state, which is a Republican state,” Brown-Bully added. “I pray that we are able to pull it off. I pray that our people get out and vote, and I hate that we are divided, because we are divided between Sanders and Biden. Very divided,” she said, before acknowledging that “both of them are great candidates.”

Back at Tougaloo on Sunday, Thompson reiterated the importance of garnering support from southern black voters. “The path to the White House begins in the South,” he said.

Mississippians will vote in the primary election on Tuesday, March 10. Polling locations will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, including a polling-site locator, see here:

Editor's note: Out of an abundance of caution, the Jackson Free Press edited out some details of an incident about a young person that the source provided to us on on the record. That person was not named in the original, nor did the source offer the name in the interview.

Follow City Reporter Seyma Bayram on Twitter @SeymaBayram0. Send tips to [email protected].

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