The United States’ struggle with race is not over, Hillary Clinton said Saturday in an emotional speech that called for more candor on racial issues and stepped-up gun control laws in the wake of the deadly Charleston, South Carolina church shooting that left nine dead earlier this week.
Invoking leading civil rights figures and the Bible, Clinton told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco that as “tempting” as it is to isolate the Charleston shooting as a random event, “America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.”
“I know this is a difficult topic to talk about,” she said. “I know that so many of us hoped by electing our first black President we had turned the page on this chapter in our history. I know there are truths we don’t like to say out loud in discussions with our children, but we have to. That is the only way we can possibly move forward together.”
Pointing to a host of statistics – from mortgage rates to the rate of asthma in black children – Clinton argued that “race remains a deep fault line in America and millions of people of color still experience racism in their everyday lives.”
Clinton’s comments come days after Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot to death nine people. Roof came into the Bible study an hour before he started to open fire, and the men and women he would later kill sat with him and prayed, according to survivors.
The massacre has led to a national conversation about race and guns, and the former secretary of state cast the debate as one at once poisoned by politics but too important to not address.
“We must tackle this challenge with urgency and conviction,” she said, echoing President Barack Obama’s statement earlier this week.
“I lived in Arkansas and I represented upstate New York. I know that gun ownership is part of the fabric of a lot of law abiding communities,” Clinton said. “I also know that we can have common sense gun reforms that keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and the violently unstable while respecting responsible gun owners.”
The comment earned a sustained round of applause from the mayors assembled for the conference.
“The stakes are too high, the costs are too dear, and I am not and will not be afraid to keep fighting for common sense reforms and along with you, achieve those on behalf of all who have been lost because of this senseless gun violence in this country,” she said.
Clinton backed a bipartisan 2013 plan to require universal background checks on gun purchases, saying it didn’t make sense that the plan failed despite “overwhelming” support among Americans.
“It makes no sense that we couldn’t come together to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers or people suffering from mental illness, even people on the terrorist watch list,” she said. “That doesn’t make sense and it is rebuke to this nation that we love and care about.”
Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, also pulled from the Bible in explaining her reaction to the Charleston shooting.
“Think about the hearts and values of those men and women of Mother Emanuel, he said. A dozen people, gathered to pray, they are in their most intimate of communities, and a stranger who doesn’t look or dress like them, joins in,” Clinton said. “They don’t judge, they don’t question, they don’t reject. They just welcome. If he is there, he must need something. Prayer, love, community, something. During their last hour, nine people of faith welcomed a stranger in prayer and fellowship.”
“For those of us who are Christians, we remember the words of the scripture, ‘I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,’” Clinton said, quoting from Matthew 23:35. “That is humanity at its best, that is also America at its best. That is the spirit we need to nurture our lives and our families and our communities.”
A key issue for Clinton
Clinton has made addressing race issues a staple of her campaign since she announced her candidacy in April.
Weeks after she formally announced her campaign, Clinton called for mandatory body cameras on police and the end of the “era of mass incarceration.” Clinton told an audience in New York that it was time for the United States to come to terms with “unmistakable and undeniable” racial patterns in policing.
“As a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families,” Clinton said, listing a number of incidents in the last year that have seen black men killed at the hands of law enforcement. “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America.”
When the former first lady traveled to South Carolina – an early voting state – for the first time, she focused her trip on minority women small business owners.
And earlier this week in an interview in Las Vegas, Clinton called for “a candid national conversation about race and about discrimination, prejudice, hatred” in the wake of the Charleston shooting.
Clinton’s aides argue that her outspokenness on race and crime follow her history as someone who stands up for the oppressed. But the policy positions also have political benefits and help the Democratic frontrunner keep together the diverse coalition of voters that helped President Barack Obama win the White House.
African-American voters flocked to Obama during the 2008 nomination fight. The 2008 fight for South Carolina took a racial turn, too, and damaged Clinton with some in the community.
But 2016 is not 2008. Obama won’t be on the ballot and some of the President’s most vocal African-American supporters from 2008, like South Carolina’s Edith Childs, have already joined Clinton’s nascent campaign.
“There is a time and a season for everything. That was his time,” Childs said during Clinton’s first trip to South Carolina.
Childs became famous for coining the chant “fired up, ready to go,” a phrase that followed Obama from South Carolina in 2007 all the way to the White House. Childs appeared next to Obama – and against Clinton – a number of times during the 2008 primary fight. Now, though, she is ready for Hillary.
“She is a woman and she can handle the job,” Childs said. “And she knows what we need especially as a woman because a lot of times men forget what we need. With her being a woman, she knows exactly what we need.”