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In Battle For South Carolina Black Voters, Democrats Face Generational Divide


A week after the Republican contest in South Carolina, it'll be the Democrats' turn to choose their presidential nominee. And if that primary is anything like previous elections, African-Americans could make up more than half of those Democratic primary voters. NPR's Sam Sanders has been hearing from some of them about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Our story begins in a big, southern, black church. Cue gospel music.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Come on y'all, say Jesus went...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Jesus went.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...To Calvary.


SANDERS: This is Bible Way Church of Atlas Road in Columbia, S.C. Here's your sermon.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Somebody in here had a rough week last week. Somebody had a rough night last night. But guess what? The devil gets no glory.

SANDERS: After church was done, we talked politics.

Do you guys know who you're going to vote for?


SANDERS: All of you do.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Absolutely, yes.

SANDERS: I sat down with about half a dozen members after services to ask about the upcoming primaries. Early voting in the state has already started, and Queen Lewis is taking advantage of it.

QUEEN LEWIS: Not only am I going to vote, we should be taking at least from 25 to 30 people on Thursday to vote.

SANDERS: Lewis is voting for Hillary Clinton. She's not alone.

Who else in here is Clinton? Everybody. OK.

A lot of these voters - they're older, staunchly Democrat and many of them lived through the Civil Rights Movement. And a lot of them like Hillary Clinton. They see her as a direct extension of the Obama presidency. Here's Emiluel Porterfield.

EMILUEL PORTERFIELD: She's been there. She knows his policies. She was a secretary of state under him, so she knows what's going on. We don't need to start all over again.

SANDERS: Fannie Lot says Clinton just has a history that she knows and trusts.

FANNIE LOT: She did an excellent job as the governor's wife. She did an excellent job as the first lady in the White House. She did an excellent job as secretary of state, and she did an excellent job as a senator.

SANDERS: Some younger black voters have been gravitating towards Bernie Sanders recently. They like his views on income inequality. And they think he speaks to a lot of issues raised by the Black Lives Matter Movement. And they question Hillary Clinton for Bill Clinton's record - the 1994 crime bill and the '96 welfare reform bill. Both, they say, hurt black families. But when I asked the church members about Bill Clinton...

KATAYA DEASE: He's very genuine - that's my cousin.


SANDERS: Yeah, not really, but that's how Kataya Dease feels about Bill Clinton. When I asked them about Bernie Sanders, Emiluel Porterfield had this to say.

PORTERFIELD: Bernie Sanders has a lot of socialist ideals, which, being a capitalistic society, will not work.

SANDERS: And Queen Lewis said she didn't know enough about Sanders' history with black people.

LEWIS: Where was Bernie Sanders even when they went to Selma and marched back here? Where was Bernie Sanders for civil rights? What have Bernie Sanders did in the black community?

SANDERS: To be fair, Bernie Sanders was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but mostly from Chicago. Darrell Jackson is the pastor of Bible Way. He acknowledges that this race has brought out some divisions between younger and older black voters over Clinton and Sanders, and that's fine.

DARRELL JACKSON: I think it's healthy for the African-American community to have our vote contested because when there' is no contest we're often taken for granted.

SANDERS: He says a race where Clinton and Sanders think they have to fight for black votes means that they'll focus more on issues important to black people.

JACKSON: We all win, and what we need to do as a black community is not to turn on each other because we're not all on the same page singing the same music for this. That happened a little bit in 2008, OK?

SANDERS: Has this been smoother?

JACKSON: It has been because people are not taking it personally.

SANDERS: Jackson says in '08 when he supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama other black people called him a sellout. But this time...

JACKSON: I haven't heard it once.

SANDERS: So it's different.

JACKSON: Yeah. And even the young people, the African-Americans who are supporting Bernie, they're not saying that we are sellouts. I mean, they may say, old guard. They may say, you know, old school.

SANDERS: Andra Gillespie is a professor at Emory University. She says any divisions or nuance with black voters - it's normal. And these differences are everywhere.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: People want women to be a monolith. They really never were. People have talked about African-Americans or Latinos as though they are a monolith, and the truth is that that's never been the case. Minority communities are actually very, very diverse.

SANDERS: And she says this election is reminding us of just that. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.
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