Sanders, in fact, sounded close to admitting that the overall campaign was more about making a point than getting the nomination. “No one expected nine months ago that Bernie Sanders would be a real candidate,” she said. “He was supposed to be a fringe candidate. And we have proved people wrong, no matter what the end result is.” She rejected the premise that a loss in South Carolina would prove that Bernie Sanders couldn’t appeal to African Americans. “South Carolina is just one state,” she said. “There are black people all over this country, and Bernie is engaging with African American voters in all the Super Tuesday states.”
South Carolina has been roiled anew by racial conflict in the past year. In April 2015, Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a North Charleston police officer while fleeing a traffic stop in broad daylight. Two months later, nine blacks were gunned down in a Charleston church during a Bible study. In the uproar that followed the massacre, the Republican-controlled state legislature finally voted to take down the Confederate battle flag that still flew in front of the statehouse.
Even to African Americans who believe their opportunities are better than those of their parents, there is a sense that the country’s racial wounds are fresh and raw. “We are trying to move past the issues that divide us, because we have seen so much tragedy,” Justin Bamberg, a state representative and attorney who represented Walter Scott’s family, told me. Bamberg, who is 28 and in his first legislative term, switched his endorsement from Clinton to Sanders. He added, “South Carolina has always been a state that resisted change.”
Killer Mike, a big, bushy-bearded man in a blue hooded Polo sweatshirt, finally arrived around 8 p.m., when a few volunteers had already begun to haphazardly make campaign calls on their own phones off printed sheets. Apologizing for his lateness, he said that when he’d made pit stops on the two-hour drive from Greenville, he’d repeatedly been approached by “young black families” who told him they were voting for Sanders. “We’re fighting the good fight!” he said. “Let’s close this gap! Let’s let them know they’re in a fight!”
As the D.J. started up again, I chatted with Killer Mike in a corner. He expressed frustration at the way the national media seemed to be declaring the race over. I asked what it would mean for Sanders’s candidacy if he couldn’t win such a central bloc of the Democratic Party as the African American vote.
“It means that African American voters were not truly informed, that’s all,” he said. “If black people are given the opportunity to know Senator Sanders’s policies, there’s no way they’ll vote for anyone else. It’s that simple.”
Killer Mike, who is 40, said a new, radical activism was necessary to improve African Americans’ lives. “The only thing that progresses America an inch is radicalism,” he said. “If not for the kids in the ‘60s being radical, we wouldn’t be standing right here enjoying the rights that we enjoy. If the kids today weren’t radically protesting with Black Lives Matter and Occupy, you would not see more American in tune with what finance is doing to rape us and pay off our politicians. I appreciate young, radical minds, because they progress our society forward.”