Marc Morial

“One of my colleagues said to me, this is the first time I’ve seen a political billboard without a picture on it. Why isn’t your picture on it?” U.S. Rep. James Clyburn said.

“I said, because it ain’t about me. It’s about the message on that billboard and the message is simply thus: making the greatness of this country accessible and affordable for all. We don’t need to make this country great again. This country is great. That’s not what our challenge is. Our challenge is making the greatness of this country accessible and affordable for all.”

The 76-year-old great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman in South Carolina may be responsible for singlehandedly changing the trajectory of the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary.

During a funeral in the church where Jannie Jones serves as an usher, she beckoned to Clyburn and whispered, “I need to know who you’re going to vote for.” 

He replied: “Joe Biden. Are we together?”

She offered a thumbs up and replied, “What are you going to do for him, for the people?”

That question, Clyburn told the New York Times, moved him to action.

“I decided then and there that I would not stay silent,” he said.

Clyburn’s endorsement spurred Biden to sweeping victories – not only in South Carolina, where he won 39 of 56 delegates and almost 48 percent of the vote in a field of six candidates – but also in 10 of the 14 states that voted three days later.

Clyburn, who has held his congressional seat for 27 years, is the third-ranking Democrat and highest-ranking African American in the House of Representatives. He is, so far, the only high-ranking congressional leader to have endorsed a candidate in the primary.

Biden was expected to win South Carolina’s primary even before Clyburn’s endorsement, but according to exit polls, nearly half of voters there said Clyburn’s endorsement was an important factor in their vote and almost a quarter said it was the most important factor. Pollster Patrick Murray told USA Today he’s never seen such a high percentage of voters cite an endorsement as the most important factor in their decision.

In Southern states, which have a higher percentage of black voters, Biden dominated the primaries. He won 63 percent of black voters in North Carolina and Virginia, and 72 percent of black voters in Alabama. He won a majority of black voters in Arkansas, and 62 percent of black voters in Tennessee.

Clyburn’s endorsement and the response of black voters have put Biden on what appears to be an inevitable path to the Democratic nomination. 

South Carolina is the only early primary state where a majority – or even any significant percentage – of Democratic primary voters are black. Consider that 98 percent of black Americans consider themselves Democrats, and black voters in recent presidential elections have comprised nearly 20 percent of the total votes for Democrats. It’s no wonder that many Americans are starting to question the wisdom of starting the primary process with two states – Iowa and New Hampshire – that are more than 90 percent white.

The National Urban League has long maintained that addressing the concerns of black voters is key to winning elections, for office-seekers at every level and of every party. At the start of the primary season, I urged the candidates, via a personal letter, to address issues such as housing affordability, educational equity, and voting rights – including the ongoing campaign by hostile foreign actors to suppress the Black vote through misinformation and deceit. 

As the reaction to Clyburn’s endorsement has shown, responding to these issues with a comprehensive plan is the key to winning the presidency.

 Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.

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