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Democrats had a reason for choosing South Carolina

James Clyburn
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) walks on Capitol Hill on Nov. 17, 2022. In the 2020 presidential race, Clyburn’s endorsement of Joe Biden helped him go on to win the Democratic nomination.

Anyone who grew up in the red clay and sand of South Carolina knows that we were raised to say our prayers before we eat and sleep. In the Palmetto State, we’re taught to open doors for folks ahead of us or behind us, we blow the horn or roll down the window to say hello, that “ma’am” and “sir” are not options and that the two most important words this side of heaven are “thank you.” And they’re not jawed nearly enough.

That’s why we weren’t surprised when President Biden recommended that South Carolina should be the first state in our Democratic Presidential Preference Primary calendar. We weren’t surprised because we knew he was saying “thank you” — thank you to the state that served as his political hospital and rehabilitation center through the 2020 nomination process. Wounded and limping through primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, he knew he could count on South Carolina — and we delivered. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) pulled him off life support and sent him well on his way to the nomination and the White House.

Of course, it isn’t just that Biden remembers the results from Feb. 29, 2020, or that, according to Edison Research, 61 percent of those who cast their votes in that critical primary said Clyburn’s endorsement was an important factor in their decision and 27 percent said it was “the most important factor” in their choice. His memory and gratitude goes a whole lot deeper.

The president knows that, in a nation still deeply divided by racism, roughly 40 percent of enslaved Africans brought into this country during the transatlantic slave trade passed through Charleston Harbor. And with this primary schedule, the same bloodline and lineage of those who once picked cotton will have the first say at picking a nominee for president. 

Biden sees the scars some still carry and dares to imagine an America where those whose ancestors struggled in the cotton fields will have the chance to choose our Democratic nominee. As the proud grandson of sharecroppers, I believe in that America, too, and I thank President Biden for his vision, his faith and his courage to give that American Dream more than lip service.

There’s a story here.

It’s the story of George Elmore, born in Holly Hill, S.C., in 1905, who had the courage to imagine a world that looked beyond “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and the systematic segregation and the disenfranchisement of Black voters. It’s the story of how he found the strength to stand up against the closed primary system, used in our state and across the South, that denied Black Americans the right to vote — even though it meant risking everything he had.

Elmore had a fair complexion. And while he had never used the lightness of his skin to pass as white, the clerk who took his voter registration paperwork never asked the question. And just like that, he registered to vote.

Casting his vote was another matter. He tried, they denied; he sued and won. “It is time to fall in step with the other states and to adopt the American way of conducting elections,” District Judge Waties Waring wrote in his 1947 ruling in Elmore v. Rice, which not only affirmed Elmore’s right to vote but struck down South Carolina’s closed primary system.

It was a huge win for civil rights, but it wasn’t without its costs. The backlash from the lawsuit and the resulting decision cost Elmore everything. He lost his businesses and was ruined financially. The never-ending threats and burning of crosses caused his wife to have an emotional breakdown, and she was institutionalized for the rest of her life. He died in 1959, a pauper and broken man, six years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

This is also the story of Sarah Mae Flemming, who was thrown from a city bus in downtown Columbia 17 months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery. It’s the story about about Harry and Eliza Briggs, a gas station attendant and domestic worker from Summerton, S.C., who filed a lawsuit against the Clarendon County School District — which eventually became Brown v. Board of Education — because the superintendent refused to provide even one bus for the Black students who had to walk as far as 18 miles to and from school each day. It’s the story of the Divine Nine, the faith community and Historically Black Colleges’ and Universities’ student bodies. 

It’s the story about my parents, grandparents, and generations of folks who look like us and make up about 61 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic vote.

That’s why Biden said South Carolina should hold the first Democratic primary and the Democratic National Committee voted to make it happen — because it’s time to put those voters front and center.

Since 1992, no candidate has won the Democratic nomination for president without winning a majority of the Black vote. And since 1992, the winner of the South Carolina Democratic primary has gone on to win the nomination — with one exception. In 2004, “native son” John Edwards’ personal connections to the state drove him to victory here. He ended up with the vice presidential nomination.

Our diversity — racial, regional, historic and economic — makes South Carolina a proven ground for message testing, terrain navigation, grassroots organization and more. Our strength is fed from deep roots cutting through the southern clay. We cannot be bypassed, and we will not be moved. You can ignore and discount us, but you cannot win without us.

The truth is, it’s long past due that our Democratic Party highlighted South Carolina and minority voters as the vanguard of America’s presidential primaries. The dues were paid generations ago. Now it’s time to say “thank you.” 

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, a CBS News political contributor, and a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.

Tags 2020 presidential race Biden Democratic National Committee Democratic Party Democratic presidential primary calendar George Elmore James Clyburn South Carolina primary

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