Rock Hill, South Carolina—Picturesque Winthrop University buzzed with pride and energy on the first weekend in November, when the “First in the South Democratic Candidates Forum,” moderated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, came to campus. State Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter buzzed too, but with a different kind of dynamism. The veteran Orangeburg Democrat, who is staying neutral in the primary, was working to redirect the spotlight from the Hillary Clinton–Bernie Sanders–Martin O’Malley show and shine it on a town hall she had convened on “the New South,” a term she uses with a little bit of irony.
Cobb-Hunter was a leader in the long fight to remove the Confederate flag from State Capitol grounds, and it was only after the massacre of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church by a white supremacist in Charleston last June that she succeeded. She’s proud of this accomplishment, but focused on the work yet to be done. “Yes, the flag finally came down. But we haven’t done anything about the flag agenda,” she tells me, referring to the conditions that keep too many African Americans in poverty; that let a school “safety officer” in nearby Spring Valley throw a young black girl across a classroom for being “disruptive”; that led a miserable young white man to walk into a church and murder nine black Christians who’d welcomed him to pray.
“I’m focused less on the election than on the electorate,” Cobb-Hunter says. In a sharp purple suit, the popular legislator is easy to spot; our interview was interrupted by friends and admirers coming by to whisper in her ear or just give her a hug. The town hall she put together included experts from across the South discussing social justice, climate change, immigration, and LGBT equality, among other subjects, and it took me a while to realize that they were there not to see the presidential candidates, but because Cobb-Hunter had asked them to come speak.
That included the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the nationally influential Moral Mondays movement, who anchored the first panel. Echoing Cobb-Hunter, Barber describes himself as “radically independent at this point.” “The NAACP doesn’t endorse candidates; we endorse ideas and values,” he says. “What I do know is, the masses of people in movements better make sure that we push to have a grown-up conversation about race and class in this election, not just a sidebar.”
Thanks in part to activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, that conversation is happening—frequently and with urgency—on the campaign trail. Democratic candidates have been repeatedly forced to answer questions about racial disparities in everything from housing to criminal justice to education. Whether or not their answers are satisfying to movement activists is very much unsettled. So too is the complex and fluid dynamic between long-term movement building and short-term electoral campaigns.
What is clear is that, in order to win the White House and make inroads into the Republican majorities in Congress, the Democratic Party will need black voters to turn out in high numbers—and they’ll need black women in particular. In 2012, black women voted at a higher rate than any other group, and they went 96 percent for President Obama. They are becoming, for Democrats, what white evangelical men are for Republicans: the cornerstone of the party’s base.