It’s hard to overstate the cultural impact of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though the reverend, orator and civil rights trailblazer was killed by an assassin as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis more than half a century ago, his legacy has continued to cast a long shadow, particularly in Southern states and cities where the fight for equality was fierce.
That is certainly the case in Columbia, a diverse capital city governed by a majority African American City Council and an African American mayor. As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — the federal holiday that this year falls on Jan. 20 — approaches, Columbia is set to host a number of events and commemorations remembering King, gatherings that could draw an elevated spotlight in a presidential election year.
With South Carolina’s “First in the South” Democratic Primary set for Saturday, Feb. 29, MLK Day — and the days surrounding it — will likely hold significance for the more than a dozen Democratic candidates looking to gain a foothold in South Carolina. Following caucuses in Iowa (Feb. 3) and Nevada (Feb. 22) and a primary in New Hampshire (Feb. 11), South Carolina marks the first contest in a state with considerable racial diversity, as black voters make up roughly two-thirds of the state’s Democratic primary electorate.
“I still believe the road to Heaven and the White House runs slam through South Carolina,” Antjuan Seawright, a Columbia Democratic operative and CBS political pundit, tells Free Times. “You cannot be the Democratic nominee without strong, deep and wide support in this state with the most loyal constituency in the Democratic Party.”
In the past the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP’s King Day at the Dome rally at the Statehouse, in particular, has, been a popular platform for presidential hopefuls.
In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards spoke at the event. Obama would go on to handily win the state’s Democratic primary, and the presidency, that year.
In 2016, Clinton once again offered remarks at King Day, as did fellow Democratic hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. Sanders, the progressive U.S. senator from Vermont, and New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker each spoke at 2019’s King Day at the Dome, a move that signaled they were serious about presidential campaigns more than a year ahead of the 2020 primaries.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin says the King Day at the Dome rally has, in the last decade-plus, served as a critical vessel for candidates to reach some of the state’s most plugged-in and coveted primary voters.
“It’s very important, actually,” Benjamin tells Free Times. “The reality is that these are the most socially conscious and politically active citizens. If you have the opportunity to get them all in one place at one time, on a day that means a great deal to so many Americans, it’s an incredibly compelling opportunity for anyone who wants to be the president of the United States.”
But, as Free Times was going to press, it was unclear how much of a presidential vibe the 2020 King Day at the Dome march and rally will hold.
Some of that uncertainty undoubtedly rises from the fact that the Iowa Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum — said to be the nation’s oldest minority-focused presidential forum — also is taking place on Jan. 20, ostensibly leaving campaigns torn between a key event taking place just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses and one in a state that has a more significant base of African American voters.
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