Elizabeth Warren was only a couple of minutes into her prepared remarks celebrating the history of black female protesters when modern-day protesters, many of them also black women, decided to cut her off.
Just as the Massachusetts senator was about to launch into her reflections on the Atlanta washerwomen’s strike of 1881, stomping feet and shouting were heard from the corner of Clark Atlanta University’s gymnasium. Soon, Warren’s prepared speech was eclipsed by cheers of “Our children, our choice!” and “We will be heard!”
Demonstrators wearing shirts that read “Powerful Parent Network” were here to denounce the candidate’s proposal to freeze all federal money for new charter schools. (An Intercept reporter later said on Twitter that the organizer of the protest leads a group funded by the Walton Foundation, which is run by the family that founded Walmart.)
It was an undeniably inauspicious start to Warren’s pitch to black voters, whose support she will need to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Much of the coverage of the 2020 race so far has focused on the mostly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which vote first and second in the Democratic primary. However, the race will then shift to more diverse states, and any candidate who wants a chance at becoming the nominee will need to win over black voters. Since 1992, every Democratic presidential candidate who has won the majority of African American votes has gone on to capture the nomination. So far, the only candidate attracting consistent support from African Americans is the former vice-president Joe Biden.
The RealClearPolitics national polling average of the Democratic primary race shows Warren essentially tied with the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders for second place, trailing Biden by about 11 points. But the national average obscures the trouble that Warren and others have had with African American voters. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Biden holds a commanding 20-point lead over Warren in the first southern primary state of South Carolina. But among the black voters who made up more than 60% of the state’s Democratic primary electorate in 2016, Biden’s lead increases to 34 points over Sanders and 36 points over Warren, who hit just 8% with African Americans in South Carolina.
Warren’s speech at the historically black college of Clark Atlanta University was clearly meant to address this weakness. “As a white woman, I will never fully understand the discrimination, pain, and harm that black Americans have experienced just because of the color of their skin,” Warren said. Her next remarks were quickly overwhelmed by the sounds of the protesters.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a fellow Massachusetts Democrat who endorsed Warren’s candidacy this month and had introduced the senator, took the mic to assure demonstrators that no one was trying to silence them. “You are welcome here,” Pressley said. “The senator is here to talk about contributions fighters like you have made to history.”
The congresswoman went on to say the demonstrators were preventing Warren from delivering her speech about the importance of black female activists, who had been rendered a “footnote in history”. “So I’m going to appeal to you not to dishonor that history,” Pressley said. This request was met with at least one thumbs down from a protester, but the crowd did eventually quiet enough to allow Warren to continue speaking.
As in other major speeches of her campaign, Warren rooted her message of economic equality in the story of a labor strike. However, while past speeches have focused on the 1912 Lawrence textile strike or the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, her Atlanta speech marked the first time she highlighted a labor demonstration led by black women.
Addressing hundreds at the Atlanta college, Warren reflected upon the city’s 1881 washerwomen strike, which was spearheaded by formerly enslaved women and resulted in wage increases for some domestic workers. Warren recounted the strike in terms that echoed her campaign slogans, clearly seeking to draw a parallel between the washerwomen and herself.
“The washerwomen had a plan,” Warren said, paraphrasing one of her campaign rallying cries. “Even in the face of imminent violence, black women refused to be defined by fear. So the women of the Washing Society persisted.” It was a subtle reference to one of Warren’s most viral moments, during a 2017 Senate floor speech.
But Warren’s promises to empower African Americans and learn from the lessons of black history were undercut by the presence of the pro-charter school protesters.
“The rich and powerful aren’t going to just give away their power,” Warren told the crowd. “No, if we want power, we have to fight for it.”
For the protesters who turned up to confront Warren, the message may well have applied to them.