Jackie DeBose woke up early on Sunday, well before sunrise, grabbed her rhinestone-bedazzled Obama hat and her vintage “Hillary for President” button, loaded her suitcase in the trunk of her Lexus and headed to pick up three friends for a road trip to South Carolina.
The next day, still weary from an 11-hour drive, the four retirees from Ohio and Virginia walked into the old Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles restaurant that serves as the Clinton campaign’s field office here.
“It’s a very important state, and I didn’t want her to lose, so I said, ‘If we don’t do our part, who is going to do it?’” DeBose said, holding a flip phone issued by the Clinton campaign in one hand and a call list in the other.
A King Solomon moment
The four, all black women in their late 60s or early 70s, counted themselves among Clinton’s most ardent supporters eight years ago. But when Barack Obama emerged as a leading candidate during the 2008 primaries, DeBose and her friends had to make an agonizing choice between supporting a candidate who could become the first female president, or the one who might become the first black one. It felt akin to a parable in the Bible’s Book of Kings, in which King Solomon ordered two women, both claiming to be the mother of a child, to cut the infant in half.
In the end, the four women decided that they could not be on the wrong side of a chance to elect a black president in 2008. They became Obama’s most loyal allies.
Now, women like DeBose hope to end the long, unbroken line of men running the nation.
A chance to fix history
There are many reasons Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is polling as much as 30 percentage points behind Clinton among black voters in South Carolina. Many African-Americans in the state say they do not know him well. Others bristle at his criticism of Obama’s health care overhaul, seeing it as an attack on the president’s legacy. Sanders wins points for his takedown of Wall Street and his vow to make public colleges free and health care available for all, but some wonder whether these ambitions are too lofty given the deeply divided Congress.
But one important reason for Clinton’s support is that many black women, often the drivers of the black vote, see this election as their chance to make up for the hard decision they had to make eight years ago. And in 2008, 98 percent of black women cast their ballots for Obama. Four years later, black women had the highest voter turnout of any group.
“I want someone with a womb in the White House at least one time before I die,” DeBose said.
The most qualified candidate
Later that night, around a dinner of smothered pork chops and fried chicken and waffles, DeBose and her friends rattled off their many reasons for supporting the candidate they turned away from eight years ago. They called Clinton the most qualified candidate in the race, and cited her stance on education and gun violence, as well as her many years of experience.
“People say she ran the governor’s office in Arkansas,” said Mary Sobah, a retired nurse who drove with DeBose. “She’s been first lady, and she’s been secretary of state. And according to her book, she visited 124 countries, so she knows world leaders and they know her.”
The four women brushed off as mere politics the effort by former President Bill Clinton to sidetrack Obama’s campaign here in 2008. They said Clinton could not be blamed for some policies from the Clinton administration, such as welfare overhaul and the 1994 crime bill, that they say has made life tougher for many black families.
'Smarter than Obama'
And despite several prominent intellectuals’ coming out in favor of Sanders, the women said they believed that Clinton had a track record of working for black Americans.
Picking around the edges of her apple pie a la mode, DeBose said she would not, this time, miss her chance to cast a ballot to send a woman to the White House.
Pulling her Obama hat, now decked out with Hillary stickers, snugly over her closely cropped hair, DeBose paused dramatically and peered over her glasses. “Besides, I thought Hillary was as smart or smarter than Obama,” she said, eliciting an eye roll and an, “Eh,” from one of her friends, Anita Brown. All four burst into the laughter.
'A voice for minorities'
Not too far away, in her home outside Columbia, at the end of a cul-de-sac, Desiree Tomlinson said she, too, had started off as a Clinton supporter in 2008. “Back then, it was about seeing Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream come true,” she said. “We already have all these white men. We want to see a woman, but we have to have a black president. President Obama, it had to be him.”
Tomlinson, 45, who recently retired after nearly 21 years in the Army, said she believed wholeheartedly she had made the right choice in 2008, and that Obama has made an excellent president. Instead, this primary was a chance, not to redeem her 2008 vote, but an opportunity to rectify a vote that split the two halves of her self.
“I am a woman,” Tomlinson said. “I am a black woman. I am a two-time minority, and Hillary has been a voice for minorities.”
Tomlinson said that seeing a black man as president had inspired her children, ages 6 and 11. But she has daughters, not sons, and as good as it felt to help Obama get elected twice, she said she still could not tell her girls that they can be anything they want to be.
Clinton speaks on 'young lives cut short'
On Tuesday, at Central Baptist Church in Columbia, the nearly-all black crowd was kinetic as Clinton introduced five black women, including the mothers of Trayvon Martin, who was shot dead, and Eric Garner, who was killed after being wrestled to the ground by a police officer.
Placards proclaiming “African-Americans for Hillary” and “Women for Hillary” were waved back and forth. As Clinton talked about “too many young lives cut short” and “too many questions still unanswered,” women shouted out from the pews, “Yes, Lord,” and, “Hmmhmm!”
The mother of a young man who was killed by the police in Milwaukee recounted how she had cried on Clinton’s shoulders, and how she had been embarrassed about it until she considered the fact that Clinton was a mother and a grandmother.
When Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail after being arrested during a routine traffic stop, told the crowd she was not angry enough to riot but she was angry enough to help put Clinton in office, the crowd rose to its feet.
Obama policies not enough
Monifa Lemons, too, would like to see a female president, but her concerns are more urgent.
Lemons, 44, lives about 30 miles outside Columbia, in a manufactured-home community in Lugoff. She is separated from her husband and struggles to get by on her salary as a customer service representative, working from home because she cannot afford child care for her three younger children.
“I’ve seen so many presidents come and go, and the situation never seems to get better,” she said. “But Bernie says, ‘I know what your struggle is.’
Clinton’s promise to continue the Obama administration’s policies is not enough, Lemons said. Despite the Affordable Care Act, she does not have health insurance, because South Carolina rejected the expansion of Medicaid that would have covered low-income working mothers like her. She is holding on to Sanders’ goal of universal health care.
“I have bad eyes, my teeth are in disarray, and I have high blood pressure,” Lemons said. She has resorted to trying to treat her blood pressure problems with natural remedies. She said that Clinton calls Sanders’ plan impractical, but that the so-called practical health plan had left her out.
Still, Lemons says the pressure from women in her family to support Clinton is strong, even from the youngest members. One of her 9-year-old twin daughters asked her why she was supporting an old white guy, referring to Sanders.
“I told her he fights for everything important to Mommy,” Lemons said. But if Sanders does not win the nomination, she said, hers, too, would become a Clinton household.
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