A crowd of mostly college students listen to presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, Mayor South Bend, Indiana, speak while launching a new effort to win over black voters by holding a conversation at Morehouse College on Monday, November 18, 2019, in Atlanta.   
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

How Democratic candidates are courting HBCU voters

Three of the top polling Democratic presidential candidates held rallies on Atlanta University Center campuses this week as part of their visit to the city for Wednesday’s debate. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, came to Morehouse College on Monday. U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren held rallies at Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University, respectively, on Thursday.

An appearance by former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick at Morehouse on Wednesday was canceled due to low attendance, according to news reports. Patrick entered the race last week.

“They are recognizing the potential of what HBCUs produce and I appreciate that,” said Phil Edwards, a 22-year-old Morehouse senior as he waited to hear Warren at Clark Atlanta. “We are at a state where diversity and inclusion need to be highlighted. I think the momentum will continue with black colleges as they continue to see our value.”

Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, snaps a selfie with students after speaking while launching a new effort to win over black voters during a conversation at Morehouse College on Monday, November 18, 2019, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON/AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Wading through a growing crowd at the Warren rally on his campus, Clark Atlanta President George French Jr., said has been impressed with the field of Democrats as they court the black college vote.

“There was a time when Democrats took the African American vote for granted, but from what I have seen during this election season they know that our vote is pivotal,” French said. “And the black college is the most vital group because the HBCUs created the black middle class.”

>> RELATED | Read the AJC’s series on the health of HBCUs

Young voters, particularly African Americans, propelled Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 and to reelection in 2012. Political experts believe they’re a key constituency to winning the party’s 2020 nomination.

“The Atlanta University Center has produced some of the greatest leaders in the world,” said Clark Atlanta political science student Queen Jonafá Tervalon, 21. “This is the greatest place to be to get black voters.”

Nearly 300,000 students attend the nation’s 101 accredited HBCUs, which graduate more than half of the nation’s black doctors, lawyers and judges, and 40% of its African American members of Congress. More than 8,000 are enrolled at the Atlanta University Center.

>> READ | Democratic candidates take an extra day in Atlanta to woo black voters

>> PHOTOS |  Presidential candidates make their pitch in Atlanta

Both of the two black candidates on the debate stage Wednesday have deep ties to black colleges. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris is a 1986 graduate of Howard University and kicked off her campaign at the Washington, D.C., school. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s father, a former Atlanta resident, attended North Carolina Central University.

At Wednesday’s debate, Booker was one of only two candidates to even mention HBCUs.

“We’re all united in wanting to fund HBCUs,” the New Jersey senator said. “Heck, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for two parents that went to HBCUs.”


Warren mentioned her plan to steer $50 billion to HBCUs during the debate and reiterated it Thursday night on campus. In the hours prior to her coming on stage, Clark Atlanta’s gymnasium slowly turned into a party with students chanting and dancing in the stands. The school choir sang the National Anthem and the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

But beyond the fun and festivities, students were looking for answers.

South Carolina State University sophomore Javanni Ayers, 19, stands for a portrait before the start of an Elizabeth Warren campaign stop at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Thursday, November 21, 2019. 

“It is huge for the candidates to reach out to HBCUs, said Javonni Ayers, a 19-year-old sophomore at South Carolina State University who arrived in Atlanta with three busloads of students. “But they are not coming up with a plan to save us.”

Many HBCUs are in financial peril, due to state budget cuts and enrollment declines.

Morehouse College senior Phil Edwards (left) and his girlfriend Spelman College senior Sydney Pascal (right) pose for a photo before the start of an Elizabeth Warren campaign stop at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Thursday, November 21, 2019. 

“HBCUs need money,” said Sydney Pascal, a 21-year-old Spelman senior from Los Angeles and early Warren backer. “A lot of the candidates have laid out plans for HBCU funding, but we can always use a little bit more.” 

Several candidates have said they want to increase funding to the schools.

Sanders laid out his plan Thursday at a rally outside the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. The candidate pointed at a statue of King — the civil rights leader and Morehouse graduate — and referenced him three times during his remarks.

Supporters hold signs for Sen. Bernie Sanders during his New Deal Democrats Rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Thursday, November 21, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER/AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Morehouse students Jartavius Edmond and Donald Moore III attended the Sanders rally. They applauded his remarks, but want results.

“I just feel like they are focused on saying what they want to say and not putting it into action,” said Edmond, 22.

Matthew Platt, an associate political science professor at Morehouse said his students have said the candidates thus far failed to excite them because they are not discussing issues important to them, such as police misconduct, criminal justice sentencing reform or the underlying causes of student loan debt.

Still, Platt said, the campaign stops are necessary.

“If these candidates didn’t do this, then there would be stories about why didn’t they do any outreach.”

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