By the time Hillary Clinton took the stage in Atlanta on Friday to address a venerated civil rights group, many in the room had invoked the incendiary tweets by the man who defeated her that roiled politics in Georgia and the rest of the nation.
And Clinton held little back at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, labeling President Donald Trump’s assertion that four liberal congresswoman of color should “go back” to their home countries as racist before presenting the activists in the hotel ballroom with a challenge.
“We are better than this, but we better start proving it, not just saying it,” the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee said. “It can’t just be a battle fought on Twitter. It has to be fought and won at the ballot box — which is the only place that matters.”
Her remarks helped crystallize the sense of outrage among Georgia Democrats over Trump’s approach — and also the challenge that they face to defeat him. No Democratic presidential candidate has won Georgia since her husband carried the state in 1992.
And the sharp Democratic response also served as a reminder of the complicated relationship between Trump and Georgia Republican leaders whose 2020 hopes are directly tied to the president. Some lamented his remarks, some ignored them and some defended them.
“That’s outrageous,” said U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is seeking a second term next year, when asked about the criticism of Trump’s attack. “Of course they’re not racist.”
Trump ignited the controversy Sunday when he fired off a string of tweets that called on four Democratic congresswomen who he claimed “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” to “go back” and fix them.
Each of the women is an American citizen, and three of the four were born in the U.S. The exception, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia but came to this country as a refugee.
The fallout escalated Wednesday at a Trump campaign rally in North Carolina where the crowd chanted “send her back” as the president relayed controversial comments made by Omar and depicted himself as a safeguard against a “militant hard left.”
Under pressure from Republicans to condemn the behavior of his supporters, Trump said he was “not happy” with the crowd’s chant but also criticized a “crazed” news media for its coverage of the fallout.
Georgia Democrats have responded by using increasingly biting criticism. Stacey Abrams, the party’s standard-bearer in Georgia, said “decrying Trump as racist is simple and important,” and she called on her supporters to stand with Omar and the other three lawmakers.
And candidates and activists took to social media, party gatherings and their mailing lists to share stories of when they were subtly or explicitly labeled “the other” and encouraged to leave the country.
“Being told to ‘go back’ is a phrase I’ve grown up with. This un-American rhetoric is driven by Trump to distract from the real problem,” said Nabilah Islam, a Democratic contender in the 7th Congressional District who shared pictures of messages demanding she “leave Georgia.”
“We need health care. We need an equitable economy,” added Islam, a native of Gwinnett County. “We will never stop fighting, and we sure as hell ain’t going anywhere.”
And state Rep. Erica Thomas posted a tearful video on Facebook on Friday saying she was accosted at a Publix by a man who called her “ignorant” and “lazy” for having too many items in the express lane.
“It hurt me so badly,” she said, wiping away tears. “I can’t even explain why he had so much hate in his heart.”
Frustrated or inappropriate?
Some of the most cutting words came from the Democratic Party of Georgia itself, which condemned the “white nationalist rally” in North Carolina this week and challenged state GOP leaders to “denounce their racist president.”
That wasn’t going to happen. Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Attorney General Chris Carr all declined or ignored requests for comment on the remarks.
And in Washington, several members of Georgia’s GOP delegation tried to turn the focus on Democrats, saying the party’s leftward shift is dangerous to the nation’s prosperity.
“I’m not as concerned about where people are from as I am about the radical agenda of the socialist wing of the Democratic Party in Congress,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler.
Others sighed that Trump should have been more “diplomatic” or was likely venting frustration that his immigration agenda, including his promise for a new wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, was blocked by Democrats in the House.
An exception was U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a three-term Republican who earlier this year sharply criticized the president for insulting the late John McCain.
“I wasn’t elected to make excuses or explain the statements of somebody else, and so I’m just not going to do that,” Isakson said. “I think it was totally inappropriate, and he doesn’t have to do that, which makes it sadder.”
The remarks — and the muted GOP response — was a constant subject of conversation at the SCLC convention. The event attracted hundreds of activists and dozens of Georgia Democratic officials, and it featured panels on racial justice, housing equality and health care initiatives.
U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a freshman Marietta Democrat, elicited laughter when she joked that the first song she learned as a child was “We Shall Overcome.” Nods of agreement followed when she talked about ominous signs of “darkness and hate.”
But the most ringing reception was reserved for Clinton, who flew in to receive an award from the SCLC. After being introduced as “my president,” the former U.S. secretary of state said the group, once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was needed “now more than ever.”
“There’s no doubt the struggles we face now are as consequential as those we faced in the 1950s,” she said, encouraging more young people to join the cause and gird for new struggles.
“There are so many fights to be waged,” Clinton said. “Because when our civil and human rights are being trampled on every day, the need for a just society becomes starker.”
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Staff writer Tamar Hallerman in Washington contributed to this article.