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Hillary Clinton needs the “Mothers of the Movement” to seal her commitment to black voters

Clinton has to prove she can be trusted — despite activists’ skepticism.

Hillary Clinton and Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, at a get out the vote rally in Chicago.
Hillary Clinton and Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, at a get out the vote rally in Chicago. 
(Scott Olson/Getty)

A day after Michelle Obama christened Hillary Clinton the rightful heir to the legacy of America’s first black first family, Clinton’s next challenge will be to convince the black electorate this is true. And her hope is that the "Mothers of the Movement" will make the case for her.

Gwen Carr, Sybrina Fulton, Lucia McBath, Lesley McSpadden, Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley, Maria Hamilton, and Geneva Reed-Veal are, as Clinton has said, "a group of mothers who belong to a club no one ever wants to join." They are the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, Hadiya Pendleton, Dontré Hamilton, and Sandra Bland. They are the mothers whose children were killed by vigilantes and police and whose deaths have galvanized the contemporary black movement for racial justice.

That Democrats have invited these women to the podium is important. Their ability to pressure the party on policing and racial justice has left an indelible mark on the presidential race and the Democratic platform. And unlike Republican nominee Donald Trump, Clinton is gesturing that the movement itself is a part of what makes America great, not what America’s greatness stands against.

Yet black voters remain skeptical. Legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander wrote an op-ed declaring that Bill Clinton’s "tough-on-crime" legislation made the candidate unworthy of the black vote. And a week after Clinton gave a powerful speech in Harlem in February, calling on white people to "listen" when African Americans speak on racism, video surfaced of Clinton dismissing a protester confronting her at a Charleston fundraising event about the consequences of her "superpredators" comment in 1996 in support of her husband’s crime policies.

She and Bill Clinton have both apologized for their past actions and their support of policies that stoked mass incarceration. But Hillary Clinton is inextricably tied to a legacy that failed the children of the mothers of the movement. And the degree to which her regret will be able to translate into trust that she is still equipped to carry the futures of the black electorate forward will depend a great deal on what those mothers have to say about Clinton Tuesday night.

Hillary Clinton is fighting for mothers who weren’t given other options

Without a doubt, Clinton needs black voters, particularly black women, to secure a victory in November, and showing her solidarity with the Mothers of the Movement could be helpful there. African-American voters, particularly 18- to 24-year-olds, came out in droves during the past two presidential elections to support Barack Obama, to the point that the surge nearly erased the racial voter gap in 2008.

Many of the Mothers of the Movement declared #ImWithHer before the first Democratic primary even began.

In January, both Fulton and McBath — the mothers of 17-year-olds Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, who were both killed by vigilantes in Florida in 2012 — issued separate endorsements for Clinton, citing her "record of standing for commonsense gun laws." Reed-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother, was also an early supporter, not only in 2016 but in 2008 during Clinton’s first run for president. And on the eve of the Missouri primary, McSpadden celebrated Clinton for her "realistic" proposals to get things done across party lines.

In March, Fulton and McBath were joined by Carr, Reed-Veal, and Hamilton for a powerful campaign video for Clinton.

All the mothers testify to the heartbreak of their distinct and interconnected stories of racial injustice in America, whether burying their 17-year-old son or ensuring their daughter is remembered for "more than that orange jumpsuit in a box" after an unlawful arrest. But what ultimately ties them to Clinton is her commitment to fight for "commonsense" reform — a major critique of Bernie Sanders this election.

Their endorsements didn’t stop accusations that the mothers were being exploited for political points, in part because the Clintons have a long history of pandering to black voters. But a look at the mothers’ words demonstrate how much the Democratic Party also failed to provide any other viable option for them during this campaign.

The Sanders campaign failed to make the most of the fact that black voters are strategically pragmatic. It was not simply a matter of choosing the "best" candidate; many black voters are stuck voting for Democrats because they are better on race issues. And when the time comes to vote, the decision rests on whom they can trust to do the least amount of harm. Sanders failed to make a convincing case.

In 2008, for instance, Clinton had a leg up on Obama during the primary because she was already a household name. But unlike Obama — who also had to win over black women voters in his first presidential election bid — Sanders, this cycle, didn’t devote the time and resources necessary to prove that he, not Clinton, was the candidate black voters could trust. And without that trust, Clinton became the only option.

Hillary Clinton has to prove she’s supporting the movement beyond her platform

While a number of the Mothers of the Movement are standing with Clinton, it will be up to her to leverage their support to prove she has a long-term investment in the movement for black lives.

This is partially because the children of the movement of black lives are far more skeptical of Clinton than their parents. Garner’s mother supports Clinton, but Garner’s daughter Erica was a major Sanders supporter.

During this primary, Clinton won 92 percent of black voters age 60 and over in the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries, according to NBC News. But that margin of victory wasn't mirrored for younger black voters: 61 percent of black voters 18 to 29 voted for Clinton.

One explanation for the division is that younger voters have lower turnout rates than older voters. But as Michael Dawson, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, told Vox during the Democratic primaries, activism is also a component. In Chicago, for example, Sanders did better in Midwestern states like Illinois because he benefited from the organizing efforts of the local young black and brown progressive movement built by organizations like Black Lives Matter ChicagoBYP 100Assata's Daughters, and We Charge Genocide, even if they did not directly associate themselves with Sanders's campaign.

That’s because activists’ work does not depend on the political arena. And with Sanders now out of the running, Clinton has to figure out how to align herself with this younger black electorate, even if they do not willingly associate with her.

And it should be noted that one Mother of the Movement, Samaria Rice, has made a similar case by refusing to endorse anyone.

"Instead of plans for justice and accountability, I have been shown several plans for criminal justice reform, none that address my experience of the entire system being guilty," she wrote in March.

"As one of the Mothers of the Movement, I know the death of Tamir has shown just how important police accountability is. I also know it must be a piece of a larger plan to address the deep corruptions that exist in America."

She adds: "I cannot settle for partial solutions and lip service. I know we need real action, and I refuse to endorse any candidate that offers less."

Many of the mothers of the movement stand with Clinton on the Democratic platform. But that platform is built on promises yet fulfilled. And it is up to Clinton to prove, despite her past, that she will keep her promise to these mothers and the movement they carry long after the last ballots have been cast.