JACKSON, Mississippi — The past week and a half had seen his campaign turn around, and Joe Biden had no doubt about who to thank for his change in fortunes.
“There’s only one reason I’ve come back. The African American community all around the country,” he told the congregation at the New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson on Sunday morning. Biden had attended that morning’s services alongside Rep. Bennie Thompson, who recently endorsed him.
“You’re the reason I’m back, no one else,” Biden said again.
Black voters in Missouri and Mississippi — stops Biden made over the weekend ahead of Tuesday’s primaries — were keenly aware of their impact on the Biden campaign. Several older black Biden voters who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that while it certainly helps that Biden was Barack Obama's number two, their support for him is also about what they think the country needs to recover from a turbulent couple of years under Trump.
They seriously considered their choices, but given the gravity of the situation currently facing black communities under the Trump administration, Biden was the right choice. And it was decidedly not, they said, an uninformed choice, as Sanders surrogate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested on Thursday.
Biden is “safe, and they realize the importance of getting Trump out of there, and they want to go for a sure thing, they want to go for something comfortable, something familiar,” said Darryl Hayes, 61, who was at Biden’s St. Louis rally on Saturday and said he generally likes and agrees with Sanders’ policies but thinks Biden is more likely to win both the primary and the general election.
“I think if this election wasn’t so crucial, they might take a chance with Bernie, but the situation with Trump being what it is, they don’t want to take a chance with Bernie,” he said. “[Biden] doesn’t lean as far left as Bernie, but we’re hopeful that he’ll expand Medicare, do something with trade, he cares about the climate, global warming.”
“If we don't get the right president in this year, it is going to devastate African American communities and poor people,” said Cleother Griffin, 60, who drove to Biden’s rally in Jackson from Carthage, Mississippi, on Sunday.
Some Biden supporters said no one else has made serious inroads with black voters partly because they’re looking for stability over ambitious progressive changes, and someone with the ability to lessen divisions in the country — divisions that feel all too real for people in Mississippi when they flare up, especially off the back of racist political rhetoric.
“It’s causing too much chaos amongst us in our communities. It doesn't matter what area or communities you're in, you can see the division still. I live in a neighborhood where there’s white and black, but you know that there’s still tension there just because of color, and so we need a president to understand that,” said Brenda Taylor, 53, in Jackson. “There’s too much division to keep going forward.”
The weekend saw another surge of momentum for Biden, as he heads into the next round of primaries on Tuesday: A rally in St Louis on Saturday drew 2,300 people, the largest turnout Biden has seen since his launch rally in Philadelphia last year. An event at an HBCU campus in Jackson drew 1,300, and was noticeably more enthusiastic than any Biden was drawing before South Carolina (albeit noticeably older than crowds at a Sanders swing through HBCUs). Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, two of the most prominent black senators and former rivals of Biden’s, endorsed the former vice president and will appear with him at a rally in Michigan on Monday night.
Voters in Jackson said they think Biden is less polarizing and more realistic than other candidates at this point in US history.
“Look at the result of having a female candidate for president. Look at the result of having an African American man successfully run the country. I believe there was a blowback,” said Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gilbert Manogin, 35, of Trump being elected despite his racist rhetoric and misogynistic comments.
Manogin was at the event with her mother and 15-year-old sister (who can’t yet vote but supports Bernie Sanders). She said she would have loved to vote for Elizabeth Warren, but “unfortunately we are not there. The past few years have shown that to us."
“I think our country is in the stage where it's not a matter of what we want, it’s what we need,” said Lonnie Harris, 65, in Jackson, adding that he thinks Biden has the most experience and insight into how to run the country and maintain relationships with foreign leaders.
Sanders, in the lead-up to Super Tuesday, often said that “the establishment is getting nervous” about his candidacy. On Wednesday, Biden told reporters in Los Angeles, “The establishment are all those hard working middle class people, those African Americans, the single women in suburbia.”
Black voters in Texas, California, Missouri, and Mississippi said that while there may be some truth in the idea that the party establishment doesn’t support Sanders, writing off their support for Biden as part of that system doesn’t add up to them.
Not everyone at Biden’s rallies this weekend was convinced that there was room for their concerns in his plan for the country, and while Biden has racked up endorsements from black elected officials, Sanders has backing from more grassroots activist organizations working across issues like criminal justice reform, climate change, and immigration.
At his rally in Kansas City, Missouri, a young black woman who said she was evicted from her home after being diagnosed with cancer and having skyrocketing medical bills protested along with a small group of other activists, shouting that they want a “housing guarantee,” a platform advocated for by fair housing groups which would make safe housing a basic right. Sanders has included the idea in his platform, earning him endorsements from some fair housing groups, but Biden has not.
“We need you, we want you, and there's a place for you in our campaign,” Biden said at the St. Louis rally, part of his updated post-South Carolina stump speech.
In East St. Louis, “we’ve been overlooked, disrespected, stepped on, and we just want someone to be president who can come and see what they can do to help us with jobs, schools,” said Sam Franklin, who added that the group was able to reach the Sanders campaign, who planned to send a surrogate to East St. Louis the following day. (The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment about whether they had communicated with the group.)
“What about us, Joe?” yelled Maria Franklin, Sam Franklin’s wife, and a member of the United Congregations of Metro East, an Illinois and Iowa-based group. “If you can’t pay attention to us and you’re five minutes away what’s going to happen when you’re in DC and you’re five hours, or six hours away?” she said.
But with many voters, it didn’t go unnoticed that Biden came to Mississippi this weekend and Sanders did not.
“I firmly believe if you want to know anything you have to read it for yourself and you have to take the knowledge you get to educate others,” said Tinisha Woodberry, 38, at Tougaloo College, an HBCU in Jackson that played a central role as a refuge for civil rights activists in the 1950s and '60s. “But for that position, candidates should want to try to reach as many people as you can. One big upset was Bernie Sanders not coming here. The fact that he canceled his visit here, that means something to me.”
Despite Sanders’ credentials of civil rights activism including sit-ins, getting arrested at protests, and the 1963 March on Washington, voters at Tougaloo College said they don’t know his connection to the civil rights movement as well as they know Biden, who they said has been a known figure to black communities for decades, and added to that by becoming someone who the first black president trusted enough to recruit as a vice president.
“It's a real signal of respect, total respect [for black communities],” that Biden served as Obama’s number two, Cleother Griffin said.
While Biden attended church, went to a local soul food spot to pick up lunch, and held a rally at an HBCU in Jackson on Sunday, Sanders canceled a planned trip to Mississippi on Friday to focus instead on Michigan. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who endorsed Sanders after a caucus of city residents, attended a service at another Jackson church and campaigned on Sanders’ behalf on Sunday.
"We look forward to doing as well as we can in Mississippi. It is going to be a tough state for us. But, right now, our focus is here in Michigan, where we think we have the agenda that can win this state,” Sanders said during a CNN interview on Sunday morning.