COLUMBIA, S.C. — Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker both marked Martin Luther King Day at the same event here Monday, but highlighted very different parts of his legacy as both senators prepare for contrasting presidential campaigns.
Sanders, a Vermont independent, tore into President Donald Trump, calling him a "racist" who foments bigotry. He connected his trademark economic populism and call for a "political revolution" to the struggle for racial justice and King’s own campaigns for economic equality.
"King had a revolutionary spirit. Yes, he was a revolutionary," Sanders said in front of the South Carolina State House dome at an event organized by the NAACP. "Combating racial equality must be central to combating economic inequality."
Sanders noted that King was in Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike by sanitation workers when he was assassinated, and that he protested the Vietnam War, even though "many of his liberal friends" and "editorial writer after editorial writer deserted him" over it.
Booker, a young African-American Democrat from New Jersey, wore no coat despite an unusual cold snap that sent temperatures into the 30s — "I'm layered," he explained — and made easy connections with the overwhelmingly black crowd that came to shake his hand and listen to him speak.
"You make a Jersey boy feel like he’s home," Booker said after the taking the stage. "A third of the black folk up in Newark are from South Carolina, so I know I’m at home."
Booker, one of his party’s most gifted orators, pointedly avoided mentioning Trump.
Instead, he stuck with a soaring and aspirational message that paraphrased King to list his numerous "dissatisfactions" with contemporary America, but concluded with this reminder: "King said we can never let someone pull us so low as to hate them."
Later, he told reporters the Trump omission was no accident.
"It’s not about what we’re against, but what we’re for," Booker said. "In all of my elections that I’ve had, I’m not trying to beat Republicans, I’m trying to unite Americans. Because there’s not a right or left way to move forward. You move forward by moving forward."
Booker also said he was thrilled that former President Jimmy Carter, with whom he met recently in Georgia, had called on the senator to run for president. "That blew me away... more encouraging than I think I can communicate to you, the kind words that he said," Booker said, adding that he was close to a decision.
The candidates were the guests of honor at the NAACP’s "King Day at the Dome" event, which started with a prayer service at a historic black chuck that King was scheduled to visit before he decided to stay in Memphis for the sanitation strike.
South Carolina is crucial to both Booker and Sanders’ presidential ambitions, but for opposite reasons.
It’s the first majority black state to vote in the presidential primary, and is seen as a gateway to other Southern, African-American states that can make-or-break a candidate’s shot at the Democratic presidential nomination.
For an African-American candidate like Booker or Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who announced her candidacy Monday, South Carolina will be seen as a must-win state.
Sanders, on the other hand, would start with exceedingly low expectations. After all, it was here that Hillary Clinton routed Sanders 73-26 percent in their 2016 matchup and began to turn the tide after his unexpectedly strong showings in mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire.
Performing better with African-American voters would be crucial to a Sanders 2020 bid — and his decision to make South Carolina his first early state primary stop of 2019 suggests he’s eager to take on that challenge.