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Clinton in Florissant calls Confederate flag, Charleston murders 'racist'

Hillary Clinton at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant June 23 2015.
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio

Although her comments about race and racism were national in scope, Hillary Clinton spent much of Tuesday’s visit at a Florissant church listening to the local challenges that many in her audience grapple with daily.

The Rev. Traci Blackmon talked of the “tale of two cities,’’ where some St. Louisans easily partake of some of the best education and health care that the nation has to offer. But others only have access to the worst.

A stretch of 10 miles, said Blackmon, determines “whether you live in a mansion, or in misery.”

Blackmon sits on the Ferguson Commission, set up by Gov. Jay Nixon after the Aug. 9 police shooting of Michael Brown touched off months of local, national and international outrage.

Clinton, now a Democratic candidate for president, listened to Blackmon and others during much of her two-hour stop at the Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant.

For the most part, neither the candidate nor the other speakers said much specifically about Ferguson or its local aftermath.  Rather, most of their hour-long discussion focused the broader related issues – such as racism, poverty and inequality – that Clinton agrees must be addressed.

“I am here to listen, but also to engage in the kind of open and honest discussion that I hope is happening all over America,’’ Clinton said during her opening 20-minute address.

Says racism behind Charleston killings, use of Confederate flag

To that end, Clinton didn’t shy away from the word “racist.’’

Last week’s murder of nine African-Americans at a Charleston, S.C. church, she said, was “an act of racist terrorism perpetrated in a House of God.”

Clinton recalled that she had been in Charleston just hours before the killings, which “struck like a blow to the soul.”

Clinton called for an end to the flying of the Confederate flag, which she called “a symbol of our nation’s racist past that has no place in our present or our future.”

Referring to South Carolina, she added, “It shouldn’t fly there. It shouldn’t fly anywhere.”

Clinton also called for the nation, and its leaders, to confront certain realities.

“I know it’s tempting to dismiss a tragedy like this as an isolated incident,” she said. “To believe that in today’s America, bigotry is largely behind use. That institutional racism no longer exists.”

But lamentably, that’s not the case, Clinton continued. “Despite our best efforts and highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.

“We can’t hide from hard truths about race and justice. We have to name them and own them and change them.”

Among the "hard truths:"

-- "Equality, opportunity, civil rights in America are still far from where they need to be.  Our schools are still segregated -- in fact, more segregated than they were in the 1960s."

-- "Nearly 6 million young Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are out of school and out of work.  Think of that:  neither learning nor working.  And the numbers are particularly high for young people of color. "

Clinton observed, "Statistics like these are rebukes to the real progress we have made and they pose an urgent call for us to act -- publicly, politically, and personally."

Zeroing in on the local angles

Her audience appeared to welcome such candor.

“I think Hillary Clinton did an excellent job of addressing a lot of local issues here that started in Ferguson, that now have become part of the conversation nationwide,’’ said Nicole Gipson of Hazelwood, a substitute teacher and a parent.

Gipson particularly welcomed the panel’s discussion of “a lot of disparity of how African-American boys are treated in the classroom, compared to their white peers.”

Morton Todd, Democratic Party chairman for St. Charles County observed, “It wasn’t just a rally. It was a conversation.”

Todd was among a number of Democratic officials and activists who shared the pews for Tuesday’s visit – exemplifying that there was a political aspect to Clinton’s presence as well.

As a Democrat, Clinton will need strong support from the party’s African-American base if she is to win the White House in 2016.

She got a local boost shortly before her address when U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay,D-University City and the region’s most prominent African-American official, announced that he was endorsing her for president.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, isn't exactly sympathetic to criticism of municipal court curbs. Aug. 2014
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
William Lacy Clay

“I am now part of Team Hillary,’’ Clay said in a telephone interview from Washington, where he had to remain because of congressional business.

In an accompanying statement, the congressman said, “I will be advising her on critical issues including economic empowerment, protecting the right to vote and reforming the criminal justice system…. Missouri is ready for Hillary, and so am I."

Although Clinton focused on issues, not politics, during the church visit,  Todd was among the attendees who grasped the political stakes.

“I think she has a real good chance,” said Todd. “I think she’s going to make Missouri more significant in 2016.”

As evidence, Todd pointed to the GOP’s reaction to Clinton visit. He singled out last weekend’s announcement by the campaign of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – who is likely to run for re-election in 2016 – that it’s involved in an official “Stop Hillary’’ effort.

State Republican Party chairman John Hancock asserted in a statement that Democrats were wasting their time to woo Missouri voters. “The number of Americans who view Hillary Clinton unfavorably is increasing the longer she campaigns, so we are thrilled she is visiting the Show-Me State," he said. "Now Missourians will have an opportunity to see the real Hillary: out-of-touch, untrustworthy, and scandal-plagued….”

Clay noted that it was Hillary Clinton ‘s husband, Bill Clinton, who was the last Democratic presidential nominee to carry Missouri, in 1996. Clay predicted that Hillary Clinton’s status as the first major woman presidential contender will help give her an edge in Missouri 20 years later.

The congressman added that the nation also is ready and eager to embrace Hillary Clinton's plain-speaking approach on such issues as race.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton appears to have embraced at least one of her husband's political trademarks. Bill Clinton made it a practice of leaving the stage after a speech and shaking hands with the crowd.

On Tuesday at the church, she did the same.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.