Standing in the pulpit where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic Montgomery bus boycott, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reached out to black voters Tuesday saying the U.S. is still plagued by injustices such as mass incarceration, an epidemic of gun violence and attempts to roll back voting rights.
"We must be honest about the larger and deeper inequalities that continue to exist across our country," Clinton told a majority black crowd at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where King preached his Sunday sermons from 1954 to 1960. King's daughter, Bernice King, gave the benediction.
Clinton's speech fell on the anniversary of Rosa Parks' Dec. 1, 1955, arrest for refusing to give her bus seat to a white passenger. Her arrest sparked the 381-day boycott of Montgomery buses by blacks to protest segregated seating.
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"There are still injustices perpetuated every day in our country, sometimes in spite of the law, sometimes unfortunately in keeping of it," Clinton said.
She said mass imprisonment of nonviolent criminals such as drug offenders does little to reduce crime, but much to rip apart families.
"Right now an estimated 1.5 million black men are missing from their families and communities because of incarceration and premature death. And too many black families mourn the loss of a child," she said.
Clinton praised the work of police who build trust and confidence with the public, but she called for reforms and "a new course in how we approach punishment and prison."
Clinton also decried what she called efforts to erode the voting rights that minorities won decades ago.
"Unfortunately, there is mischief afoot and some people are just determined to do what they can to keep other Americans from voting," Clinton said
In stops in the South, the Democratic presidential front-runner has been working to solidify her advantage among African-American voters.
Clinton has made frank discussion about the country's lingering racism a central theme of her primary campaign, in an effort to woo the coalition of minority, young, and female voters who twice catapulted Barack Obama into the White House.
In recent months, she's met with the families of young black people killed in police shootings and held conversations with Black Lives Matter protesters. She's rolled out a series of policies aimed a revamping the criminal justice system, an issue that she and her rivals — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley — each pitch as they court black voters who will help choose a nominee.
Clinton is working to solidify her advantage over Sanders, her closest rival, among African-Americans. Black voters could make up more than half of the primary electorate in the early voting state of South Carolina and several other Southern states, including Alabama, that hold March primaries.
A crowd filled the church Tuesday morning ahead of the speech. A line stretched down the block for the limited seating in the small historic church that holds 350 people.
The front of the church was decorated with garlands and poinsettias and an illuminated cross hung above the pulpit. People slowly took their places in the burgundy cushioned church pews.
"She is going to be president," retired elementary school principal Maggie Stringer, 80, said emphatically. "At least I can say I did see her and I've been in her presence."
Stringer was a 20-year-old student and a member of the church during the Bus Boycott.
"Oh, the energy. As someone said, the cup was full. It just spilled out and it seemed like it reached everybody," Stringer said.