Former vice president Joe Biden’s sizeable lead in the Democratic primary polls can be largely attributed to the public’s perception—particularly among African Americans—that he’s the candidate most capable of winning back the blue-collar voters who helped elect the current White House occupant in 2016.

On Saturday—the same day a handful of white-robed Klansmen gathered at the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough, with banners urging people to join the “Loyal White Knights” and “Help make America great again”—California Senator Kamala Harris, the only black candidate among the current crop of top-tier Dem contenders, offered a striking contrast at the Durham Convention Center, where she delivered the keynote address at the eighty-fourth-anniversary banquet of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

It was a significant event for Harris, who trails Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren in the polls. 

On August 15, 1935, nearly a half-dozen of the city’s most influential African Americans formed the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs. Four years later, the group adopted a “creed” that emphasized registering voters, as well as selecting and supporting political candidates that “would most benefit our race.” The Durham Committee also vowed to improve education, health, and economic power in the African American community.

The organization’s banquet was a glittering affair in a sold-out first-floor ballroom filled with some of the city and state’s most powerful leaders, including Governor Cooper, Congressmen G.K. Butterfield and David Price, state senator Floyd McKissick Jr., state representative Marcia Morey, Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry, N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, and Associate Justice Michael Morgan. 

“I am in a room of fighters,” Harris said.

Harris paid tribute to two Triangle icons honored by the Durham Committee: Elaine O’Neal, a pioneering judge who is now interim dean of N.C. Central’s School of Law; and former Durham mayor Bill Bell, who is often credited with downtown’s renaissance. Both she and Bell graduated from Howard University. And Harris, the first African American woman to serve as her state’s attorney general, expressed kinship with O’Neal, the first woman to serve as the chief district court and superior court judge in Durham County. 

Harris did not acknowledge the small group of demonstrators gathered in front of the convention center to protest her speech to a venerated civil rights group. The group was protesting, they said in unison, because “Kamala Harris doesn’t care about black folk.”

The protesters’ sentiments echoed a report published Sunday in The Atlantic that examined Harris’s record in California and questioned whether she could be “trusted to hold government officials accountable and oversee a progressive criminal justice system.” The story cites instances in which she fought “to keep a man in jail in the face of strong evidence,” ran “a team of prosecutors” that withheld “potentially exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys,” and alleges that she failed “to rein in glaringly corrupt district attorneys and law enforcement.”

Though Harris’s supporters assert that she’s the one candidate who can effectively prosecute the case against Donald Trump, she did not talk about specific criminal justice reforms. In the coming months, how Harris responds to these questions will prove to be crucial to her quest to become the first woman—and first African American woman—president.

Rather, Harris focused on the nation’s legacy of civil rights, and her observations elicited ripples of strong approval.

She reminded attendees that Dr. Martin Luther King once said that the fight for civil rights, justice, and equal opportunity must be fought in each generation, and that whatever gains are made might not be permanent. She pointed out that African Americans who talk about civil rights are often accused of resorting to “identity politics,” the “twenty-first-century version of the race card.”

“We’ve all heard it,” Harris said. “It’s meant to marginalize the subject in a way that’s meant to say ‘hush,’ or really, ‘shut up.’”

Harris countered that civil rights is not about identity politics but about America’s identity. So, too, is the racial wealth gap, she added, offering a series of measures she said would close the disparity between black and white Americans. She said she wants the country to tackle this longstanding problem through homeownership, describing it as a way to benefit the country’s overall health and well-being. 

Homeownership enables generational wealth, she said, in which wealth “is passed down to the next generation.” The country’s long history of denying black communities access to homeownership through practices such as redlining contributes to economic disparities to this day. 

To that end, Harris is proposing a $100 billion federal grant to help four million black families with housing down payments and closing costs. The idea found traction with her Durham audience. The city has the highest eviction rate in the state and is grappling with rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. 

This wealth gap has second- and third-order effects, Harris continued: Black families only have $10 in savings for every $100 saved by other American families, and black women suffer from a maternal mortality rate three to four times that of white women. She pointed to the importance of equal access to quality education, support for historically black colleges and universities, and noted that African American college students have a disproportionate student loan debt when they graduate.

She also proposed making $12 billion in federal grants available to black entrepreneurs to help build healthy black neighborhoods.

“By building healthy black communities, we are building a healthy America,” she said.

Harris told the crowd that, at this moment in time, leaders must prepare to turn the page, and after turning the page, “the task is to write the next chapter based on an America we believe in.”

“We’ve got a man in the White House who got elected saying, ‘Make American great again,’” Harris said. “Of course, a lot of us asked, ‘For whom?’ That slogan made very clear he was talking about going back to something. Back to what? Abolishing the Civil Rights Act? Abolishing the Voting Rights Act? The Fair Housing Act? Roe v. Wade? Because we’re not going back.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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