TOUGALOO — Former Vice President Joe Biden didn’t need to visit Mississippi on Sunday.
Biden has dominated primaries in the South, where African Americans are the soul of the Democratic Party. The most powerful black Mississippi politicians have endorsed him in recent days, and in the state with the highest percentage of African American residents, nearly three-fourths of Democratic primary voters are black.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s challenger, cancelled a scheduled visit to the state earlier this week, all but ceding the South — and Mississippi — to Biden.
“Joe is the person you might be meeting at lunch at Pearl’s restaurant on Terry Road, the person you might meet at Bully’s restaurant on Livingston Road,” Congressman Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only Democrat in Washington, said at a Biden rally on Sunday. “We’re here today to put the marker down that this country is about to change. If you’ve had the three years like all of us have had, it’s absolutely our time to change it… We’re going to come together Tuesday and speak with one voice as Democrats. And one person that can unite Democrats in this country is Joe Biden.”
Biden’s Sunday visit to Mississippi was less a campaign trip and more a victory lap asserting his dominance in the South, particularly with black voters.
The venues his campaign selected for his Sunday swing said it all: New Hope Baptist Church, Jackson’s largest black church where Biden was welcomed warmly by the large and politically engaged congregation; Pearl’s Southern Cooking in south Jackson, where Biden loaded up a carb-heavy plate of soul food; and Tougaloo College, the historically black college where hundreds of Mississippians packed into the gymnasium.
“The notion that he would dare to come to Mississippi, the notion that he would even think of coming to Tougaloo College, the notion that he could bring black and white Mississippians together,” Thompson said, almost with a sense of surprise in his voice, “he’s the kind of person we all want as president.”
Meanwhile, a few dozen Sanders supporters canvassed around Jackson on Saturday and Sunday. While some key African American leaders endorsed Sanders in recent days, including Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and Reverend Jesse Jackson Jr., Biden’s roll of support in the state was unmistakable on Sunday.
It wasn’t just that a who’s who of Mississippi Democratic politics showed their support for Biden on Sunday; it was the energy that the people at the events showed — an energy that has been largely absent from Democratic politics in this state since at least 2008, when Biden’s old boss broke what many thought was an insurmountable racial barrier in America.
His close ties with former President Barack Obama mean everything to many Mississippi black voters. And if Sunday is evidence, a Biden nomination could provide a spark of energy with African Americans that many hope will move Mississippi closer toward purple.
That is precisely the reason that Mike Espy, the Democratic former congressman who’s trying to defeat Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in November, endorsed Biden on Sunday morning, saying: “I wouldn’t be comfortable (with Sanders).”
“I think Joe Biden is going to bring people together. He’s going to heal the nation,” Espy told Mississippi Today on Sunday. “For a candidate like me, I’d be more than comfortable being his down-ballot running mate. With Joe Biden, I know where he stands. I know him, and he knows me. I think a lot of people here feel that way.”
If recent political history is any indication, Biden is perhaps on the brink of his largest margin of victory of any state in the primary. Just four years ago, Mississippi delivered Hillary Clinton just that against Sanders, the progressive who is almost as polarizing in Mississippi Democratic circles as Republican President Donald Trump, with an 83-17 percent victory.
The energy inside Biden’s Sunday afternoon rally at Tougaloo College was palpable. The setting itself, in the school’s gymnasium, is just a few hundred yards from the college’s Woodworth Chapel, a central location of the Civil Rights Movement where Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. crafted strategy.
Hundreds of people representing a diverse set of races and ages stood in a long, snaking line a couple hours before the afternoon rally. Jackson’s Southern Komfort Brass Band warmed up attendees before the rally, and at one point before the rally began, the crowd cheered loudly as several people wearing International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers T-shirts walked in the gym.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and actress Vivica A. Fox spoke at the rally before Biden.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of worshipers gathered at New Hope Baptist Church to welcome Biden. Among the attendees was Espy, a longtime member of that church, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and dozens of lawmakers and other Democratic elected officials.
Biden spoke for 15 minutes at the end of the service about his Catholic faith and his own relationship with church. He called the 2020 election “an inflection point” in American history and reminded the congregation of Trump’s words following the deadly 2017 Charlottesville riots.
Thompson, the congressman, introduced Biden at the church, calling him “the comeback kid.”
“If I’m the comeback kid, there’s only one reason that’s a fact: African American support all around the country,” Biden said. “I know why I’m here… You’re the reason I’m back. Nobody else.”