ATLANTA (CN) — Democratic presidential candidates and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren appeared at a conference for young black Christians Saturday in Atlanta where they each pitched their plans for tackling wide-ranging issues including gun violence, student loan debt, the rise of white nationalism, health care and voter suppression.
Before a crowd of several hundred people at the Young Leaders Conference, an event hosted by the Black Church PAC, both candidates framed their ideas in personal and religious terms as they attempted to distinguish themselves in the crowded field of Democratic challengers and gain essential support from young black voters who could push them ahead of Democratic front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden.
The Black Church PAC, the group responsible for putting on the conference, is an organization of church groups that aims to “support the election of progressive, righteous leaders committed to ending mass incarceration, voter suppression, and gun violence.”
Sanders, the Vermont senator who struggled to appeal to young black Americans during his 2016 presidential bid, opened the event by referring to his campaign as a “justice campaign.”
“The Bible, if it’s about anything, is about justice,” Sanders told the crowd. “It’s about reaching out to people in need. It’s about standing up to the wealthy and the powerful… What we are about is not just defeating the most dangerous president in modern American history, we are about transforming this nation to make it work for all of us.”
A major part of his campaign, Sanders said, concerns the fight against white nationalism.
“I’m Jewish. My family came from Poland. My father’s whole family was wiped out by Hitler and his white nationalism. So what we’ve got to do for a start is use the bully pulpit to bring us together, not divide us. And we’ve got to use all the legislative capabilities that we have,” he said.
“We will go to war against white nationalism and racism in every aspect of our lives,” he continued, drawing loud applause from the audience.
Warren, who began her remarks by quoting her favorite Bible passage and reminding the audience that she has taught “fifth-grade Sunday school,” urged the conference attendees to allow their faith to inspire them to political activism.
“The Lord does not call on us to sit back. The Lord does not call on us just to have a good heart. The Lord calls us to act, to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to visit those in prison… Right now in this country, it’s a hard fight and it feels that we fight in vain. But we do not. This is a righteous fight,” she said.
Warren also expressed her commitment to eradicating white nationalism, telling the audience, “We need to treat white nationalism like the terrorist threat that it is. We need to take it seriously and we need a Department of Justice that takes it seriously.”
In response to a conference moderator’s questions asking them to comment on how voter suppression laws and policies impact communities of color, both candidates referenced the voting machine controversies which have embroiled Georgia’s voting officials in a years-long legal battle against voting rights advocates.
Sanders promised that he would “stand up to those governors who are trying to suppress the vote, here in Georgia and all over this country, who are making it harder for people to vote because they are poor or are people of color.”
Calling out voter roll purges and laws which prevent people with felony convictions from voting, Warren said that her plan is “basically to roll back every one of these racist voter suppression laws that have been passed,” garnering loud cheers from the crowd.
Both candidates made commitments to reducing gun violence through background checks and a ban on the sale of assault weapons.
Three other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates attended the conference. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana spoke before attendees on Friday.
Saturday’s event marks both Warren’s and Sanders’ second visits to Georgia since launching their presidential campaigns.