USA Politics First Look

On MLK's 'I have a dream' anniversary, Warren emphasizes the intersection of race and economics

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren appeared at Martin Luther King's church on the 54th anniversary of his famous speech.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts addresses the audience at the Netroots Nation conference for political progressives in Atlanta on August 12, 2017.
Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters
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  • Bill Barrow
    Associated Press

Speaking at Martin Luther King's church on the anniversary of his most famous speech, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) warned that racism and racial tensions keep the United States from building a fairer economy that benefits all workers.

"So long as we stay divided, this economy will continue to work for the thin slice at the top," Senator Warren said, as the liberal icon and potential 2020 presidential candidate buttressed her usual economic arguments with social and religious overtones.

In a friendly Q&A conducted by Bernice King, the slain civil rights leader's youngest child, Warren specifically bemoaned widening income gaps that disproportionately affect nonwhites and asserted that the only way to combat hate is to see "something holy in every single person."

Warren's appearance at Ebenezer Baptist Church comes weeks after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly. Warren did not explicitly mention Charlottesville or President Donald Trump's widely criticized remarks blaming "both sides" for violence during the rally. Warren and Ms. King also did not mention subsequent counterattacks by left-wing anarchists in Berkeley, California.

But the women agreed that national discourse is increasingly defined by extremists.

King referenced commands from Jesus, the central figure of Christianity, to "do good to those who hate you."

Warren called it "a tough scripture," but added, "it's not a scripture that says just lay back and let hate roll on through." Rather, she said, "It's a scripture that says act, ... raise your voice, not in anger, but make your voice heard for what is right and what is holy."

She said that kind of action has kept Republicans from being able to dismantle the nation's 2010 health care law, and she also pointed to nationwide women's marches that followed Trump's inauguration in January.

The event in Atlanta gave Warren an opportunity to tailor her standard economic arguments in front of an audience dominated by two key Democratic constituencies: black voters and women. It suggests she's well aware of the criticisms against her fellow liberal populist, Bernie Sanders, who was faulted after his 2016 presidential battle with Hillary Clinton for not connecting his message to the needs of black voters.

Mrs. Clinton narrowly lost white voters to Sanders in states where exit polls were conducted, but she trounced Sanders among black Democrats, running up an early delegate lead in Southern states with large black populations. Black women in particular were among Clinton's staunchest backers.

It was a turnabout from Clinton's 2008 campaign. That year, she won white Democratic presidential primary voters over then-Sen. Barack Obama, but Obama's advantage among black voters propelled him to the early lead that Clinton never could erase.

For her part, Warren doesn't publicly indulge any 2020 speculation, much less any strategic calculations.

But many in attendance at Ebenezer were fully aware of the significance of her sitting on stage with King, 54 years after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

"She speaks the truth, and we need her," said Julie Tepp, a 50-year-old business owner from Mableton, Georgia. Still, if Sanders' populism couldn't overcome his gap with black voters, Tepp and several of her fellow Warren fans said they fear Warren has another fatal flaw: gender.

"It makes me sick to say it," Ms. Tepp said, as several of her friends nodded in agreement, "but after last year," when Clinton lost to Trump, "I just don't know if the country is ready to elect a woman."