Obama honors Martin Luther King’s ‘moral clarity’ as 2020 Democrats show unity

Edward Helmore in New York
<span>Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Barack Obama spoke out on America’s Martin Luther King Day holiday on Monday, posting a link to the civil rights leader’s 1963 letter from an Alabama jail, written while King was in detention for leading a march of black protesters without a permit and urging a boycott of businesses owned by white people.

“Every so often, I re-read Dr King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the former Democratic president wrote. “While some of the injustices may have changed, his poetic brilliance, moral clarity and tests of conscience still reverberate today. Take a moment to reflect on his righteous call.”

As America’s first and so far only black president, Obama took a lead on Monday as many US cities held MLK Day events and competing candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination put aside rivalries and rows to march arm-in-arm in South Carolina.

Related: Martin Luther King: how a rebel leader was lost to history

In his letter, King decried racial intolerance, writing: “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

Obama’s post came on the same day that predominantly white gun rights supporters marched in Richmond, Virginia, protesting against gun control laws proposed by the state assembly’s new Democratic majority. In contrast, many political leaders offered their appreciation for King, who was assassinated by a white separatist in Memphis in 1968.

In Columbia, South Carolina, where a Confederate battle flag was removed from the statehouse cupola in 2000 and only banished entirely in 2015 after a teenaged white supremacist gunmen opened fire in a Charleston Baptist church, killing nine Bible study participants, Democratic presidential candidates gathered in a potent show of unity.

Putting aside their recent dispute over the electability of a female candidate, the Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders publicly shook hands at the Zion Baptist church.

They then took part in leading a march on the statehouse arm-in-arm with fellow Democratic party 2020 election rivals Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer, Deval Patrick and Tulsi Gabbard.

Democratic presidential candidates walk arm-in-arm with local African American leaders during the Martin Luther King Jr Day parade in Columbia, South Carolina, on 20 January.
Democratic presidential candidates walk arm-in-arm with local African American leaders during the Martin Luther King Jr Day parade in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday. Photograph: Randall Hill/Reuters

“This is the handshake,” Gabbard said as Sanders and Warren reached across her to shake hands in the front row of the church service.

In last week’s Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, which holds its caucuses on 3 February to open voting in the 2020 Democratic nomination contest, Warren and Sanders had clashed amid a rumbling row.

They had a fiery exchange over what was said during a private conversation about a woman’s chances of becoming president. As Sanders extended his hand on live TV afterward, Warren pulled back and it was later revealed she had accused Sanders of calling her a liar over the disagreement.

On Monday, the candidates linked arms and began the six-block walk from the Zion Baptist church to the South Carolina statehouse, singing We Shall Overcome.

South Carolina holds its primary on 29 February.

Sanders’ spokesman, Michael Wukela, said the King event in South Carolina was about respect, “pure and simple”, noting that racial inequality, including criminal justice and poverty, highlighted the importance of the state’s showcase holiday celebration, known as Columbia’s King Day at the Dome.

“If you can’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people who face these challenges every day yet still manage to embrace a vision of hope and grace, then you don’t deserve their respect, much less their vote,” Wukela said.

Joe Biden, who leads polling in the state with 36% support overall and 43% among black voters, according to a recent Fox News poll, said on Sunday that he feared that the progress made during the 1960s was unraveling.

“Folks, some mornings I wake up and I think it’s more like what it must have been in 1920 than 2020,” Biden said. Blaming Donald Trump, he claimed that the progress of the civil rights movement “has not been able to be stopped until recently”.

“I thought you could defeat hate … hate only hides,” he added

At the White House, the president issued a statement:

“Today, we pause to honor the incredible life and accomplishments of Dr King, who helped shape the civil rights movement, gave hope to millions experiencing discrimination, and whose enduring memory inspires us to pursue a more just and equal society.”

Trump also tweeted about the day.

And later in Washington, a mixture of cheers and boos greeted Trump and the vice-president, Mike Pence, as they arrived at the Martin Luther King Jr memorial.

They stood at the base of the sculpture for a minute, their heads bowed.

Some members of the crowd chanted “ U-S-A!” and a few delivered sustained boos.