President Donald Trump kicked off a push to win over black voters in Atlanta Friday, building on a campaign appeal he first uttered three years ago: What do you have to lose?
“You don’t have to choose to leave the Democratic Party, because the Democratic Party already left you a long time ago,” Trump said to a racially mixed crowd Friday that packed into a small ballroom at the Georgia World Congress Center.
“If you don’t want to have radical socialism, if you don’t want open borders, if you don’t want out-of-control political correctness, if you don’t want your jobs going overseas, if you don’t want your children trapped in failing schools, if you don’t want liberal extremists to run your lives, then today we say, ‘Welcome to the Republican Party,’” Trump said to cheers and applause.
Hundreds of attendees were there for the national launch of the “Black Voices for Trump” coalition, with many coming from outside of Georgia. The new push is meant to drum up support among a group of voters the president did not fare well with in 2016: Just 8% of black voters backed him, according to exit polls.
“I think this is a platform to give people a comfort level to allow them come out,” Atlanta businessman Bruce LeVell told reporters, referring to the courage he said it takes to be a black conservative today.
Dewayne Harding, an Atlanta pastor who described himself as an independent voter, said not to interpret his red “Make Black America Great Again” hat as endorsement of Trump. Harding brought a Bible for Trump as a gift from his church.
“Anything that’s going to help black people, I’m interested,” Harding said of the new coalition. “Anything that’s going to cause us to come out of economic inequality, I’m interested. Anything that’s going to help us to thrive and not blame everybody else.”
The event featured an all-star cast, including Vice President Mike Pence, HUD Secretary Ben Carson and newly elected Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a black Republican. Several Georgia officials, from Gov. Brian Kemp to U.S. Congressman Doug Collins, were in the crowd.
“If he’s a racist, he’s an awfully bad one,” Carson said of Trump. “He needs to go get a lesson from the real racists – the people who look at somebody like you and me and they say, ‘Because your skin is a certain color, you have to think a certain way and if you don’t, then there’s something wrong with you.’ Those are the real racists.”
Trump focused largely on the economy during his nearly hour-long speech, but he also stirred up the crowd with his appeals on religious freedom, abortion, illegal immigration and national security. He touted his administration’s criminal justice initiatives, funding for historically black colleges and universities, and opportunity zones included in the 2017 tax law. Black unemployment, he stressed, is the lowest its been in years.
“Democrats want to invest in green global projects. I want to invest in black American communities,” he said, prompting chants of “four more years.”
While the president and other Republican leaders were making appeals to black voters inside the downtown conference center, crowds were gathering nearby to protest.
Atlanta NAACP attorney Gerald Griggs countered the message of black economic prosperity promoted at the rally.
“This is not just about black unemployment, this is about black underemployment,” Griggs said.
The protest was organized by the nonprofit Georgia Alliance for Social Justice. Its executive director, Janel Green, urged the 150 or so protesters to boost voter registration and turnout in Georgia ahead of next year’s election. Georgia Democratic leaders want to peel votes away from Trump and also flip the state’s Republican-held House of Representatives.
“We’ve got to talk to the people who are less likely to vote,” Green said. “We’ve got to be committed to taking that next step.”
The protestors carried signs and sent up a chorus of whistle trills from orange whistles that protest organizers distributed. They had symbolic meaning.
“We are all the whistleblower,” said Atlanta resident Susan Corwin, referencing a whistleblower complaint that sparked the ongoing impeachment inquiry into the president’s actions on Ukraine.
As they walked up Andrew Young International Boulevard along the convention center’s entrance, protesters were met with a handful of the president’s supporters wearing caps with slogans supporting the president.
Tony Smith, an Atlanta resident, defended his support for Trump as a group of protesters converged on him. He said he supports the president’s stances on immigration and job creation, arguing Trump’s initiatives have helped black Americans.
“It’s time to stand and think independently,” Smith said. “And that starts with Donald John Trump.”
Editor John McCosh and reporter Beau Evans contributed to this report.