ATLANTA — Senator Elizabeth Warren took the stage in a gymnasium of a historically black university on Thursday and delivered a sweeping broadside against institutional racism that singled out the experiences of black women, a key constituency as she seeks the Democratic presidential nomination.
“When I am president of the United States, the lessons of black history will not be lost,” Warren said at Clark Atlanta University. “Those lessons will live in every part of my presidency – and I will ask you to hold me accountable for that promise every single day.”
It was a marquee event meant to highlight the racial justice themes woven into Warren’s campaign, delivered on a day that her rivals for the Democratic nomination criss-crossed the city after Wednesday’s debate here in an effort to shore up support from African American voters.
But Warren’s event was thrown temporarily off kilter shortly after it began when a diverse group of adults wearing t-shirts reading “Powerful Parent Network” stood up in the bleachers to chant “Our children, our choice,” in protest of her plan to end federal funding for charter schools.
The demonstration’s organizer runs an education group that draws funding from the Walton family — the pro-charter school founders of Wal-Mart — and the protest created a dramatic distraction from Warren’s message. But it also proved how valuable an ally Warren has in Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, who stepped in to defuse the situation.
As chants of “We want to be heard,” bounced off the walls, Warren’s supporters tried to out-shout them with chants of “Let her speak.” Warren’s attempts to continue with her speech were utterly drowned out.
Then Pressley, who endorsed Warren this month and attended the speech to introduce her, stepped back up to the microphone and addressed the protestors directly.
“No one is here to silence you,” she said, thanking the group for their activism but urging them to allow Warren to continue her speech because the story she was telling had already been ignored for too long. “We are going to hear this story.”
Pressley’s words worked where Warren’s attempt to continue over the protestors had not, and she was able to tell the story of black washerwomen in Atlanta who, in 1881, formed a union and led a strike that touched off civil rights movements around the country. “Black women, then and now, are no strangers to facing resistance when they fight for justice, and black women, then and now, don’t give up easy,” Warren said.
Warren speaks frequently of the harms wrought by discrimination and institutional racism in America, and she has offered numerous policy plans aimed at improving the lives of people of color.
She has rolled out a housing plan intended to address “redlining,” the historic practice of denying mortgages to black people in certain neighborhoods; to aid historically black colleges and universities to cut maternal mortality for black women and more.
But Thursday’s speech was intended to bring it all together and cast Warren as a candidate well-qualified to fight for people of color.
The support of black voters will be crucial for whoever is the Democratic nominee — and they are looking for substantial engagement, not platitudes or last-minute appeals, from the candidates seeking their vote.
Also in Atlanta on Thursday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders spoke at an event at historically black Morehouse College and former vice president Joe Biden met with a group of southern mayors. Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind. mayor who has surged in Iowa polls but has dismal support from black voters, spoke at a breakfast for the National Action Network, the civil rights organization founded by Al Sharpton.
Warren used her speech to highlight her policy plans intended to help voters of color. But she pointedly addressed white Americans, too.
“I want to speak directly to the question on some white people’s minds when we talk about the need to address what our government has done in black communities,” Warren said. “The uncomfortable question of ‘what will this mean for me?’ ”
“The wealthy and well-connected want us to believe that more for your neighbors will always mean less for you,” Warren said, adding: “Racism doesn’t just tear apart black and brown communities — it keeps all working people down.”
Warren also called for a “full-blown national conversation about reparations” for slavery, prompting one of the charter-school protestors to clap.
The protestors said they had come from all over the country to be at the event, raising $16,000 on the website GoFundMe to do so. The Intercept reported that group’s organizer, Sarah Carpenter, is connected with Memphis Lift, an education group funded by the charity run by the founders of Wal-Mart, who have been major supporters of charter schools. But Carpenter told reporters they had not funded the protest. The GoFundMe had numerous anonymous donations. Warren met with some of the protestors after her speech.
Terecena Medlock said she had traveled from Memphis for the protest because Warren’s charter school stance “deletes my choice.”
“It got her attention,” Medlock said, “didn’t it?”
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood