ATLANTA -- Criticized for failing to develop support beyond the evangelical community, Mike Huckabee has made a concerted effort to reach out to minorities. He gained the endorsement of 50 African American leaders while in town for the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. The endorsers cited Huckabee's record on life, education, minorities, the economy, the prison system, and immigration as Arkansas governor.
Dean Nelson, director of the Network of Politically Active Christians, noted that Huckabee was the only Republican frontrunner who made a showing at the GOP debate hosted by Tavis Smiley in September.
"I would like to declare to those frontrunners who did not participate at that debate, that if you believe that America and Americans should trust you, then why did you not show up?" asked Nelson.
Nelson noted Huckabee appointed over 350 to boards and commissions as governor of Arkansas.
At the endorsement, Huckabee talked about African-American issues in the language of a Republican. He brought up government surveillance of Dr. King as a cautionary tale against government invasiveness. Huckabee also addressed education and the prison system in terms of cost efficiency.
"What a tragedy when one in three black males end up in prison," Huckabee said.
"You know something? When I was governor, I did some calculations and it was fairly easy to do. We have one of the least expensive prison systems in the country. And yet, even in Arkansas, it costs more money to put a person in prison for one year than it would to put them in college – public or private school – pay tuition, room, and board and buy their books. The fact is, when people say, we can't afford a better education. No, we can't afford an education system that fails the very kids that may end up costing ten times more than a decent education."
The endorsements today also offered some insights into the complicated legacy of the civil rights movement. One of Huckabee's endorsers, Rev. William Owens, chairman of the Coalition of African American pastors, said he personally supported Huckabee because of his "social moral leadership," and as someone who had walked with King in the civil rights movement, Owens noted that the language and history of that movement had been co-opted by those who were advancing same sex marriage.
"When I marched in the civil rights movement, I did not march one inch, one foot, one yard…for man to be able to marry man, woman able to marry women. We marched because we wanted the right to live the American dream."
Asked about this, Huckabee said Owens marched with Dr. King and his statements speak for themselves.
Another racial flashpoint: the Confederate flag. Huckabee caught flak in South Carolina for rallying support by bringing up the issue in South Carolina. He told a crowd in Myrtle Beach a few days ago that South Carolinians know "true Conservatism when they see it" and "don't' like people coming from outside the state…telling you what you want to do with your flag." When reporters later challenged him on that, Huckabee said he was neither supporting or criticizing the raising of the Confederate flag.
Dean Nelson told CBS News after the endorsement announcement the he agreed with Huckabee.
"I think that, every election cycle, it seems like the flag issue comes up," said Nelson. "It's used divisively by a lot of people, but I think the governor was correct that the good people of South Carolina could make the decision about their flag. Obviously it is a symbol of racism to some and a symbol of heritage to others and I personally believe those people can make those decisions for themselves, even if African Americans like myself don't really support it."