Democratic presidential hopefuls Wesley Clark and Al Sharpton called for the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds as they rallied about 2,000 people gathered Monday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Clark marched with the crowd from Zion Baptist Church to the Statehouse, but waited more than two hours through songs and speeches from civil rights leaders, including Sharpton, before he could speak.
"That flag belongs in a museum. It is a flag of the past," said Clark, pointing to the flag and drawing the loudest applause in his speech on continuing King's fight for equity in education, justice and jobs for blacks in America.
The retired four-star general also said his 34 years in the armed forces gave him the leadership skills to become president of the United States.
"I fought for the freedoms of every American regardless of race, creed, color, religion, sexual orientation or any other discriminating factor and I am not going to stop now," Clark said.
The Confederate flag is a sensitive issue in South Carolina. The flag was removed from the capitol dome in 2000 and moved it to its current location at a monument on the statehouse grounds. Nevertheless, the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began a statewide economic boycott in 2000 that they plan to continue until the flag is removed.
Weeks ago, Democratic candidate Howard Dean riled some South Carolina Democrats as well as several of his rivals when he said he wants "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
South Carolina is one of the key early voting states in the Democratic presidential race, with a primary Feb. 3. Black voters are expected to make up nearly half the electorate in the first-in-the-South primary.
"This is not a day that you wave a flag of Confederacy and wave a flag of racism," Sharpton said.
The New York preacher and civil rights activist fired-up the crowd as he shouted from the statehouse steps. He reminded the crowd about King's struggle for civil rights and the importance of the right to vote in the primary.
"Don't let nobody buy your vote. Don't let nobody bribe your vote," Sharpton said. "We got the right to vote because people suffered."
Democratic presidential candidates for months have been courting South Carolina's black voters, who are expected to make up much of the electorate in the state's first-in-the-South primary.
Former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, who dropped out of the race last week, represented Dean in Columbia but she was not allowed to address the rally.
Later in the day, on his home turf in New York, Sharpton took aim at Dean.
"Dean's the one who says he wants to teach us race, but he has no experience with us, never lived with us. How's he going to teach us?" Sharpton told the crowd. "If he hadn't have brought it up, I wouldn't have asked him. But don't talk to me like I'm stupid."
In Iowa, in the final hours before caucus voting, Dean quickly left a ceremony honoring the slain civil rights leader, saying he didn't want it disrupted by the crush of reporters following him. Dean arrived at the Iowa Historical Building with dozens of television crews and other media in tow. The entourage was estimated at about 200.
Some in the audience complained that the former Vermont governor was trying to overshadow the event hosted by the Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans.
Dean spokeswoman Sarah Leonard said the "crush of reporters ... were so disruptive that, out of respect for those attending ... he felt it was best to leave rather than allow the media to disrupt their event."