MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Standing in the pulpit where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic Montgomery bus boycott, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reached out to black voters Tuesday saying the U.S. is still plagued by injustices such as mass incarceration and attempts to roll back voting rights— and she urged Americans to rebuild their bonds with one another.
"We must be honest about the larger and deeper inequalities that continue to exist across our country," Clinton told a majority black crowd at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church at an event commemorating the boycott.
In a speech on the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks' Dec. 1, 1955, arrest for refusing to give her bus seat to a white passenger, Clinton praised the heroes of the civil rights movement, but said much remains to be done.
"Our work isn't finished. We must pay it forward. There are still injustices perpetuated every day in our country, sometimes in spite of the law, sometimes, unfortunately, in keeping with it," Clinton said.
King preached his Sunday sermons at the church from 1954 to 1960 and was catapulted onto the national stage by the boycott. King's daughter, Bernice King, gave the benediction after Clinton's speech.
Clinton has made frank discussion about the country's lingering racism a central theme of her primary campaign, in an effort to woo the coalition of minority, young, and female voters who twice catapulted Barack Obama into the White House.
In recent months, she's met with the families of young black people killed in police shootings and held conversations with Black Lives Matter protesters. She's rolled out policies aimed at revamping the criminal justice system, an issue that she and her rivals — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley — each pitch as they court black voters who will help choose a nominee.
Clinton is working to solidify her advantage over Sanders, her closest rival, among African-Americans. Black voters could make up more than half of the primary electorate in the early voting state of South Carolina and several other Southern states, including Alabama, that hold March primaries.
She told the crowd that mass imprisonment of nonviolent criminals such as drug offenders does little to reduce crime, but much to rip apart families.
"Right now an estimated 1.5 million black men are missing from their families and communities because of incarceration and premature death. And too many black families mourn the loss of a child," she said.
Clinton praised the work of police who build trust and confidence with the public, but she called for reforms and "a new course in how we approach punishment and prison."
Clinton also decried what she called efforts to erode the voting rights that minorities won decades ago in the civil rights movement.
"Unfortunately, there is mischief afoot and some people are just determined to do what they can to keep other Americans from voting," Clinton said.
Invoking King's words, that love and justice are intertwined, Clinton challenged Americans to examine themselves and their own preconceived notions and try to reach a greater understanding with others who may not look, or think, like them.
"We each need to do the hard work of rebuilding our bonds with one another. This isn't just about strengthening ties between police and citizens, although that is very important. It's about strengthening ties across society, between neighbors, colleagues, even among people with whom we profoundly disagree," Clinton said.
A crowd formed a line Tuesday morning for the 300 seats in the small church, decorated with garlands and poinsettias for Christmas.
"She is going to be president," retired elementary school principal Maggie Stringer, 80, said emphatically. "At least I can say I did see her and I've been in her presence."
Stringer was a 20-year-old student and a member of the church during the Bus Boycott.
"Oh, the energy. As someone said, the cup was full. It just spilled out and it seemed like it reached everybody," Stringer said.