At conservative gala, Trump remarks show challenges in GOP Black voter outreach

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at the Black Conservative Federation's Annual BCF Honors Gala at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in Columbia, S.C., Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Golden and scarlet balloons adorned an entrance guarded by the Secret Service that led straight to a bar abuzz with excited reunions, a line of attendees waiting to take pictures at a photo wall and a spacious auditorium set to celebrate a unique subset of the conservative movement in downtown Columbia last weekend: Black Republicans.

The Black Conservative Federation’s honors gala convened around 500 largely Black conservative lawmakers, activists, pundits and donors for a formal affair. The mood at the Friday evening event was buoyed by its guest of honor, Donald Trump, whose appearance was part of an effort to show the former president’s affinity with Black voters.


“I’m thrilled to be here tonight with Crooked Joe Biden’s absolute worst nightmare: hundreds of proud, Black, conservative American patriots,” said Trump, who received a “Champion of Black America” award at the event, to applause from the audience.

Trump’s freewheeling comments throughout the night, at times received with enthusiastic applause and raucous laughter, were roundly condemned by Democrats and Black community leaders. Black media ridiculed and lampooned the event in real time during its broadcast. The divergent reactions to Trump’s remarks highlighted the often lonely efforts of Black GOP activists and the uphill battle Republicans have in making serious inroads with Black voters, who still hold highly negative views of the former president, according to recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research polling.

“Black Americans are waking up to the reality that the Democratic Party has taken advantage of them, and the media and the party are terrified,” Black Conservative Federation President Diante Johnson said in a statement on Monday, responding to backlash over Trump’s speech.

Normally held in Washington, D.C., the gala was relocated this year to Columbia, S.C. on the eve of the GOP Republican primary, where Trump handily dispatched the state’s former governor, Nikki Haley. It was a meaningful shift in venue. At a time when Republicans have signaled greater interest in making inroads with communities of color, the dinner served as an opportunity to highlight the GOP’s pitch to Black voters.

But for its attendees, who paid between $100 and $500 for a seat at the closed-door event, the gala also served as a homecoming for a segment of Black GOP voters who reject suggestions that the party and its leaders are racists. The event featured a litany of speeches and prayers by high-profile Black Republicans, with musical performances by a jazz band that covered tunes by John Legend.

“It’s grown tremendously since the beginning,” said Melanie Collette, a gala attendee and Republican county commissioner in Cape May, N.J.

“The numbers are picking up (with Black men). And I just hope and pray that a lot more female Blacks will come to the light and come to the truth,” said Alvin Portee Jr., a Columbia resident who attended the gala in a suit and top hat bearing Abraham Lincoln’s face.

In a winding speech, Trump claimed “the Black people like me” because of his numerous criminal indictments and mug shot taken as part of the ongoing election interference case in Georgia. Black people can relate to being criminalized like him, Trump said, because of systemic discrimination in the courts.

On Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Trump’s comparison of his legal woes to systemic racism in the criminal justice system “self-serving.”

Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton called Trump’s comments “an epitome of an insult to Black folks” and criticized the night’s attendees. “If any Black Republicans had any dignity they would denounce this characterization of Black folks by Donald Trump,” Sharpton said Saturday from New York.

“Don’t try and act like that is who we are,” he said. “That is who we were beat down to be.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email