DETROIT (AP) — Donald Trump swayed to songs of prayer, read scripture, and wore a traditional prayer shawl Saturday on a visit to a predominantly black church in Detroit, as he called for a “civil rights agenda of our time” and vowed to fix the “many wrongs” facing African-Americans.
“I am here to listen to you,” Trump told the congregation at the Great Faith Ministries International. “I am here to learn.”
Trump has stepped up his appeals to minority voters in recent weeks, but the visit was the first time Trump has addressed a largely black audience since winning the Republican nomination.
Trump was introduced by Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, who wrapped a traditional prayer shawl, around Trump and told his congregation that, “This is the first African-American church he’s been in, y’all! Now it’s a little different from a Presbyterian church!”
Seated next to him in the front row was Omarosa Manigault, a former contestant on Trump’s reality television series, who has helped to guide his outreach to the black community. Also accompanying him was Detroit native Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who ran against Trump in the primaries and is now advising the campaign.
While protesters were a vocal presence outside, Trump made a pitch inside for support from an electorate strongly aligned with Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I want to help you build and rebuild Detroit,” he said. “I fully understand that the African-American community has suffered from discrimination and there are many wrongs that should be made right.”
He also said the nation needs “a civil rights agenda of our time,” with better education and good jobs.
Unlike his usual campaign stops where he confidently has addressed mostly white crowds that supported him and his plans for the country, Trump’s visit to Detroit on Saturday was intended to be more intimate.
Some protesters tried to push through a barrier to the parking lot but were stopped by church security and police.
Rev. Horace Sheffield who led a march from his church blocks away said: “I walked up to the gate and said I was going to church. I was immediately confronted and was told I needed a ticket. You need a ticket to get in church? Anybody who is in this church should be appalled.”
Ahead of his trip, Toni McIlwain said she believes that as a candidate, Trump has a right to go anywhere he wants. But, she said, it takes a lot of nerve for him to visit Detroit.
Many black people in the city, she said, are still stung by his stop in Michigan last month, when he went before a mostly white audience and declared, “You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed.” He asked, rhetorically, what blacks had to lose by voting for him instead of Clinton.
“People picked up on” Trump saying “you’re all just crap,” said McIlwain, who for years ran a community center that offered education and drug prevention programs in one of Detroit’s most distressed neighborhoods.
“He generalized the total black community. How dare you talk to us like that and talk about us like that?” she said.
But the risky nature of the visit was underscored by what appeared to be unusually cautious planning by the Trump campaign.
On Thursday, The New York Times published what it said was a script of pre-approved questions Trump would be asked in his interview with Jackson, along with prepared answers.
Jackson told CNN on Friday that he “didn’t see anything wrong” with clearing his questions with the campaign and hadn’t offered softballs. Trump’s intention was to meet and speak with local residents while he’s in town “because he’s been criticized,” Jackson said, “for preaching to African-Americans from a backdrop of white people.”
Among the members of the clergy denouncing Trump’s visit was the Rev. Lawrence Glass, who said Trump’s heart was not into helping blacks.
Glass said Trump represents “politics of fear and hate” and that “minorities of all kinds have much to lose taking a chance on someone like” Trump.
After the church visit, Trump made a brief stop at Carson’s childhood home in southwest Detroit. Surrounded by security and a swarm of reporters, Trump spoke briefly with the home’s current owner, Felicia Reese, wishing her luck.
“Your house is worth a lot of money.” he told her, thanks to the Carson connection.
For Trump, courting black voters is a challenge. Most polls show his support among black voters is in the low single digits. Many blacks view some of his campaign rhetoric as insulting, and racist.
Detroit is about 80 percent black, and many are struggling. Nearly 40 percent of residents are impoverished, compared with about 15 percent of Americans overall. Detroit’s median household income is just over $26,000 — not even half the median for the nation, according to the census.
The city’s unemployment rate has dropped, but is still among the highest in the nation. And public school students have lagged behind their peers on statewide standardized tests.