A “Sister Souljah moment” is a public repudiation of an extremist person or statement perceived to have some association with a politician or his party.
It’s a strategy designed to signal to centrist voters to show that the politician is not beholden to traditional, and sometimes unpopular, interest groups associated with the party.
In 1992, riots swept across Los Angeles following the acquittal of five LAPD officers for the allegedly brutal beating of Rodney King. Writer and rapper Sister Souljah expressed sympathy for the rioters and said that she wanted to see an end to black people killing each other – instead, she said, black people should start killing white people.
“I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?” Souljah told the Washington Post.
Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination at the time. During a meeting with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Clinton spoke out against Sister Souljah’s comments, saying that her comments were full of hate. Clinton compared Sister Souljah to the white nationalist David Duke, calling them racist.
At the time, pundits said that Clinton had denounced Sister Souljah in an attempt to court suburban and blue collar white voters. Those groups were often described as “Reagan Democrats” at the time, and Clinton’s strategists believed that he needed their votes if he stood a chance of winning the election. The Sister Souljah moment was widely seen as an attempt to prove to those key groups that Clinton was on their side and would take a strong stand on issues like welfare reform.
Joan Vennochi wrote, “This so-called ‘Sister Souljah moment’ — a calculated denunciation of an extremist position or special interest group — wrapped Clinton in a warm centrist glow just in time for the general election.”
A decade later, in 2002, President George W Bush had a “Sister Souljah moment” when he publicly denounced Majority Leader Trent Lott. Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, gave a speech in which he said that the country would be in a better place if the segregationist Strom Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election. President Bush’s aides said at the time that Bush felt that if he didn’t speak out against Lott, he would not be able to reach out to the African American community.
Obama had his own “Sister Souljah” moment when he was a candidate for the presidency. Obama was asked about his connection to Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of the church which Obama attended in Chicago. Wright was known for his fiery sermons and for remarks which appeared to denounce the US government as racist. Obama first tried to explain his nuanced views on Wright, but as clips of the pastor’s speeches circulated, Obama disowned Wright and left the church.
In 2015 Sister Souljah, now a best-selling novelist, gave an interview to Time Magazine. She suggested her own definition of what the term Sister Souljah moment should mean: “when you meet a beautiful, powerful woman – and you just can’t forget her.”