Promises made by Republican presidential nominee to lift black people from poverty criticised as racist and ignorant.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump promised African Americans prosperity and jobs on Saturday in a visit to a black church in Detroit, as he called for a “civil rights agenda of our time”.
“I am here to listen to you,” Trump told the congregation at the Great Faith Ministries International. “I am here to learn.”
The former real estate mogul and Reality TV star 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.
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.
The visit is a high-profile stop in Trump’s recent bid to offset the overwhelming advantage his rival Hillary Clinton has among African American voters, who make up 12 percent of the electorate.
Before the speech, protesters chanting “Dump Trump” and “We’re going to church” tried to push through police barriers to gain entrance.
“The devil’s in the pulpit,” shouted Wyoman Mitchell, one of about 200 protesters who were pushed back by police on foot and on horseback in the tense encounter.
“[Trump] didn’t come to hear us, he came to talk to one of us to tell us what he thinks we ought to do,” Pastor Lawrence Glass, one of the organisers of the protest, told Al Jazeera.
“We are protesting against someone who has proven to have a legacy of bigotry and bullying… people of color and people of faith are not standing for Trump and his antics of racial bias.”
Church pastor Bishop Wayne Jackson had invited the New York billionaire to attend the fellowship service, and make some remarks.
“We’re told he’ll be there for at least an hour and a half and then he’s going to record an interview with the pastor, which will then be edited and broadcast on a black television channel in a couple of days,” said Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from outside the church.
The church appearance contrasted sharply with Trump’s previous crude appeals for black support.
“What do you have to lose?” he said, addressing African Americans in a speech in Ohio less than two weeks ago to an overwhelmingly white audience.
“They don’t care about you. They just like you once every four years – get your vote and then they say: ‘Bye, bye!'” he said.
To bolster his case, Trump points at the Democratic stance on immigration, claiming his rival would rather give jobs to new refugees than unemployed black youth.
The African-American electorate traditionally leans heavily Democratic.
In 2012, about 93 percent of black voters backed Obama – an overwhelming enthusiasm that Clinton appears to have kept alive, taking 90 percent of the black vote in her primary contest against Bernie Sanders.
Detroit has the highest percentage of black residents – more than 80 percent – of any large American city.
Many neighborhoods have been hollowed out by decades of “white flight,” in which Caucasian families left downtown and midtown for more affluent suburbs.
“Our political system has failed the people and works only to enrich itself. I want to reform that system so that it works for you, everybody in this room.” Trump told the audience inside the church.
Democrats regularly remind voters that Trump’s backers include former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke – although the candidate has publicly rejected the extreme-right endorsement.
They also point out that Trump spearheaded the dubious “birther” movement, which sought – with backing from the Republican Party’s right wing – to cast doubt on the nationality of Obama, America’s first black president.