(Updates with Warren speech)
By Simon Lewis and James Oliphant
ATLANTA, Nov 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren pledged to African-Americans on Thursday to use the powers of the federal government to address historic injustice and inequality, as she and other Democratic presidential contenders sought to challenge Joe Biden's dominance among black voters.
The Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night in the majority-black Southern city of Atlanta put a focus on African-Americans, who make up about a quarter of Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers in the contest to take on Republican President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.
Speaking at a packed gymnasium at Clark Atlanta University, Warren repeated a call for "a full-blown national conversation about reparations" for slavery, as well as redress for racial segregation and more recent discriminatory policies.
"So don't talk about race-neutral laws," Warren said. "The federal government helped create the racial divide in this country through decades of active, state-sponsored discrimination and that means the federal government has an obligation to fix it."
Warren said her detailed policy plans on public education, student debt, housing and healthcare, paid for by higher taxes on the rich and corporations, would address racial inequality, She added she would invest $50 billion in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Clark.
Biden, who served as vice president for eight years to Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, and was a longtime U.S. senator from Delaware, touts his long-standing relationship with the African-American community.
Reuters/Ipsos polling in October and November showed Biden with the support of 32% of Democratic, independent and unaffiliated African-Americans.
Warren of Massachusetts trailed with only 9%, while U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had 16% and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California, an African-American, had 6%.
Just 1% supported Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor who has been rising in opinion polls in less diverse Iowa and New Hampshire, which are important early voting states.
Biden met on Thursday with black Southern mayors before traveling to campaign in South Carolina, where six in 10 Democratic voters are black.
"I'm here to earn your support," Biden told an audience at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina, saying he had visited every county in the state. "Where I come from, you know, my dad used to say, half of winning's showing up."
He also pledged to increase funding for HBCUs.
Buttigieg appeared at a forum on Thursday sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network advocacy group, and at a voting rights event at Ebenezer Baptist Church, once the pastoral home of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
In his remarks at the forum, Buttigieg sought to bond with the crowd through his own Christian faith, saying: "We have to put an end to the idea that God belongs to a political party."
Even as he did so, Harris was criticizing his comments on race during Wednesday's debate as "naive." The mayor answered a question about his relationship with black voters in part by talking about his own struggles as a gay man.
Told of Harris' comment on Thursday, Buttigieg did not apologize, although he said there was "no equating" the experiences of African-Americans and gay people.
At Atlanta's Morehouse College, King's alma mater, Sanders launched a plan to direct more federal funding to HBCUs and drew cheers for his proposals to cancel student debt and expand government-run healthcare.
"When we talk about the great struggles for human rights that Dr. King exemplified, healthcare is one of those struggles," said Sanders.
'WHO'S GOING TO BEAT TRUMP'
A Sept. 16-20 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 27% of blacks said they preferred a candidate who "can beat President Trump," while 16% wanted someone who could create jobs and 10% wanted someone who is "strong on healthcare."
Trump has touted the strong economy on his watch and sent an email during Wednesday's debate citing economic gains for black Americans during his presidency.
But retired nurse Martha HardyHoward, 65, who grew up during the segregation era in the South, said she feared Trump's presidency had uncorked racist sentiments once again.
She is leaning toward voting for Biden in Georgia's March primary but is also looking closely at Warren and Buttigieg.
"We really need someone with experience in the White House right now," said HardyHoward, who is black.
Atlanta resident Kendall Boone, 28, said he liked Warren's plans, such as her proposal to cancel student debt, but might still vote for Biden.
"Maybe it's not the time for that right now," Boone said of Warren's progressive platform. "This election is about who's going to beat Trump."
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Greenwood, South Carolina, and Chris Kahn in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)
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