Morning sun coming through the white stripes of the American flag on the dome of the South Carolina statehouse building, but it’s still cold, especially for the South, and the crowd coming down Gervais St are in cheap scarves and windbreakers.

Nine out of ten black, and those whites there are scribbling in pads and snapping cameras, they file up towards the statehouse steps marching behind NAACP leaders. Moving between stacks of speakers pouring out Martin Luther King’s “dream” speech, and maybe it’s the disembodied nature of it, as though it’s coming out of the ground, but dang, what a great speech it is, rolling and halting, then surging forward, lifting you up and taking you with it.

Another crowd is surging in from the side, and the beefy white cops are trying, unnecessarily, to control flow – “keep moving back” they’re saying, a gesture which seems more atavistic than rational, a pantomime of the last fifty years of SC history. At the top of the steps, the University choir is warming up.

It’s a carnival, but it’s also an insurgency. For the crowd, to get to the statehouse, has to to come past the statues of the great and good whites of the state, not least “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, the political leader who disenfranchised blacks after the Civil War (“we of the south have never recognised the right of the negro to govern the white man and we never will”), and of course, flying above the assembled press, the Confederate flag, the “stainless banner” – deposed from the statehouse flagpole, but flying still.

“South Carolina had never done right ‘less we made it to,” NAACP field op director Reverend Nelson Rivers tells the crowd, the best of the dozen or so speakers warming us up for the candidates.

Firebreathing, he gets the crowd in a call and return “fire it up!” “Ready to go!” comes back from the crowd, as Rivers hammers home the truth of the state, and the truth of the South, and of the nation – still divided, not by race per se, but by race as class, by the opportunities that attach to the colour of your skin, and the armies of the poor, overwhelmingly black, that clean the hotel rooms, pour the coffee, ride the buses.

Speaker after speaker keeps coming back to the flag “that racist red rag”, white SC’s provocation, its bitter last shot at a state remorselessly becoming black and brown. Is the anger righteous, energising – or needy, self-victimising? Would a confident movement just ignore the provocation, or blow up the flagpole, or both? How will they set the agenda?

For this week is one when black South Carolina does get to set the agenda, providing more than 50% of Democrat primary voters, and so all three candidates are here, fired up ready to go… and give their stump speech with a few minor variations. Preceded by speakers whose unflinching attacks on the official self-image of the US as a place of fairness and opportunity, it was always likely that the actual candidates would come in from that edge, and given it being the only time outside of televised debates, that they would all be together, they were determined to keep it clean for the national audience.

Least impressive, it has to be said was John Edwards, whose candidacy is looking increasingly irrelevant – not only because of his bad beating in Nevada, but also because both Bama and Hillary are creeping onto his territory, ratcheting up from their commitment to reform health care, to Edwards’ starker call for universal coverage. Faced with this, Edwards needed to come up with something distinctive, to go in harder on the “two nations” rhetoric that has drawn so much Republican fire on him.

Someone needs to be saying that America, as it stands, is a racket, a nation where the poor are exhausted, dragging themselves between two jobs, and the well-off are terrified that their lives will be destroyed by an illness that exhausts their insurance (fifty per cent of all personal bankruptcies are caused by people paying for healthcare). American freedom is a fairly ghastly system of higher constraint, but no-one has yet stepped up to the plate to really say this – Edwards has come closest to saying this, but he needed to say it loud and large here, and he funked the opportunity.

He needed to do something, because he was following Obama, who was speaking to an overwhelmingly proBama crowd, which is to say young and black, his appearance on stage creating a Beatles-esque wave of squealing through the crowd. You can’t ignore the importance of his physicality – slight, elegant, dressed down, Obama doesn’t look like the black activist/politicians of an earlier generation, and I suspect that much of his appeal is that he doesn’t guilt-trip the young with the freighted language of the Civil Rights generation, the blood and sacrifice, the opposition that is – in some ways – easier to stand up to than the soft white power many face today.

Obama speaks to that, speaking in his now famous abstractions – hope, change, audacity – a routine the criticism of which he has worked into his stump speech, a pretty magnificent piece of rhetoric, honed to an edge.

“There is a deficit, in this country but it’s not an economic deficit” he begins slow, quiet, “it’s a moral deficit, an empathy deficit, a failure to recognise ourselves in each other” meandering through various proposals before gathering the energy of the crowd and giving it back to them as he ratchets it up to eleven.

“They tease [tease?] me when I talk of hope… but I had to have hope to be standing here, we had to have hope to be here on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse” and on and on, drawing the crowd to a roar.

God it was good, but it was also lacking of content, that Hillary, speaking last, supplied. If it was her stump speech, it was so transformed for the occasion as to be unrecognisable. She twisted through a tribute to King, to listening to the “dream” speech , and then into an extended disquisition on the racist poverty of SC, of schools in Bennettsville with mould growing in the corridors, before getting into specific workplace disputes, and then a half-dozen biblical quotes that had the crowd shouting back. It was a performance of quiet, unstated, authority, tremendously impressive, undercut only by the deep-seated feeling that you can’t trust a thing the Clintons say.

Though the morning had a ways to go, it pretty much fell apart from there, with the choir unable to hear their own foldback, and the final benediction drifting off into the sharp air. You couldn’t help but feel that this was the fate of much of the day’s rhetoric – though everyone celebrated the fact that a woman and a black man being up for the presidency was a vindication of King’s dream, the sad truth was not only the degree to which progress had stalled in many ways, but that there seemed no clear way forward, nowhere to march to, no next revolution in the cautious policies of the candidates.

So in Columbia, so in America – a great disjuncture between the growing awareness of how deeply bogged down the country, white and black is, yet no clear sense of where it wants to go to. So candidates, whatever language they use, talk to the country’s anxieties, rather than its real sense of possibility – and for very different reasons, white and black alike turn to a fight over an old defeated flag as a source of meaning anew in strange times.

And in the Starbucks where the press decamped to download photos, in a basket near the cash register, a new way to “support our troops” – with a coffeegram, a kilo of vanilla bean roast sent with a personalised message.

For comprehensive coverage of the US election read Guy Rundle’s campaign trail here.