Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) speaks Wednesday at the National...

Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) speaks Wednesday at the National Action Network convention, hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Don Emmert

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke called Wednesday for upending a system that has "suppressed some communities solely based on the color of their skin," as he spoke at a Manhattan gathering of civil rights advocates hours before his presidential campaign announced it had raised $9.4 million in 18 days.

The former congressman said he would, if elected president, sign a bill by fellow Texas Democrat Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to form a commission to consider reparations to African-Americans as a form of compensation and atonement for generations of slavery.

O'Rourke was one of 11 contenders for the White House scheduled to speak this week at the National Action Network convention hosted annually by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

“We must also acknowledge that this country — ever since the end of slavery, certainly after Reconstruction — has criminalized and suppressed some communities solely based on the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their country of national origin,” O’Rourke told the standing-room-only crowd.

His campaign later Wednesday released fundraising totals showing that it had brought in more than $520,000 a day since its launch. O'Rourke's first-quarter numbers were eclipsed so far only by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who announced totals of $18.2 million and $12 million, respectively, according to data their campaigns have voluntarily disclosed. Sanders and Harris have been in the race for longer.

O'Rourke, 46, of El Paso, Texas, gained national prominence during the 2018 midterm elections for mounting an unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

He used his time Wednesday before the predominantly black crowd to spotlight the higher infant and maternal mortality rates and incarceration rates among African-Americans. He also called for an end to the cash bail system, “prison for profit” and the “war on drugs,” which he said has become a “war on people.”

He said the time has come for “structural, foundational, systemic changes" so all Americans can live up to their fullest potential.

Sharpton, himself a former presidential candidate, said he expected this cycle's vast field of Democratic presidential contenders to address voting rights, "health care for everyone" and criminal justice reform.

"Those are non-negotiable to us in the civil rights movement," Sharpton said. "How we get there, we can debate."

Several National Action Network delegates said they found O'Rourke personable but judged his remarks to be too general and lacking in policy details.

"I'm not moved by him. So far, I haven't heard much of what his agenda will be," said Jeff Staten, 57, of Yonkers, a retired law enforcement official. Staten said he prefered former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not formally entered the race, and added: "I just want the right candidate to beat Trump." 

O'Rourke, speaking to reporters, said the women who have come forward to say Biden's overly affectionate interactions made them uncomfortable must be "heard and listened to."

Two other Democratic candidates for president, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, also addressed the convention on Wednesday.

Castro said he too backed reparations. "Our country will never truly heal until we address the original sin of slavery," he said.

Yang proposed giving every American adult $1,000 per month, saying he would do so in addition to reparations.

Sanders, Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, are among other Democratic presidential hopefuls scheduled to speak at the convention Thursday and Friday.

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