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Bernie Sanders speaks at Morehouse College rally

The Vermont senator addressed a crowd during a rally at the elite HBCU on Thursday.

ATLANTA — Seeking to make an impression in a city and a state where he was roundly beaten by Hillary Clinton in 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke to a rally at Morehouse College on Thursday.

Touching on his personal history and matters of racial justice in a lengthy speech before the large group of young black college students, Sanders pitched himself as someone who both personally understands the sting of discrimination and can tackle systemic racism.

The senator spoke out against the "racist and broken criminal justice system" and called for a "new vision based on justice."

The moment that got his most enthusiastic response, however, came when he tipped his cap to Stacey Abrams and referenced the contested election for governor last year.

"By the way I know that I am in a state where the governor and the state legislature may not agree with me but I happen - " he said, cutting himself off. "Which reminds me that the governor should not have been the governor!"

"Stacey! Stacey! Stacey!" the students cheered back.

The speech came a day after Sanders took to the stage with nine other candidates in Atlanta for the fifth Democratic debate, where he graded as one of the two best speakers of the night by a New York Times panel.

The rally was held at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel Plaza on the Morehouse campus. 

RELATED: Democratic debate in Atlanta: Post-debate events happening today

Sanders used the occasion to try to reach Georgia's black voters, who in 2016 overwhelmingly supported his opponent. Clinton won the Peach State with more than 71 percent of the vote, and CNN exit polling indicated she received 85 percent backing from black voters.

During that election cycle, he frequently faced criticism that his message of broad social and economic reform often failed to acknowledge the specific disparities black Americans face.

On Thursday, he squarely addressed those disparities. 

"And when we talk about income and wealth disparity in a general sense we have also got to focus on the level of racial disparities that exist in this country," Sanders said. "And that means today we have to ask ourselves how does it happen that the average white family now owns 10 times more wealth than the average black family? How does it happen that black women are more than three times likely to die from pregnancy than white women? And the infant mortality rate in the black communities is more than double that of the white communities. How does it happen?"

"This is an issue we are going to make a major, major priority," he added.

Polling done for 11Alive by SurveyUSA suggests the Vermont senator may be beginning to make some inroads in the black community - in the poll, he is the second-leading candidate among black respondents at 16 percent.

That's still well behind former Vice President Joe Biden, who commands significant support at 47 percent, but it does outpace rivals such as Sen. Elizbaeth Warren (11 percent), Sen. Kamala Harris (11 percent) and Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (2 percent).

RELATED: 11Alive Poll: On eve of Democratic debate, Trump neck-and-neck with leading challengers

One other reason for optimism: Even if Sanders can't win Georgia in the primary, if he can still get the nomination, he currently outpolls President Donald Trump head-to-head 47-44.

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