"But He Marched With King!": A Critical Examination of Bernie Sanders' History With Civil Rights

Am I the only one to wonder how Bernie Sanders will lead a revolution across the United States when he can’t inspire one in his own small predominantly white liberal home state?   The search for an answer to that question only generated another question for me. If supporters of Bernie Sanders are going to claim he is a lifelong activist as one reason to vote for their candidate, then isn’t only fair to take a close look at his history of activism? I found that the search for answers to two seemingly unrelated questions would lead me to the same place.

Bernie Sanders well-documented involvement in the civil rights movement, both as participant in the Martin Luther King Jr. led March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and leader of protests to demand fair housing at the University of Chicago, should be commended and honored. However, his followers’ use of his activism as a bludgeon against African Americans as if those actions alone should earn their vote illustrates a pinnacle of white privilege. The assumption that votes are owed as a debt for what occurred 50 years ago is deeply insulting to many Black voters, who they themselves or their family and friends marched, demonstrated, and risked their lives for their civil rights. The added insult is to compare Sanders to the great civil rights leader himself.

According to Cornel West, Sanders deserves the mantle of this age’s Martin Luther King, Jr.  If that is truly the case, then a comparison between the activism of Dr. King and Sen. Sanders should hold up under scrutiny. After all his followers tell us he has been fighting for civil rights all his adult life. However, unlike Dr. King, Sanders didn’t make civil rights activism his lifelong mission. Dr. King began his life as an activist at the age of 26 when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott and remained dedicated to the cause of freedom and justice until the day he died, even knowing his assassination would come someday. Bernie Sanders left his life as an activist and moved from Brooklyn, NY to join an onslaught of white liberals relocating to Vermont in the 60’s and 70’s. The goal of this band of liberals was to create a majority population in a small state and dominate its politics in a grand social experiment.

Much like Rip Van Winkle, once Sanders settled into New England life, the one-time civil rights activist seemingly napped for twenty years.  The truth is Sanders spent his time doing odd jobs, collecting unemployment occasionally, and building the Liberty Union party, which he eventually wearied of and abandoned.  Espousing the same conspiracy theory made popular by the John Birch Society, he railed against fluoride in the water. Sanders also wrote articles about female orgasms preventing cancer, child rearing, and revolution for the Vermont Freeman, which earned him a few dollars.  Sanders embraced a bizarre theory connected to snake oil salesman Wilhelm Reich, inventor of “a product called the ‘Orgone Box,’ a sort of hyperbaric oxygen chamber for orgasms” by exposing users to “‘orgastic’ energy circulating in the air. Such exposure, Reich theorized, could cure various maladies, including cancer…” Rather than continue his civil rights activism after his move to Vermont, apparently Sanders moved on to other, sometimes peculiar movements.

During his political career Sanders has harshly and rightly criticized many of the policies and actions of the United States government as well as Big Pharma and insurance companies. He has denounced the cronyism that exists between corporations and the government, private prison system and the high incarceration rate of minorities. Most of those issues are of concern to minority as well as white voters. However, other than votes and speeches against discrimination, Sanders hasn’t been any stronger a proponent of the advancement of civil rights than many other Democratic Senators and Representatives. Comments from him about the police killings of Black men, women, and children have been slow in coming. Extensive searches for statements by Sanders at the time or even near the time of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown produced nothing. Yes, one can rightly argue that Secretary Clinton was slow in denouncing the killings, but she eventually made statements and gave a speech before the national mayors’ conference concerning this national tragedy well before the senator did. Frankly I was surprised by the lack of denunciation from Sanders until I found his position on systemic racism lacked the consistency of a strong civil rights activist.

This past summer Sanders seemed indifferent to the critical role African Americans play in the Democratic Party  by declaring they finally have their Black president, and in his view Barack Obama’s election, although contrary to overwhelming evidence, proves racism has been eradicated. Instead of discussing issues of racial injustice with Black voters, his default position is always his economic equality message, a message he apparently believes will bring an end to systemic racism.  How often have we heard him declare “Because what we will do is say, instead of giving tax breaks to millionaires, we are going to create millions of jobs for low-income kids so they're not hanging out on street corners”? (Democratic Debate, Feb. 11, 2016)

In spite of his claim that race relations would be better under his presidency than Pres. Obama’s, Sanders seems to be focused on the white voter as part of his winning strategy. I speculate that his campaign knows Sec. Clinton will most likely win the vote among people of color and other minorities; therefore, Sanders is depending on a high turnout among white voters. The truth is, while he may claim to be better for minorities, Sanders is not adept at walking that line between cultivating Black and Latino voters without alienating the white voter. For example his response to the Flint water crisis was initially limited to a statement demanding Gov. Snyder resign, while Sec. Clinton dispatched aides to the scene to see how she could help. After Clinton met with the mayor, Sanders managed to bring some Flint residents to the college town where he was speaking, and then convened a Flint town hall that attracted mostly white folks, unusual in a city where 57% of the population is African American.  When Sanders finally agreed with Secretary Clinton’s declaration that the Flint crisis would never have happened in rich white suburb, he was praised for boldly declaring what she already had.

He seems actively to distance himself from the concerns of the African-American community and only expresses concern for specific African American issues after he has been dragged to them. This isn’t a good look for someone who has been given the mantle of Martin Luther King, Jr. by his supporters. The dilemma for Sanders is this.  His campaign staff apparently rationalized that his history of activism would assuage Black voters while he directly appealed to white voters. Sanders, who claims Trump voters would break for him in the general election, simply can’t make a strong appeal for African American votes because that might alienate many white voters.

If Sanders is struggling on the national stage with answers around race on a national level, maybe a closer look is required at what he’s accomplished central to civil rights in his home state.  Black leaders in Vermont point out that Sanders hasn’t even met with “leaders of color” in Vermont. Curtiss Reed, director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity in Brattleboro, has a message for Sen. Sanders:

Bernie needs to talk to his own people – his people of color that are right here in the state of Vermont – so that he has a much greater handle on the New Jim Crow and how racism has morphed since his days back 50 years ago.

In fact, Reed goes on to say Sanders has “done nothing specific . . . on racial justice” compared to Sen. Leahy, who is actively working on restoring voting rights and ending mandatory sentencing.  Vermont attorney Vaughn Carney, once a Sanders supporter but now committed to Sec. Clinton, has some damning words about the Senator:

Racial profiling is a fact of life here. Vermont incarcerates black people at the fourth-highest rate in the U.S., but no one talks about that. I have been beating on that drum for a while now, and I hoped that Bernie would up that mantle, but he has not. He is like a lot of Vermonters who like to congratulate themselves on how progressive they are but sweep these issues under the rug.

Only Iowa has a higher incarceration rate of African Americans than Vermont. Black students are 3 times more likely to be suspended than white students. Then there is this shocking FBI statistic: In Burlington VT 243 arrests out of 1000 are Black citizens compared to 186 out 1000 in Ferguson MO.

No doubt Bernie Sanders is now a fierce advocate for the middle class and poor, for women, and for minority and LGBT rights, and he should be celebrated for his advocacy. Sanders’ should also be lauded for bringing income inequality to the forefront of the American political debate. However, the exaggeration of his accomplishments and hostility toward any criticism by his followers cannot mask the real history of Sanders’ civil rights activism. His involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s is commendable, but from then until now, he has been tone deaf around issues of systemic racism. Yes, he has a position paper on racial justice, but for too long he has not aggressively fought for racial justice as an activist would.

Unfortunately during this primary season, Sanders lost an opportunity to build on that long ago reputation as a fighter for civil rights because he refuses to embrace forcefully and fully the issues of systemic racism and bigotry. I have the answer to one question, but I’m still waiting for an answer to the other question. If Senator Sanders cannot bring a justice revolution to his own state with only 600,000+ mostly white liberal residents, how can we trust him to bring a revolution to America?



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