When Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign rolled into South Carolina this weekend, wooing black voters was perhaps the top task on his to-do list.
That is both understandable and extraordinary.
On one hand, the Vermont senator is a hoary-headed senator from a tiny New England state that is 95 percent white, and he has done very little (until now) to craft an identity beyond the D.C. Beltway.
“We don’t know him,” is the refrain of black voters in South Carolina, a Washington Post report suggests.
To those who are familiar with his political career, however, Sanders would seem to be the last person in the presidential race who would need to justify his civil rights credentials. After all, which other candidate would allow two Black Lives Matter activists to hijack a campaign event in Seattle while he stood placidly by, chatting with his wife?
Donald Trump, for one, called it a “disgrace.”
In the end, Sanders suggested that he did not fear the activists’ interference because their cause was his cause, too. A lifetime of activism in the Senate and before supports his claim.
In many ways, the crusty Yankee with the flame of white hair is precisely the candidate that Black Lives Matter movement would seem to be thirsting for. Spreading that message, particularly in the South, where Hillary Clinton shares the glow of her husband’s legacy, represents one of Sanders’ biggest challenges and opportunities.
One of the biggest problems is that Sanders doesn’t like to talk about himself, suggests Sam Frizell of Time magazine.
In the early 1960s – before Martin Luther King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and before the Selma to Montgomery marches – Sanders became the leader of an NAACP ally “at a time when most civil rights activists were black,” Mr. Frizell writes.
In 1962, Sanders delivered a speech of his own against housing segregation at the University of Chicago. Another time, he walked around the city, pinning up fliers detailing police brutality while being tailed by a police cruiser.
“The civil rights movement,” Frizell writes, “became a home for him.”
The left-leaning AlterNet website has come up with a list of “20 Examples of Bernie Sanders' Powerful Record on Civil and Human Rights Since the 1950s.” It notes, among other things, that he received a 97 percent score from the NAACP in 2006.
“Much of the criticism of Sanders seems more rooted in who he is – an old white guy from Vermont – than what he has done,” writes Zaid Jilani of AlterNet. “If anything, the fact that he has done so much for civil and minority rights despite the fact that his constituency is not one that would naturally demand it speaks to his character and wide empathy…”
Just don’t expect to hear that from Sanders. He suggests to Time that back story is just part of the media “soap opera,” and he has no interest in it. He wants to talk ideas. But that is also a challenge. The self-described socialist sees economic equality as the necessary path to racial progress – an approach that sometimes can seem overly intellectual and off-key.
When Black Lives Matter activists interrupted a Sanders event in Phoenix, he responded by talking about a study on youth unemployment. Eventually, he departed from his talking points to declare: “Black people are dying in this country because we have a criminal justice system that is out of control.”
But Democratic opponent Mrs. Clinton has already latched onto Sanders’ economic approach as a potential weakness.
“There are some who say, ‘Well, racism is a result of economic inequality.’ I don't believe that,” she said, notably in a conversation with the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
But among some who know more about Sanders, the genuineness of his long record carries weight.
“If I asked a Republican candidate about Black Lives Matter, they wouldn’t care,” Justin Sewell, a black college student who attended Sanders’s rally in South Carolina, told the Post. “If I asked Hillary, she’d just say what’s convenient,”
“I believe [Sanders] really cares.”