BATON ROUGE, Louisiana – A week after he was jeered by Black Lives Matter activists at a liberal conference halfway across the country, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came here Saturday to make his most direct appeal to black voters yet.
The Vermont senator, who hails from a state with barely 7,500 African-American residents, hopes to win the nomination in a party where nearly one-in-five members is black. He has acknowledged that he needs to do more to reach beyond his mostly white base, and used the Southern Christian Leadership’s 57th annual conference here to reintroduce himself to black voters.
“I am aware that many of you don’t know me very well. So let me say a little about myself by way of introduction,” he said, starting with the very basics. “I was mayor of the city of Burlington, Vermont. Vermont is a small state, Burlington is the largest city.”
Sanders was first involved in the civil rights movement decades ago, a fact appreciated by a group whose first president was Martin Luther King.
“Even though I like him so much, we do not endorse candidates,” said SCLC President Charles Steele. “Most importantly, he understands the Civil Rights movement. He was involved back in the 60s.”
Sanders expanded on his typical stump speech, even as he defended his view of race largely through an economic lens. He touched on many issues of concern to the civil rights group, from voting rights to police brutality to for-profit prisons to the “failure” of the drug war. “Black lives do matter, and we must value black lives,” he said.
“Anybody who saw the recent Sandra Bland tape understands that tragically, racism is alive and well in America,” he told the group’s leaders in a small reception of the black woman who was recently found dead in a Texas jail cell. “I don’t think anybody believes that a middle-class white woman would have been yanked out of her car, thrown on the ground, assaulted and then ended up jail because she made a minor traffic violation.”
Ahead of the speech, many activists with the storied civil rights organization said they did not know much about Sanders, but had an open mind and praised him for being the only major candidate to attend their conference. “We’ve known some of the candidates over a period of time. But they’re not here, and he is,” Steele told msnbc.
“I don’t know a lot about Bernie Sanders,” said Dr. Paul Miller of Albany, New York. “If he stands on the right issues, I think he’d have a chance” of winning new fans in the crowd.
Exactly a week ago, Sanders’ speech to the Netroots Nation Conference in Phoenix was interrupted by young activists with the Black Lives Matter movement, which sprung up in response to recent police-involved killings of black people.
Sanders seemed annoyed by the interruption and said, “If you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK.” Activists felt condescended to and patronized, and even white Sanders fans worried he had confirmed doubts he could appeal to minority voters.
The Vermont senator has seen his poll numbers surge to unexpected highs in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the white states in the country, but he has had more difficulty connecting with minority voters.
According to a new Gallup poll, Sanders trails Clinton among white Democrats by just 19 percentage points nationally, but is 55 points behind her among non-whites. As former Howard Dean pollster Paul Maslin told The New York Times, “The Bernie Sanders voter is still a Volvo-driving, financially comfortable liberal who is pretty much white.”
Expanding his base of support is not just a luxury for, but an electoral imperative in a party where nearly half of its voters in the 2012 presidential election were not white.
The self-described Democratic socialist has focused almost exclusively on economic issues in his years in elected office, and his staff is 90% white, according to a recent study from the group INCLUSV.
But Sanders came right place to learn and make a downpayment on outreach effort. The SCLC is of Sanders’ generation and appreciated his work for the movement of the 1960s. It also has a core commitment to addressing poverty, which dovetails with Sanders’ economic message.
SCLC Chairman Dr. Bernard Lafayette said delicately that Sanders could learn from the group. “There might be some lack of sensitivity,” Lafayette told msnbc of police brutality to blacks, given Sanders’ limited exposure to the issue in Vermont. “We want to have some dialogue with him.”
“It’s an honor for us to have him, but it’s also an honor for him to be here with us,” said Autumn Smith, an activist with the SCLC’s youth arm.
Myrna Clayton, a professional singer who lead the singing of the black national anthem, said she thought the audience could find a lot to like in Sanders’ message. “When I saw that Sen. Sanders was going to I come, I was like, yay!” she said. “What he’s saying is resonating.”
Still, many in the SLCLC are several generations removed from the younger Black Lives Matters activists, a fissure that came up here at a panel discussion with younger activists Saturday.
And Sanders’ message on race is very much rooted in his larger class-based analysis, something that did not sit well with the Black Lives Matter protesters at Netroots.
Racial and economic inequalities are “two issues which some people look at as separate issues, I really don’t,” Sanders said.
That message received applause Saturday night, but may satisfy some in the Black Lives Matter movement, who are not convinced racism will go away even if economic justice solved.