Why Bernie Sanders’s History of Racial Justice Activism Matters

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"Shaun King on the importance of Bernie Sanders's lifelong dedication to anti-racist struggle, from the 1960s to today."

Jacobin, June 2018

I reject the idea that who Bernie Sanders was in the 1960s is irrelevant. Who you are and what you do, what you fought for, and who and what you fought against, is always relevant. Twenty and thirty and forty years from now, when people step up to lead, and run for office, what they did and where they were during the Black Lives Matter movement will mean something. If what Bernie did in the sixties doesn’t matter now, then what you are doing right now doesn’t matter. But you and I know it does.

Dr King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Just a teenager, Bernie Sanders moved from his hometown of Brooklyn to Chicago at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the most tumultuous and challenging time this nation had faced since the Civil War a hundred years earlier.

And most Americans, particularly most white Americans, remained silent. It was that silence, in the face of lynching, in the face of water hoses, in the face of bombings of homes and churches, in the face of assassinations, in the face of attack dogs being released on children, it was white silence that broke the heart of Dr King as he languished in a Birmingham jail (read his letter here). It was that silence that he found told us more about the soul of America than the brutality and evil of this place.

Bernie loved Dr King. And long before we used the phrase, Bernie had the notion that he needed to use his own white privilege to fight back against racism and bigotry and oppression and inequality. And that desire to hold this country to a higher standard began to well up in Bernie as a young student at the University of Chicago. He became the chairman of the university chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and merged the group with SNCC — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Bernie literally helped lead the first known sit-in in at the University of Chicago, where thirty-three students camped outside of the President’s office — protesting segregating housing on campus.

Disturbed by police brutality in Chicago, Bernie once spent the entire day blanketing the city with flyers on the issue — only to notice that he was being tracked by police who were following him and taking the flyers down.

Bernie hates telling these stories and has resisted using them for political capital across the years — even when advisors and others have told him it would boost his profile — he has refused. He does what he does because he cares. When I introduced Bernie at a rally in Los Angeles by sharing many of these stories, his own family came to me in tears saying that even they had never heard them before. He has always felt that what he did during the sixties paled in comparison to those who were beaten or lost their lives — and so he has kept some powerful stories to himself.

It’s cool for people to say, “I marched with Dr King” — and Bernie actually did attend the March on Washington, but he did so much more than that. This is not some exaggerated myth. This is the origin story of a political revolutionary.

In 1963, nine years after Brown v. Board of Education, the white power structure in Chicago was still fighting against school equality like their lives depended on it. They literally treated Black school children like they had the plague. Not only were Black schools woefully underfunded, they were overcrowded and bursting at the seams.

At the same time, with every single Black classroom in Chicago past capacity, sometimes with school children sharing chairs and desks, a report found that 382 white classrooms across Chicago were completely vacant.

Mayor Richard Daley, who ruled Chicago with an iron fist, still hailed as a Democratic hero to this day, and School Superintendent Benjamin Willis, decided that before they would let a single Black child fill one of those vacant white classrooms, they would start putting raggedy trailers on the playgrounds and in the parking lots of Black schools, and put Black school kids in those trailers instead. They were scorching hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. They were so cheap and poorly constructed that they often had holes in the floor — allowing rodents to come in and out at will. And those awful trailers became known around Chicago as Willis Wagons, named after Benjamin Willis, the school superintendent. ...
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