Bernie Sanders in the Deep South By Briahna Joy Gray
Last week, I joined Bernie Sanders in Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Sanders was overwhelmingly well received by both passersby and the local audiences who came to hear him speak. But so far, the media coverage of his trip has revolved around a brief aside, in which Sanders faulted the Democratic Party for its recent legislative failures:
“The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure,” said Sanders. “People sometimes don’t see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama. He was obviously an extraordinary candidate, brilliant guy. But behind that reality, over the last ten years, Democrats have lost about 1,000 seats in state legislatures all across this country.”
Twitter erupted immediately, and critics, like former South Carolina representative Bakari Sellers, accused Sanders of “arrogance” and of “dismissing” President Obama. But Thursday’s critiques were only loosely tethered to Wednesday’s words, which, on their face, were fairly uncontroversial: Who could defend as successful the “almost unprecedented” loss of legislative seats over the last ten years, or Hillary Clinton’s defeat to game-show host Donald Trump? In Mississippi, when Sanders called the Democratic Party a “failure,” the audience erupted into applause. And of course, President Obama was a uniquely charismatic and brilliant president.
In fact, if Beale Street could talk, it would tell a very different story about Bernie Sanders than the now-familiar critique that he is insufficiently sensitive to racial issues. As I walked with Sanders down Memphis’s famous thoroughfare, his popularity, including among the predominantly black crowd attending the commemorative festivities, was self-evident. The senator was stopped every few feet by selfie-seekers and admirers. Yes: Perhaps this is to be expected of any politician with a national profile, but given his poor showing in Mississippi during the 2016 Democratic primary, in which he secured less than 17 percent of the black vote, I had thought the senator and his small cohort might go unnoticed. I was wrong.
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