ATLANTA (AP) — Bernie Sanders acknowledges that he needs more support from black voters to have any chance of defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
And, also stating the obvious, Sanders is a longtime politician from Vermont, where the population is 95 percent white. So he's not exactly spent much time before now campaigning among African-Americans.
The result is a political tightrope for a 74-year-old senator who has assembled a national following as a self-styled "democratic socialist" calling for a "political revolution" that wrests control of the U.S. government from "the billionaire class" comprising the nation's wealthiest individuals and corporations.
Facing that reality, Sanders has opted not to change his central argument, but to reframe it and force it in front of voters he's never before needed to win an election.
"Our job is to end institutional racism," he said on Monday at a raucous rally in downtown Atlanta. "But it is also to create an economy that makes sure our kids are able to get decent jobs and a decent education. I see those two issues as absolutely overlapping."
The Fox Theatre event, which drew about 5,000 supporters, concluded a four-day stretch that highlighted Sanders' outreach to black voters. On Friday, he took questions in front of a bipartisan group of black civic and business leaders gathered in South Carolina, where he's also airing a radio ad in which he bemoans "institutional racism," calls for ending racial profiling and mass incarceration and highlights his work in the civil rights movement as a college student.
That biographical emphasis comes after months of Sanders' insisting that he didn't want "to brag" about his past. "It's much more important for me to tell people what I will do as president and how it affects them," he told The Associated Press in September.
He spoke Sunday in black churches. In Atlanta, he met privately with one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s children and paid his respects at the slain civil rights leader's crypt. He was introduced by rapper Killer Mike, who had earlier taken the senator to eat at a well-known restaurant near Atlanta University Center, the cluster of historically black colleges and universities. Sanders' campaign staff boasted that he was "the first white elected-official" ever to visit Busy Bee Cafe.
He's begun highlighting endorsements from black elected-officials, even as his list is dwarfed by Clinton's list of backers from Congress, legislative leaders and mayors across the region.
In his standard campaign speech, Sanders blasts the status quo as particularly unfair to nonwhites and offers his policy ideas — raising the minimum wage, making public colleges tuition-free, decriminalizing marijuana, ending the for-profit prison industry — as the counter.
Electoral math demands all of it.
Always a key Democratic constituency, black voters will be even more important in the 2016 nominating contests because the early primary calendar is dominated by Southern states, including South Carolina and Georgia, where blacks form the backbone of the Democratic electorate. So if Clinton maintains her advantage among African-Americans — a voting group that helped then-Sen. Barack Obama defeat Clinton in 2008 — she will dominate the South on her way to the nomination.
But Sanders' swing through King's hometown of Atlanta also underscores his reluctance to tailor his appeal too much. In fact, he sought to position himself as one of King's political heirs, not by casting himself as a civil rights leader but by reminding voters of King's wider legacy.
"The truth is he did much more than just fight segregation and racism," Sanders told a Fox audience, most of them white and too young to remember King's life and death.
Sanders noted that he attended King's famous 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech and participated in the march that preceded it. But, he adds, the march was officially "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
King, Sanders reminded them, railed against the Vietnam War as an unjust battle fought by poor and working-class Americans, and went to Memphis, where he was assassinated, to support striking sanitation workers.
At the time, Sanders noted, King was planning another Washington march — for the poor. "It was a march not just of African-Americans," Sanders said, "but of Latinos, of whites, of all people in this country to march on Washington to demand fundamental changes in our national priorities."
"He talked about a nation that had socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor," Sanders said, adding at one point, "What he said then was right, and I think it's right now."
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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)