Election 2016

19 Examples of Bernie Sanders' Powerful Record on Civil and Human Rights Since the 1950s

From fighting segregation to standing against police violence.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 9, 2015:- U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent -Vermont) speaks at a luncheon at the National Press Club
Photo Credit: Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock.com

Over the past few months, one lingering attack on Bernie Sanders' candidacy for the Democratic nomination is his supposed indifference to racial justice and civil rights issues.

But the truth is, Sanders has a 50-year history of standing up for civil and minority rights, as he told the attendants of Netroots Nation after he was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters. Of course, it's understandable that they want to bring attention to the movement. Killings of people from Ferguson to New York City to Los Angeles to Atlanta have finally brought important issues like police brutality, systemic racism, mass incarceration and militarization of the police into the center of national dialogue. 

It is up to all candidates for the presidency, including every Democrat, every Republican and independent candidates, to address these issues in a forthright manner and to do outreach and communicate with communities that are besieged by these problems. Although his events in Phoenix, Houston and Dallas, where he loudly condemned police brutality and racism were a start, Sanders owes it to pay attention to these activists and listen to the concerns of marginalized groups whose civil rights have historically been suppressed. Sanders does have a record of fighting on these issues, and it should be only natural for him to be able to comfortably address them before a diverse audience.

Here are 20 ways Sanders has stood up for civil and minority rights, starting in the early 1950s up to the present year.

1. Raising Money For Korean Orphans: International solidarity was an unusual concept for any American to have in the 1950s, let alone a high school student. But one of Sanders' first campaigns was to run for class president at James Madison High School in New York City. His platform was based around raising scholarship funds for Korean war orphans. Although he lost, the person who did win the campaign decided to endorse Sanders' campaign, and scholarships were created.

2. Being Arrested For Desegregation: As a student at the University of Chicago, Sanders was active in both the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1962, he was arrested for protesting segregation in public schools in Chicago; the police came to call him an outside agitator, as he went around putting up flyers around the city detailing police brutality.

3. Calling For Full Gay Equality: 40 years ago, Sanders started his political life by running with a radical third party in Vermont called the Liberty Union Party. As a part of the platform, he called for abolishing all laws related to discrimination against homosexuality.

4. Standing Up For Victims Of U.S. Imperialism In Latin America: While mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders formally protested the Reagan government's policy of sending arms to Central America to repress left-wing movements. In 1985, he traveled to Nicaragua to condemn the war on people there. He writes about it in his book Outsider In The House: “The trip to Nicaragua was a profoundly emotional experience....I was introduced to a crowd of hundreds of thousands who gathered for the anniversary celebration. I will never forget that in the front row of the huge crowd were dozens and dozens of amputees in wheelchairs – young soldiers, many of them in their teens, who had lost their legs in a war foisted on them and financed by the U.S. government.”

5 Condemned And Opposed Welfare Reform and Dog Whistle Politics:While President Bill Clinton and most Democrats in Congress supported so-called welfare reform politics, Sanders not only voted against this policy change, but wrote eloquently against the dog whistle politics used to sell it, saying, “The crown jewel of the Republican agenda is their so-called welfare reform proposal. The bill, which combines an assault on the poor, women and children, minorities, and immigrants is the grand slam of scapegoating legislation, and appeals to the frustrations and ignorance of the American people along a wide spectrum of prejudices.”

6. Vocally Condemned and Opposed Death Penalty and Prisons His Entire Political Career: Sanders has long been a critic of “tough on crime” policies. Here he is in 1991 condemning a crime bill for promoting “state murder” through expansion of the death penalty: 

“My friends, we have the highest percentage of people in jail per capita of any nation on earth....What do we have to do, put half the country behind bars? Mister Speaker, instead of talking about punishment and vengeance, let us talk about the real issue. How do we get to the root causes of crime? How do we stop crime? … I've got a problem with a president and Congress that allows five million people to go hungry, two million people to sleep out on the street, cities to become breeding grounds for drugs and violence. And they say we're getting tough on crime. If you want to get tough on crime, let's deal with the causes of crime. Let's demand that every man, woman, and child in this country have a decent opportunity and a decent standard of living. Let's not keep putting poor people into jail and disproportionately punishing blacks.”

He also voted for an amendment in the crime bill to eliminate the death penalty with life imprisonment.

7. Voted Against Cutting Off Prisoners From Federal Education Funds: In the 1990s, there was a successful effort to end the Pell Grant program for prisoners, which was one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism. Only a handful of members of Congress voted against the legislation, and almost all of them were members of the Black Caucus. Sanders was one of the few white members who opposed this effort. It passed by 351 to 39. Of those in the House who opposed that vote, few are still serving; Reps. John Lewis, Jose Serrano, Charlie Rangel, and Bernie Sanders stood together at that time and continue to serve today.

8. Took  IMF To Task For Oppressing Developing World Workers: In a 1998 committee hearing, Sanders took Clinton administration official Robert Rubin to task for not enforcing a provision to protect the rights of workers in Indonesia. “Tell the world now that no more IMF money goes to that country, goes to [dictator] Suharto!” he thundered to Rubin, who later went on to be the chief architect of policies that led us to the Great Recession. “The IMF historically does not have a good record in terms of the poor people of various countries,” he noted, standing up for the poorest black and brown people on the planet, tackling an institution few in Congress dare to criticize.

9. Achieved High Ratings From Leading Civil Rights Organizations: A frequent critique of Sanders is that he is from a very white state. While this is true, he certainly has not ignored issues that matter to people of color. In 2002, he achieved a 93 percent rating from the ACLU and a 97% rating by the NAACP in 2006.

10. Voted Against the PATRIOT Act: The USA PATRIOT Act was passed in a 98-2 vote in the Senate and a 357-66 vote in the House. Sanders voted against it, and has voted against renewing it every single time. The law has been used to violate the rights of Arab and Muslim Americans, but few know how extensively it has been used in the drug war; from 2009 to 2010, the law was invoked for 3,034 narcotics cases and only 37 terrorism cases.

11. Opposed Both Iraq Wars on Moral Grounds: Sanders was opposed to U.S. involvement in both Iraq wars. While many simply talked about the war in terms of the impact it would have on the United States, Sanders went further, saying that the “death and destruction caused” would “not be forgotten by the poor people of the Third World.”

12. Traveled to Costa Rica to Defend Exploited Workers:Sanders traveled to Costa Rica to help organize workers opposing the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). While many critics of trade agreements do so on the grounds that Americans deserve jobs that could be lost to foreign countries, Sanders instead practices a form of solidarity politics, saying that workers in both countries are being exploited by corporations and so we must organize workers in both countries.

13. Endorsed Jesse Jackson, Spoke Up For Palestinians: In 1988, Jesse Jackson was the first competitive black candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. He came under fierce attack for his advocacy of Palestinian statehood. Sanders came to his aid, organizing Vermonters and winning the state for Jackson. Sanders was asked about Jackson's comments on Palestine and defended him, saying that the Israeli assault on Palestinians was “reprehensible.”

14. Strongly Condemned Police Violence Over the Past Year: One criticism of Sanders is that he avoids talking about police violence in favor of talking about the economy. While the economy forms the bulk of his pitch, he has repeatedly condemned police violence during the duration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here he is in mid-August 2014, before frontrunner Clinton ever spoke about the issue. Here (8/20/14) are (8/24/14) a (8/18/14) few (6/6/2015) more (4/30/2015) examples (6/2015). 

15. Embraced Immigrants When Hillary Clinton Refused To Talk To Them: In 2014, young immigration activists repeatedly tried to talk to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to ask her about executive action. While Clinton did not talk to them, Bernie Sanders was not only willing to talk, but agreed with their call for executive action.

16. Defended Voting Rights Against Voter Suppression Efforts: Sanders earned the endorsement of radical rapper Killer Mike by his leadership on defending the Voter Rights Act and calling for expanding voting rights.

17. Fought Against Employment Discrimination: Sanders was a strong supporter of legislation to end workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans.

18. Called For End to War On Drugs, For-Profit Prisons and Migrant Detention Quotas:  Sanders supports decriminalizing marijuana and believes the war on drugs to be a failure. Additionally, he has vowed to end for-profit prisons and immigrant detention quotas.

19. Put Out Detailed Plan to End Economic Crisis in Minority Communities: Many argue that Sanders views the issue of racial justice in too myopic a fashion by focusing on the economy. But polling of both Latinos and African Americans shows that jobs and the economy is either their top concern or tied for their top concern. Gallup polling shows that 13 percent of Hispanics say immigration is their top concern; 47 percent say the economy is. Meanwhile, among black Americans, 13 percent say “race relations” is their top concern, tied with “unemployment/jobs,” an additional 10 percentage points go to the “economy in general.” Combined, economic concerns make up 23 percentage points while race relations compose 13 percent. If you add in healthcare, at 6 percent, another major Sanders theme, it gets you up to 29 percent. Add in poverty at 7 percent and education at 5 percent  and you're up to 41 percent of African Americans naming Bernie Sanders' top issues as their top issues.

This validates Sanders' strategy of looking to the economy as the top concern of minority communities. He has put out a detailed strategy to target unemployment across America and particularly to attack Hispanic and black youth unemployment, which he introduced in August 2014, long before he announced for president.

None of this is to say that the Sanders campaign doesn't need to do more outreach to a broad array of people; the rallies in Phoenix, Houston and Dallas were a start, as they featured heavy presence of Latino and African Americans. The campaign is reportedly set to meet with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference next week, and will be campaigning heavily in the Southeast starting next month, with an event in New Orleans at the tail end of this month.

But much of the criticism of Sanders seems more rooted in who he is — an old white guy from Vermont — than what he has done. 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 that isn't shared by many politicians.

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

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