Bernie Sanders brought many in an audience of hundreds of civil rights activists to their feet Thursday in Manhattan with a speech recalling aspirations laid out by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and saying, “It’s sad to remember how much distance we still have to go.”
The Democratic presidential candidate highlighted stark and long-standing racial disparities in rates of unemployment, incarceration and marijuana arrests.
He said King’s dreams for black Americans and the country as a whole — presented in his iconic speech at the 1963 March on Washington, which Sanders attended — have not been realized.
“Of course, you have to destroy segregation. Of course, you have to open up opportunity for all people.” But then he said: “What does it matter if you desegregate a lunch counter, but you don’t have the money to buy the damn hamburger?” Sanders said. “This is what he said back in the 1960s, and it’s sad to remember how much distance we still have to go.”
The Vermont senator delivered the remarks to the National Action Network convention, being held in midtown Manhattan.
Sanders is polling behind Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state. He also lags in pledged delegates.
New York’s primary is Tuesday.
Clinton has a polling lead over Sanders among black voters.
But many in the predominantly black audience Thursday received his message of racial and income equity with enthusiasm, punctuating his speech with applause and shouts of “Preach!”
The senator called for law enforcement reform, citing a national spate of police-involved deaths of black people.
“We are tired — more than tired — of seeing the videos of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and all the rest ... the list too long, who are killed by police officers when they are unarmed,” Sanders said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, said Sanders “has changed the conversation in this election.” The civil rights leader has not endorsed a candidate in the race.
Clinton had addressed the convention a day earlier, saying what she feels is anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric by the Republican presidential contenders is proof “America’s long struggle with racism is far from finished.”
On Thursday, convention attendee Thelma Jeanné Johnson, 77, of Chicago stood and cheered loudly for Sanders. She said she believes he is a better choice for black voters because his message is in line with her life mission to help the less fortunate.
“Feed the hungry ... clothe the naked,” Johnson said, paraphrasing the Bible. “It didn’t say take money from corporations.”