GOLDSBORO, N.C. (RNS) — In a visit to one of North Carolina’s most prominent African American churches, Sen. Bernie Sanders scored big points talking about poverty in the United States.
The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination spoke Wednesday (Feb. 26) with the Rev. William J. Barber II at his Greenleaf Christian Church. The talk comes ahead of Super Tuesday, when a significant segment of black voters will cast their votes — including in North Carolina, where African Americans make up 22% of the state’s residents.
Winning black support is crucial to presidential candidates like Sanders, because African Americans are a core constituency to the Democratic Party. In the 2016 presidential election, 24% of Democratic primary voters were black. Sanders, who is Jewish and has represented the mostly white state of Vermont in Congress, has some catching up to do.
Asked by Barber to introduce himself, Sanders spoke of his modest roots as the son of a poor Polish immigrant growing up in a rent-controlled apartment in New York's Brooklyn borough.
He spoke of how important it is for poor people to speak up about their lack of health care or retirement savings.
He spoke of the stress that poor people experience as a result of not being able to provide for their families and how that stress can impact their health.
And he spoke about the need to raise the minimum wage, allow workers to unionize and ensure that women are paid the same wages as men.
“What we have got to do is not apologize for the speed in which we want to transform this country,” Sanders said.
But on the critical issue of race, Sanders spoke generally without addressing historic inequities.
Asked by Barber how Sanders would address systemic racism, especially as it relates to voter suppression and racialized gerrymandering, Sanders didn’t offer solutions to target racial injustices.
“The bottom line is, if you are 18 years of age and a citizen of the United States of America you have a right to vote,” Sanders said.
Barber went on to press Sanders. Barber talked about the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, as well as various North Carolina legislative efforts to require voter ID, limit early voting and gerrymander legislative districts — all efforts that courts have found were intended to disempower African Americans and maximize Republicans’ advantage.
Sanders repeated a pledge to expand the vote. And he won applause for saying he would support making Election Day a federal holiday.
“As I said before, here is my goal: I want the United States to have the highest voter turnout, participation of any major country on earth,” Sanders said. “We’ll make it easier in a dozen different ways for people to participate in the political process. There is a cultural view in this country: ‘My vote doesn’t matter. Why should I vote?’ We’ll deal with that as well. We’ll deal with voter suppression and with a corrupt system that allows billionaires to buy elections.”
Sanders is the third presidential hopeful to speak at Barber’s church this election cycle as part of a series of events organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, a national movement to lift up issues affecting the poor. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California activist billionaire Tom Steyer have previously visited the church.
The sanctuary and several overflow rooms were packed with activists from the Poor People’s Campaign, Sanders supporters and Democrats eager to get a glimpse of the front-runner ahead of the March 3 Super Tuesday vote. Not all were persuaded by Sanders.
“I’m not sure he has a full appreciation for systematic racism,” said Anne Baird Wells, a retired NAACP volunteer who lives in Moore County near the town of Pinehurst. “You have to spend enough time with people who have experienced it to fully grasp it. I didn’t get the sense he truly grasped it.”
Fresh off his victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, Sanders has more black supporters than many of the other presidential candidates, including Buttigieg, Steyer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
But he is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading in the polls in South Carolina, which votes this Saturday. South Carolina is a critical state for Democratic nominees, with a higher-than-average African American population. It is also a state Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Polls indicate Biden has a narrow lead in North Carolina, which has twice as many delegates.
It’s unlikely that all African American voters will rally around one candidate. While Biden is considered the most popular among black voters, Sanders, Steyer and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is not on the South Carolina ballot, are gaining support among black Americans.
Many supporters with “Bernie” T-shirts and buttons attended the conversation at Barber’s church and thought he spoke clearly and effectively.
Among them was Keith Cooper of Greenville, North Carolina, the president of the Eastern North Carolina Regional Association of Black Social Workers.
“I believe in his very progressive agenda,” said Cooper. “That progressive agenda is very reminiscent of the New Deal agenda of Franklin Roosevelt of the 1930s. Sanders reminds me a lot of that.”
On Thursday, Sanders held a rally at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black university in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, before heading back down to South Carolina.