Picture at top:
Bernie Sanders, right, a member of the Congress of Racial Equality steering committee, stands next to University of Chicago president George Beadle, who is speaking at a CORE meeting on housing sit-ins in 1962. (photo: Special Collections Research Center/University of Chicago Library)
ongressman John Lewis has shamed himself. Long a hero to now-aging activists, he sullied his long-expected endorsement of Hillary Clinton by disparaging her opponent Bernie Sanders’ well-documented participation in the civil rights struggle as a student at the University of Chicago.
After announcing that the Congressional Black Caucus PAC was backing Clinton, Lewis answered a reporter’s question about Sanders: “I never saw him. I never met him. I chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years from 1963 to 1966. I was involved in the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma (Alabama) to Montgomery and directed the voter education project for six years. I met Hillary Clinton, I met President Clinton.”
Others of us know young Bernie’s work and still speak highly of his student activism for peace and civil rights. We can also point to detailed confirmation in the Chicago Tribune, Rick Pearlstein’s profile of Sanders in The University of Chicago Magazine, and Mother Jones, which thoughtfully reproduced pages from old editions of the student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon.
Bernie’s biggest success came as a leader of the campus chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), when he spearheaded a lengthy campaign against landlords of university-owned buildings in Hyde Park for refusing to rent off-campus housing to black students. “We feel it is an intolerable situation when Negro and white students of the University cannot live together in university owned apartments,” Sanders told The Maroon in January 1962. As picketers left one of the residences, people yelled, “Go back to your jungles.”
Bernie’s agitation led to a 15-day sit-in in the reception room of the office of university president George Beadle, followed by continued protests and negotiations that finally forced the university to desegregate its housing. Sanders also led pickets against a local Howard Johnson’s after the arrest of 12 CORE demonstrators for trying to eat at a HoJo’s in North Carolina. He was arrested and fined for resisting arrest in a protest against school segregation on Chicago’s south side, and he went with several comrades to the giant March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Bernie was clearly a leader,” recalled Mike Edelstein, who served on campus CORE’s executive committee at the time. “He was taken seriously. You couldn’t take him for anything else because, like now, his humor is not his foremost trait.”
He was “very smart and very policy oriented,” said classmate Mike Parker, who is now in his 70s and – with Bernie’s support – is leading a fight to close down a polluting Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. “Knowing someone like him was part of the inspiration for what we’re doing here.”
Less well known, Parker and some of Bernie’s other comrades went to graduate school at Berkeley and helped shape the Free Speech Movement, which was largely about the right to advocate and organize on campus for civil rights demonstrations in neighboring Oakland and San Francisco.
This is how progressive movements for social change take on a life of their own, and to belittle Bernie’s role insults a whole generation of activists, black and white, who worked where we were to do what we could, all at a time that Hillary Clinton was still a Goldwater Girl. Hillary changed, and Bernie and Elizabeth Warren are now pushing her to change even more. But that gives her campaign no license to let John Lewis bear false witness against Bernie to shore up black support in South Carolina and beyond.
What makes all this even sadder is that Lewis knows firsthand the sting of dirty politics at the highest level. Back in August 1963, when I was still a grad student at the University of Michigan, John came to speak at a meeting of our local Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He was scheduled to be the youngest speaker the following week at the March on Washington, and he was testing the bombshell he intended to drop.
“In good conscience,” he planned to say, “we cannot support wholeheartedly the [Kennedy] administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality. This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations.”
“You tell us to wait,” he went on. “We cannot be patient. We want our freedom, and we want it now.”
“If we don’t see meaningful progress here today,” he concluded, “there will come a day when we will not confine our marching to the South. We will be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did – nonviolently.”
Thrilled by John’s presentation at Ann Arbor, a group of us from SDS stood right by the Lincoln Memorial waiting eagerly for him to give his speech. What we did not know, and what John learned only hours before, is that some of Kennedy’s backers refused to appear on the podium with John if he insisted on giving the speech he had written. In the end, Kennedy’s people forced him to say what they wanted, a story SNCC leader James Forman tells in The Making of Black Revolutionaries. Lewis confirmed most of the details to The Washington Post.
In the end, John’s attack on Bernie may not have much impact, and could well backfire the way that Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright’s remarks ended up hurting Hillary with young feminists. Several black leaders and activists are already endorsing Bernie as the candidate who best embodies the moral imperative of our time, and John Lewis has only demeaned himself to score a few cheap political points. But common decency and a proper regard for our shared history demand that Hillary disavow his comments and that they go beyond sterile apologies and both set the record straight.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, “Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold.”
Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.