How Clinton Media Machine Blocked Sanders Civil Rights Play - WhoWhatWhy

How Clinton Media Machine Blocked Sanders Civil Rights Play

Inside the Takedown of Bernie Sanders’s Civil Rights Record

Young Bernie Sanders at sit-in
Young Bernie Sanders speaks to students on the first day of a sit-in at the University of Chicago in 1962. Photo credit: Photographer Danny Lyon's official blog: BLEAK BEAUTY / Bernie Sanders / YouTube
Reading Time: 5 minutes

When the history of the 2016 presidential race is written — if it is written well — it will note the remarkable role played by the African American vote.

It will also note the role of the establishment, including well-placed allies and a significant portion of the media, in keeping the African American vote in a pre-ordained slot: Hillary Clinton’s camp.

Hillary Clinton had a fact, an opportunity, and a problem. Bernie Sanders was surging in national polls, but she was managing to hang on to a huge majority of the black vote, which plays a large and increasingly important role in the Democratic primaries and caucuses.

If she could retain the black vote in overwhelming numbers, she could hold back Sanders’s surge.

But there were a few big problems. Bernie Sanders’s issues go to the heart of what ails much of Black America. The Bill-and-Hillary record on a number of critical matters, from the incarceration of black youth to the best way to aid struggling black families, youths, single mothers and the unemployed, was at best mixed.

In contrast to Sanders, she is saddled with her closeness to the financial community that has wreaked havoc with the lives of African Americans who are struggling economically. This coziness with representatives of the One Percent goes well beyond delivering well-paid speeches to Goldman Sachs.

Clinton also has been a pumped-up, eager hawk on military action — a position generally unpopular with African Americans, for whom military service has often been a job opportunity of last resort, with the obvious consequences to life and limb. Many other reasons for African Americans not to identify closely with Clinton can be found. She knows this: that’s why she worked so hard to publicly associate herself with President Barack Obama and his policies — though in reality she and the president differed on a number of key points, including her avidity for foreign intervention.

The clincher, though, was surely the revelation that, at the same time the young Hillary Clinton was a proud Goldwater Republican in the early-mid sixties, the young Bernie Sanders was getting arrested as a supporter of civil rights.

The contrast between the candidates’ history on this issue posed a potential disaster for Clinton: if she could not hold onto the African American vote, according to almost all calculations, it was hard to see how she could win the nomination.

And so the Clinton PR apparatus, as formidable as any, went to work.


The media keeps saying that “Black folks just love Hillary.” And the Super Tuesday returns from certain southern states seemed to bear this out. Yet these victories in states that Clinton is unlikely to carry in the general election may not necessarily carry over to potential battleground states such as Virginia, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio, where African Americans are a sizable part of the Democratic electorate .

If a big turnout of African American voters did not materialize for Clinton in those states, her candidacy would be in deep trouble indeed.

So instead of just repeating the blacks-love-Hillary mantra, the media should look deeper into the question of what each of these candidates offers to African American voters. And such an examination might begin with their respective relationships to the civil rights movement of the early 1960s

The record shows that young Bernie Sanders was a dedicated civil rights activist. He gave speeches in the freezing Chicago winters, he demonstrated for desegregated schools, he participated in Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. And, in 1963, he was arrested while protesting segregated housing at the University of Chicago.

The Perfect Iconic Moment


Let’s focus for a moment on that arrest — which happened at a time when Hillary Clinton was a Republican, and would soon be supporting Barry Goldwater for president

Here’s the background to Sanders’s arrest, as summarized by Kartemquin Films, a Chicago-based maker of socially conscious documentaries:

Education protests in Chicago have been making national headlines for the past few years, but the roots of these protests can be traced back to the early 1960’s and the citywide school boycott that emptied half of Chicago’s schools. It was one of the largest Civil Rights demonstrations in the north. Despite the mandate of Brown vs. the Board of Education, Chicago Public Schools remained segregated and inadequately resourced. Overcrowded black schools sat blocks away from white schools with empty classrooms. To deal with the overflow but avoid integration, CPS Superintendent Benjamin Willis ordered the installment of mobile unit classrooms on the playgrounds and parking lots of these schools. Dubbed “Willis Wagons,” they outraged the community, leading to a massive boycott by 250,000 students. Other cities soon planned similar demonstrations.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact that news of Sanders’s front-line presence in the great civil-rights confrontations of the 1960s might have on African American voters who, until now, have had no reason to think of him as involved in that arena. Nor is it hard to imagine how important it would be to Clinton backers to neutralize that impact.

Here is a blow by blow account of the dispute over Sanders’s civil rights credentials:

June, 2015: The Sanders campaign puts out a video with an image of the young Sanders leading a sit-in at the University of Chicago to protest segregated housing for students (the campaign ad was premiered in June/July to Iowans but published online July 25th).

November 12, 2015: Time publishes “Exclusive: College Alumni Raise Doubts About Bernie Sanders Campaign Photo.”

February 11, 2016: Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart writes a piece titled: “Stop sending around this photo of ‘Bernie Sanders’” (with Sanders’s name in quotes to emphasize the idea that the photo was not Sanders). That same day, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a legendary civil-rights leader (and close to the Clintons), also questions whether Sanders was involved with the civil rights movement (see below).

February 11, 2016: Clinton-supporter Lewis is asked about Sanders’s involvement in civil rights. He replies, “Well, to be very frank… I never saw him, I never met him… But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.”

February 11, 2016: Mother Jones publishes an article with photos of vintage news articles from The Maroon (University of Chicago) and the Chicago Tribune, confirming Sanders’s arrest.

February 13, 2016: Time is forced to reverse itself (it couldn’t have been very happy about that) — and publishes an article titled: “Photographer Says 1962 Photo Really Does Show Bernie Sanders.” (Of course, in such battles, the initial denial or claim that something is false often resonates the loudest, and many people may have already tuned out.)

February 13, 2016: The CBC (Congressional Black Caucus) PAC publishes a reversal from Lewis: “The fact that I did not meet him in the movement does not mean I doubted that Sen. Sanders participated in the Civil Rights Movement, neither was I attempting to disparage his activism.”

February 21, 2016: publishes “Newly found video shows Bernie Sanders getting arrested in 1963.” You can view it here.

This reminds me of something I covered in my book Family of Secrets: how the Bush family reacted when backers of Vietnam War hero-turned-peacenik John Kerry attacked George W. Bush, architect of the Iraq invasion, for having disappeared when he was supposed to be doing his (safe, stateside) military service during the Vietnam War.

The Bush campaign — with brilliant dirty tricks performed at a safe distance for deniability — turned around a difficult situation and buried an inconvenient fact about W. that could have cost him key support in battleground states. Is the Clinton campaign doing the same thing?

This little skirmish over a 52-year-old photograph may seem inconsequential on its face. But it touches on an issue that is central to the nomination fight. If Sanders did protest on behalf of the interests of black people while Clinton was a young Republican supporting the subtly racist campaign of Barry Goldwater, and if Sanders’s lifelong crusade on behalf of the poor and the oppressed was fully communicated to black and Latino voters, Hillary Clinton might find her base not so dependable.

And, as reported by the New York Times, although African Americans are turning out for Clinton in very high percentages in the primaries, high enough to damage Sanders, they are not turning out in high numbers — heralding a crisis that could devastate the Democrats in November.

Expect even greater efforts by the Clinton camp to prevent Sanders from getting this story out as the campaign reaches break-point. But will the media provide the analysis voters deserve?

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from photos of Bernie Sanders from Photographer Danny Lyon’s official blog: Bleak Beauty and WGN News

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34 responses to “How Clinton Media Machine Blocked Sanders Civil Rights Play”

  1. Avatar Gary Epstein says:

    Why does NYT, MSNBC et-al media give that greedy old woman Clinton the advantage. Always putting Bernie second, claiming she has it and Bernie can’t win. Its sickening.

  2. Avatar Chris Cloud says:

    What people tend to forget:
    In the 1960’s the Republican Party was for equality and the Democrats supported separate but equal. Martin Luther King and almost all black voters were Republicans. Over 80% of the all-white Republican Congressmen voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Strom Thurmond and the KKK were Democrats. After the 1964 Bill of Rights passed, the shift in political parties started and today the reverse is now true. Strom Thurmond stopped being a Democrat and switched parties and so did the KKK. In 1964 Sanders moved to Vermont, an all- white state after his protest of the segregation of Chicago Schools resulted in his arrest. Bernie admits he never marched in the South.

    Politics has always been a game of strategy, and placing key figures in areas or groups to support a particular candidate have been going on since Washington was President.

    • Avatar shortday says:

      ‘Pick-and-choose’ with history…. President Kennedy called for the Bill and Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy championed it. The truth is that the Senators and Congressmen ignored party affiliations and voted along geographic lines. 95% of northern Democrats and 85% of northern Republicans voted for the act. Only 8% of southern Democrats and 0% of southern Republicans voted for it. Of course, “southern” refers to the former Confederate States. The Southern Strategy, where the Republican Party began courting the southern racists, soon followed. The passage of the act was the beginning of the southern white exodus to the Republican Party and the black exodus to the Democratic Party. The Democrats knew they would lose the south if they supported equal rights but they did anyway. The same holds true today.

  3. Avatar jakckiejay says:

    Your story has it all wrong!!!

  4. Avatar Jay Stew says:

    HRC has never supported Blacks for anything more than a voter base to be exploited because they don’t have the same background of education as the average American, because they have always had higher poverty rates, and since the ’80s higher incarceration rates – which President Clinton did nothing to reverse or reduce.

    When it came time to really go after banks or prevent the credit market freeze or prevent derivatives market from performing predatory lending, HRC was nowhere to be found. Her only input was to tell banks to “cut it out” and to blame homeowners, many who because of the bad loans unbeknownst to them were able get financing for the first time on housing and lost it all. Yeah HRC is an awful human being as well as a terrible candidate. It is impossible for the message to be kept down though with the power of the internet.

  5. Avatar Beawild says:

    Hillary was a 17 year old high school girl when she was a Goldwater Girl. Sanders was already a 23 year old adult at the time. It’s not a fair comparison. After her first year in college Hillary became a Democrat. Sanders has been a proud Independent all his political career. It is only now that he’s running for President that he’s doing so under the Democratic banner.

    • Avatar CTPatriot says:

      You’re both right and wrong. Perhaps not a fair comparison when Hillary was 17. However you’re wrong that she became a Democrat on her Freshman year. In fact, she was elected president of her college’s Young Republicans during her Freshman year and was still a loyal, though perhaps questioning Republican in her senior year when she worked for the Rockefeller campaign and attended the Republican convention.

      Additionally, to use the party banner as some kind of loyalty test is ridiculous and an insult to thinking people. Bernie may not have been a member of the Democratic Party, but he caucused with them, raised money for them, and voted with them. More importantly, however, Bernie has been more of a real traditional FDR Democrat his entire life, something that can’t be said for Hillary or most of the current crop of corrupt DLC, New Democrats that currently wield power in our party. I consider it a badge of honor that Bernie has long stood for Democratic and democratic values regardless of what badge he wears.

      So this purity/party loyalty demand is bullshit and anyone who agrees with his ideals and policies but holds length of party membership against Bernie as a reason to vote against him is a fool. Needless to say, this loyalty BS is yet another smear put out by the Clinton campaign designed to deter Democratic voters from nominating Bernie. Let’s not fall for that one, k?

    • Avatar Mememeee says:

      FDR was a racist bastard.

  6. (Comment by @BerninForBernie) Whatever it takes, right Hillary?

  7. Avatar CalvinballPro says:

    “at the same time the young Hillary Clinton was a proud Goldwater Republican in the early-mid sixties”
    Clinton was raised by a Republican father and became a Democrat when she moved out on her own during college. (Like thousands of people do every year all over America.) We don’t get to choose our parents’ politics, only our own. Clinton chose to be a Democrat, and long before Bernie Sanders did.

    • Avatar Violet says:

      It’s not as important that she changed; what is important is the fact that people are claiming that Hillary has a stronger Civil Rights record. When comparing the two candidates, Bernie comes out on top every time. It’s unjust that Hillary is winning black American votes when Civil Rights activism is put into perspective. If Civil Rights is an issue a voter care about (whether black or white), they deserve to know what exactly Bernie has accomplished juxtaposed to what Hillary has done.

    • Avatar Zenber1 says:

      Both Dems are better than anyone in the GOP and I will happily vote for whichever wins the nomination on the Dem side.

    • Avatar saneblane says:

      Good luck with that argument. I’m against free trade so you are wrong. Bernie might be but not Hillary.

    • Avatar DeadPhish says:

      Actions speak louder than words. Teenagers often reject their parents traditionalism in politics, especially during the early 1960’s!

    • Avatar J C says:

      Hillary started out college as a college republican.

    • Avatar CalvinballPro says:

      Anyone fixated on Clinton’s political life from age 18-20 in the year 2016 is simply pathetic.

    • Avatar Verok says:

      The issue is not being focused on her 18-20’s politics — it’s that people are comparing Clinton and Sanders’ Civil Rights activism. Bernie was protesting segregation since before Hillary was even a Democrat. It’s indisputable that he has a better record when it comes to racial issues.

    • Avatar J C says:

      I think the point is that John Lewis did try to dispute it, and that meme got widely pushed. Then there’s the Washington Post and Time.

    • Avatar CTPatriot says:

      Right … all of whom played a role in a vicious smear campaign designed to keep blacks from voting for Sanders.

    • Avatar J C says:

      The problem remains that you said she stopped being a republican when she left home for college.

      And you are in error here. Acknowledge that first.

    • Avatar CTPatriot says:

      not true … see my post above.

    • Avatar CTPatriot says:

      Anyone who uses Bernie’s length of time as a member of the Democratic Party without recognizing that he has been more of a real traditional FDR Democrat his entire life regardless of label is someone whose motives are not in the interest of truth, but rather in the interest of electing Hillary.

      Hillary is just fine if you like incrementalism and the status quo. But please don’t insult our intelligence with some kind of party purity/loyalty test as a reason to choose Hillary. Personally, despite my being a registered Democrat, I don’t consider membership in the party as it stands today as a badge of honor. It has been overrun by corrupt DLC, New Democrats who have turned it into the left wing of the corporatist party.

      Bill Clinton helped found the DLC to get corporate money into the Democratic Party so they could financially compete with Republicans. And as we see, it became a race to the bottom. Want more of that? Vote Hillary – the power of “No We Can’t”

    • Avatar Zenber1 says:

      Oh geez she supported Goldwater when she was 16 Years old, So?? She later became what many Dems feared was too liberal to be a first lady.

  8. Avatar WindDancer says:

    Thank you for clarifying what is happening. I expect we will see a lot more of this muddying of the waters before we are done. I think there is a word for it…swiftboating.

    • Avatar CTPatriot says:

      Yep. And so very sad to see one Democrat doing it to another. It’s a big reason why I may not be able to stomach voting for Hillary if she wins the party’s nomination. Between her Rovian tactics and the DNC’s manipulations, I’ve come to hate my own party as much as I hate the Republicans.

  9. Avatar FThumb says:

    None dare call it Swiftboating.

    • Avatar StPete says:

      No. What we call Swiftboating is when a Democrat’s heroic military career is trashed by GOP draft dodgers.

    • Avatar FThumb says:

      Right. Completely different than trashing someone’s lifetime of work fighting for civil rights from someone who made poverty and incarceration worse for those most vulnerable while taking money from prison profiteers.

    • Avatar Topbrick says:

      I call it swift boating. Taking Bernie’s stellar record, turning it around and casting doubt as to its veracity? I think it’s safe to use the term. HRC has used quite a few Rovian tactics during this campaign.

  10. Avatar Samantha Blackmare says:

    She did her damage all right. You have to wonder how black voters feel getting used, once again, by the Clintons. Sad.

  11. Avatar Chere says:

    This is a beautiful article. I absolutely love it.

  12. Avatar J C says:

    I think the factor missed in this article is black churches in the south. They’re fairly conservative, not real friendly to things like gay marriage. And their members over 45 years old are real likely to vote.

    • Avatar russbaker says:

      Nope — this has nothing to do with those kinds of social issues. Those have not come up in the primary battles at all.

  13. Avatar Dowhat says:

    OLIGARCHY..sick of American politics!

    Middle class pays higher tax rates than millionaires.
    The U.S. arms industry has all but abandoned its traditional allies in the Republican party and is putting their money on Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, billionaire candidates are using money to keep their power or getting donations from the big corporations or billionaires. We will all pay far less if we cut WAISTFUL MILITALY spending and the billionaires have to pay their fair share of the money they are hiding in TAX HAVENS.
    Out of all the candidates, who do you expect the next president of the U.S. will be?

    The GOP tried to eliminate social security and are against a Single payer health care system and Unions, increasing our military budget needlessly. How about Clinton’s wall-street plan or Republican Plan for Economic Growth & Jobs (“TRIC”LE DOWN LIE)?
    If Hillary will be the president, I bet she will eventually flip-flop concerning the TPP to support their billionaire “friends” like she did before, like NAFTA. GOP and Clinton America will lead to many American people losing their jobs with unfair competition in the world (except for the managing class of the big global companies) or force wages so low that people will be like slaves without strong UNIONS.
    Also TRUMP is AGAINST the unions (middle class workers). →Trump: ‘I like right-to-work better’
    Also TRUMP did not want to raise the minimum wage until quite recently(Trump
    Flip-Flops After Bernie hits at Him for Saying Wages).

    Only America have no universal health care out of all the developed countries
    (how about other developed countries’ humanity and actions?). Each year 30 million Americans are in collection for medical debt. Compared to adults living in other developed countries, Americans are much likelier to struggle to pay their medical bills or to skip medical care altogether for financial reasons.
    The U.S. spends more on health care (both per capita and as a percentage of
    GDP) than any other developed country.→ Where is the money going? (Not
    mine!) Health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and, most of
    all, American hospitals are extremely OVERCHARGING patients.
    Politicians in this country are getting money from these industries and the “cartel” is working for them.GOP and Clinton didn’t say they wanted HEALTHCARE FOR ALL (without margin costs).

    Who wants to make someone DIE as a result of Medical Debt or Bankrupcy or
    because they can’t get treatment or necessary examinations in a hospital
    because of High Deductible health insurance? Many people are in these
    situations now, especially the middleclass. WHO LIKES THIS SITUATION?

    Bernie Sanders’ plan paying more in taxes would still be much CHEAPER than the CURRENT healthcare premiums(ACA). Bernie Sanders will cut out the huge
    profit margins collected by the healthcare providers.

    A big part of the reason why Clinton and the GOP(With the inhumane Mitch McConnell as head of the party) don’t want a Universal Health care system (Single payer health care for all): BIB
    –Wall Street expects these health-care stocks to rise up to 55% —MarketWatch
    –20 Healthcare stocks the richest hedge fund billionaires are buying and selling–Forbes
    –Billionaire Investors Are Betting on These Healthcare Stocks in Q4– Insidermonkey
    –Hillary Takes Millions in Campaign Cash From ‘Enemies’–USNews
    –170 Economists Endorse Bernie Sanders’ Plan To Reform Wall St. And Rein In Greed– PoliticusUSA

  14. Avatar Zach D says:

    Thank you for writing this article. The mainstream media is destroying American democracy.