Bernie Sanders and Black Charleston

Each city has its unique challenges, political culture, and history that candidates must be aware of and adapt to in order to become successful in these respective areas.

Charleston, South Carolina, with its prominence in racial issues in recent headlines and its past, is no exception. While Mr. Sanders has minimal chances of winning the allegiance of the vast majority of white residents of this city aside from the minority of far left elements due to the tendency of most local whites toward either conservative or mainstream Democratic politics, there are certain factors that Mr. Sanders must also consider if he is to win the allegiance of the city’s black voters.

The Factor of History

Charleston’s black history runs deeper than that of most American cities. The first Africans arrived here in 1670 aboard the ship “Three Brothers” along with Captain Nathaniel Sayle, which, according to historian Peter Wood in his book ‘Black Majority,” began a process that led to the black population actually outnumbering the whites in this area from the 1700s to the Great Migration to Northern cities in the 1920s. This surplus was due to the demand for slave labor in the local rice fields. There were two important results of this population dominance; the black population in Charleston maintained more of their African speech patterns and cultural practices than almost any other black community in America in what is called the Gullah culture (alternately called Geechee) whose names are said to be inspired by the Gola and Gizze tribes of Sierra Leone and Liberia of which most Charleston blacks are descended. This community, which has traditionally consisted mostly of the city’s black poor and working classes, faces problems of displacement and cultural issues typical of indigenous populations that will be discussed later in this essay. Another result of the dominance in population was the greater risk of slave rebellions. The best known of these were the attempted rebellion by Denmark Vesey and his followers in 1822, and the Stono Ferry rebellion of 1739. Each of these resulted in the execution of its plotters and greater restrictions upon the black population.

During Reconstruction, the black community temporarily prospered in the rise of black political power, as African Americans served as Lieutenant Governors, college professors, city councilmen, policemen, and other prominent positions. With the fall of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow laws and disfranchisement at the close of the 1800s, a sense of bitterness and futility settled in, but occasional advancements took place. Among these was the 1898 meeting against lynching at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the rise of black schools and local businesses, and armed resistance during the 1919 race riots. Unfortunately, the best and brightest of the black population was led by the lack of opportunities to migrate to cities such as New York City, Washington DC, and Philadelphia, while the local masses remained largely stagnant.

However, in the 1950s and 60s, local leaders such as businessman Esau Jenkins, educator Septima Clark, mortician Herbert Fielding, and several others led the local civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King occasionally visited these leaders and spoke in this city, inspiring considerable change in regard to segregation and political restrictions, reaching its peak during a hospital strike of black workers in 1969. Local radio station WPAL also mixed programs of political information with Soul and Gospel music. However, with the deaths of these leaders and the fall of WPAL by the beginning of the millennium, apathy and despair again set in. While the city of Charleston prospered under its leadership, a major side effect was the gentrification of Charleston and the displacement of its poor black population and the decline of its traditionally black schools.

The Walter Scott and Mother Emanuel killings

Two events in the first half of 2015 brought national attention to the problems of black Charlestonians. The North Charleston police department was infamous in its reputation in dealing with its black citizens. Many blacks have complained of frequent stops by the police of that section, and it was not uncommon for local blacks to warn others about driving or walking in North Charleston. On April 4, 2015, 50 year old Walter Scott ran from Officer Michael Slager at the Advance Auto Supplies Store on Remount Road and Craig Streets in North Charleston during a traffic arrest. Scott was then allegedly shot eight times in the back to death by Officer Slager while Scott was running away. Slager was arrested for his actions after a local individual filmed the incident, which was then broadcast on television and social media. While it may be said that the arrest of Officer Slager prevented possible rioting that plagued other cities where such shootings have occurred, there were still angry protests that received far less attention from the mainstream media than the peaceful demonstrations, and when the Charleston Post and Courier attempted to interview North Charleston residents about complaints regarding local law enforcement, many refused to be quoted out of fear.

Two months later on June 17, nine local blacks including the church’s pastor were killed during a Bible Study at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. Again, the suspect was arrested. The international media focused on peaceful and harmonious demonstrations between the city’s racial and ethnic groups, but angrier nonviolent protests by more militant groups were again largely ignored.

The Role of Bernie Sanders

Sanders was scheduled to attend a rally in Charleston in June that was arranged before the Mother Emanuel shootings, but he cancelled this rally out of respect for the shooting victims. As it stands, while he is liked among the small community of black intellectuals and those who are not fond of the current Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton, he is not widely known among the black masses. While this was also true of current president Barack Obama in the early years of his campaign, President Obama had the advantage of inspiring racial pride among many blacks with his polished oratory and charisma.

While Bernie Sanders’ ideas tend to appeal to the small black intelligentsia, many politically active blacks remain supporters of the traditional Democratic Party and of Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately, many blacks in South Carolina are politically apathetic nonvoters (aside from being motivated to vote for President Obama in the last two presidential elections), and large numbers of men are disfranchised due to the felony restrictions put in place by the South Carolina “Jim Crow” Constitution of 1895, which remains in effect and continues in its original intention of reducing black voting power.

There is also the concern of the heckling by Sanders from two members of Black Lives Matter (a youth organization that grained prominence after a series of high profile killings of black youth by whites and policemen). While Black Lives Matter is still small in numbers on a national level as of this writing and their future remains to be seen, they are presently growing in influence and media attention, due largely to the lack of a coherent agenda of prominent traditional black leadership. As an emerging leader of the American left, Sanders would do well to engage in dialogue with its leadership.

While Sanders has recently published a position paper on race that covers such issues as police violence, disfranchisement, poor education, mass incarceration, affordable child care, and college costs, it needs additional input by black community members as well as the intelligentsia. The issue of gentrification and displacement, central to that of many blacks, needs to be covered, as well as the unique problems faced by rural blacks, who are ignored in policy discussions despite their large numbers (this is particularly true along South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame,”-a poverty stricken black belt along Interstate 95 that was featured in the early days of the Obama campaign, but seldom heard from again, as well as the Mississippi Delta and the agrarian regions of other Southern states) must also be addressed.

Sanders must also make use of black media to reach out to this community. Appearances on radio programs with large black audiences such as Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, and D.L. Hughley who are nationally syndicated are a must, along with black magazines as Ebony and Essence. Some inroads may also be considered among celebrities and music artists as well as ads in black newspapers. But while he is in Charleston, he would do well to travel throughout the black communities and listen to the common, everyday people to learn of their problems firsthand and unfiltered by officials and maintain contact and a relationship with these individuals if he is to succeed in preparing programs to gain the allegiance of the people.

Damon L. Fordham is a Charleston based author and historian.

9 Replies to “Bernie Sanders and Black Charleston”

  1. I am getting sick and tired of hearing the argument that Bernie Sanders is the best person for BlackLivesMatter to protest, because he must be constantly reminded that his 50 year history of fighting for civil rights does not mean he is “entitled to the black vote.” – Or even worse, that he deserves to be interrupted because the fact that he is the most liberal candidate means that he is the most easily moved or persuaded.
    I am sure the Anti-Vietnam-War protesters in 1968 thought the same way when they decided to disrupt the Democratic National Convention rather than disrupt the GOP convention, and so made news and headlines all over the country as they broke up Democrats’ speeches and clashed with police.
    The result? Nixon won – by a LOT, and the war dragged on for another 6 years.Thanks for that!!

    1. As the author of the above article, I have to say that nowhere did I advocate the heckilng of Mr. Sanders. I called for constructive means for him to engage black voters. In fact , after this article was

      1. Hi Damon, while I appreciate your position, I must stand by my basic point that Bernie Sanders should be getting much more support from the black community. Hillary is getting a total pass, and yet she was an ardent and vocal supporter of the policies of her husband that led to the destruction of black families and mass incarceration of black youth.

        This is your current standard-bearer:

        “We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. The ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets.” – Hillary Clinton, 1994.

        If ANYONE needs to be “held accountable for her actions” (as the BLM protesters shouted in Seattle) it is Hillary Clinton.

        1. First of all, I’ve already made my position clear on Mr. Sanders and the black community both in Charleston SC and the rest of America, so this is “preaching to the choir,” so to speak. In spite of the fact that he has black staffers (some who I have met during the discussion I described in my initial response), there is an information gap here. Mr. Sanders is not that well known among the larger black community as I have indicated here and this was a part of our discussion.
          Keep in mind that it was two activists that protested Mr. Sanders, not 100% the 40+ million blacks of America. As for BLM, while many of the members of the local organization are friends of mine, there is also a variety of opinion about them among black Americans. Additionally, there are many blacks who did not and do not go along with Mrs. Clinton and are familiar with her husbands’ stands. After all, most black voters largely deserted her for President Obama in 2008, and while she remains popular with the segment of African Americans who are loyalists to the mainstream Democratic Party, that does not translate into “giving her a pass.” There are many blacks who are not on Mrs. Clinton’s bandwagon and are aware of her husband’s actions of which you speak. She is not our “standard bearer,” as no one person can fit such a mantle since we as a people are not as monolithic in our beliefs as many tend to believe. No sensible person would think that any one candidate or belief system would be the “standard bearer” for white Americans. Why should there be such a thing for us among black Americans?
          Many of the political pundits who promote such ideas tend to have little contact, experience, or understanding of the diversity of opinion that exists inwardly among black Americans, ranging from very conservative (yes, many exist outside of Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas), religious fundamentalists, mainstream Democrats, Black Lives Matter and their supporters, and hardcore black nationalists who are scarcely known to mainstream media and those outside of their circle.

      2. “I called for constructive means for him to engage black voters.”

        Maybe black voters need to find more constructive ways to engage him. Or the rest of the nation.

  2. Mr. Fordham,

    Thank you for this important history of Charleston. As a recent Cal-State graduate, I was required to take courses in US History and have a new interest in who we are as a people and how we got to where we are now. I am a supporter of Senator Sanders’ candidacy and for the first time am finding myself becoming politically active.

    Your point is well taken that Senator Sanders would do well to begin to appear on radio programs with large black audiences along with interviews in black magazines such as Ebony and Essence. His supporters are forming grassroots organizations in every city and county across America and I’m certain that there is a dedicated group in Charleston who will welcome and benefit from reading your ideas. As you well know, this candidacy is in its infancy and is very much a people’s campaign on the issues rather than a promotion of one individual’s personality. The senator is in a unique position to rally together this growing movement by virtue of his innate honesty and integrity and his long record of standing up to power on behalf of the powerless.

    Senator Sanders does still have a lot of work to do reaching out to the Black community through both large venues and small. Here are some of the efforts he has made over the past few months:

    Here is a small community meeting he had in Sumpter, South Carolina this past week, 8/23

    Here he is on August 6 at the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act at a rally hosted by leading civil rights organizations:

    And here he is on July22, outside of the U.S. Capitol in support of legislation he introduced to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour:

    I point these out to you and to the readers of this forum because due to the complete dearth of coverage of the Senator in the mainstream media, many people are unaware of the richness of his activities and involvements.

    In closing, I would like to introduce you to one of the Senator’s younger enthusiastic supporters who agrees with you about the need to reach out to local Black communities:



    1. Greetings Ms. Finnegan. As mentioned in an earlier reply, I met with Mr. Sanders along with Charleston Chapter of BLM and several other locals a couple of days after this article was written to discuss these concerns. I think that between that meeting and what you have shown me in the above video, I think he is getting the message. His young staff secretary and advance speaker Symone Sanders (no relation) was also present at that meeting and she really impressed me as someone who is enlightening him on what needs to be done.
      Even if he does not win the Democratic nomination, he could be a major figure in helping the Democratic party enact some Progressive policies that would truly benefit the masses of Americans.
      Incidentally, I have written three books on South Carolina’s African American history and have a you tube channel on the subject of black history in general. Feel free to view it under the name Themaddprof on you tube or just google my name in the search engine. I hope you find it informative and thank you for your reply.

      1. Thank you! I will definitely search for those. One of my favorite experiences of becoming a supporter of Senator Sanders over this past summer has been learning about and connecting with so many fascinating people involved, both those who are questioning about this growing coalition and those who have made it their own. As a to-the-core skeptic, myself, I need to question constantly all aspects and learn as much as I can. I fully believe that this is not about electing one person into an available slot in the national government, but a nascent movement of the people of this country to take back our government, enact more humane laws and policies for our citizens, and begin in earnest the changes needed to try to save our ailing planet.


        Patricia Finnegan

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