A team of documentary filmmakers made what may be a discovery of intense historical importance while working on a project looking at Chicago school protests through the decades. In extremely rare footage, they think they found a previously unknown recording of a very young Bernie Sanders getting roughly arrested while he staged a protest against school segregation in 1963.
It has been public knowledge that Sanders was arrested during his time at the University of Chicago for protesting racism during the Civil Rights Movement. However, for many of his critics, seeing is believing.
For reasons that remain baffling, many of Sanders’ critics – both on the right and on the left – have spent this election accusing the Democratic presidential candidate of insufficient sincerity when he speaks out against racism and discusses social justice issues. Salon channeled these criticisms in an unevenly cooked thinkpiece on Sanders:
Writing recently in Vox, Dara Lind pointed out Sanders’ near total blindness to black and Latino issues at his campaign’s opening, with almost nothing expressly addressing matters of racial justice to be found in speeches and campaign literature. Sanders is a white politician from the whitest state in the union, and his intense focus on economic populism sounds incomplete in the post-Ferguson moment. Sanders only recently infused his stump speech with matters of racial justice, and despite his rapid and surprising success, a recent NBC/WSJ poll found him to be what the New York Times called a “virtual unknown among black voters.” Sanders will certainly have to do more to gain the much-needed black vote once the campaign leaves the very white Iowa and New Hampshire.
But perhaps the reason why so many people seem to believe Sanders has a “total blindness to black and Latino issues” is because he isn’t always talking about them, but actually doing something about them – rare for a politician, I know. Being able to see Sanders, a very young man who wasn’t trying to pander for votes or win an election, get roughed up by Chicago police officers while fighting for racial justice in his school is a powerful moment. How many other candidates can say the same?
It should be noted that 1963 was a pretty scary time for civil rights activists. Protests would routinely end in violence, often at the hands of the police who were tasked with “keeping the peace.” From the footage above, we can see that the police weren’t exactly known for their light touch. Just one year after Sanders’ arrest, several white activists who traveled to Mississippi to organize voting rights protests were murdered in cold blood. For African-Americans it was even more dangerous. In the Jim Crow South, lynchings and organized terror campaigns by both vigilante groups like the KKK and state-endorsed cops were common. Standing up for what you believed in took an incredible amount of courage.
In Chicago, a supposedly “liberal” city in the North, things were still dominated by racism. At the time, segregated public schools had led to massively overpopulated and run down black schools. Rather than integrate, a racist CPS Superintendent named Benjamin Willis threw many black students into sweltering aluminum trailers and passed those metal boxes off as “classrooms.” Critics had another name: Willis Wagons.” It was among these Willis Wagon farms that Sanders was arrested.
If the definition of character is what you do when nobody is watching, then the critics of Sanders legacy of civil rights activism have very little ground to complain. Five decades ago Sanders was just a university student who saw injustice and decided to fight against it.
Feature image via Vimeo