On Wednesday at an MLK event, Sanders said that Barack Obama’s charisma obscured Democratic failures over the last decade — a critique that ignited a sharp rebuke from black Democrats who say he hasn’t learned the lessons of 2016. There’s a lot more to the story from the last three years.
On the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Bernie Sanders was in Jackson, Mississippi, to talk about economic justice. It was here, in a state with the highest percentage of black residents in the country, where Sanders registered one of the worst performances of his presidential campaign, losing all 82 counties, by a total of 66 points.
Two years later, on Wednesday night, there were cheers of “Feel the Bern!” in the hall as Sanders and the city’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, discussed King’s legacy.
But midway through the event in downtown Jackson, an uncertain silence fell over the audience.
“The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure,” Sanders started, responding to a question about the young voters who supported his campaign. “People sometimes don’t see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama, who won the presidency in 2008 and 2012.
“He was obviously an extraordinary candidate, brilliant guy. But behind that reality, over the last 10 years, Democrats have lost about 1,000 seats in state legislatures all across this country.”
It’s a criticism of President Obama’s tenure that Sanders and plenty of others have made before. But the time and place for the remark — 50 years to the day after King’s assassination, at an event to discuss that legacy — quickly shook loose old frustrations among Democrats who watched the senator struggle in 2016 to connect with black voters and speak to issues of racial justice.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ longtime top strategist, said that people were misreading the senator’s comment. “What Bernie was doing last night was praising the power and significance of the Barack Obama presidency, while at the same time pointing out that the national Democratic Party has had a lot of failures over the last 15 years, as evidenced by our loss of state legislative and congressional seats.”
“One is not the cause of the other,” Weaver said.
An Obama spokesperson declined to comment. But privately, former Obama lieutenants and other Democrats knocked the timing of Sanders’ criticism, considering his words on the Democratic Party a criticism of Obama’s own leadership. One texted that Sanders’ words were “dumb as hell.”
“Bernie’s comments were tone-deaf and will not help him with communities of color, especially black folks,” said Joshua DuBois, a strategist who led Obama’s faith-based initiative. “On that hallowed day, our focus should’ve been on the transformative legacy of Dr. King and how we can come together to continue King’s fight against systemic racism and injustice — not attacking the legacy of the first black president, who fought against many of the same things Dr. King fought.”
Bakari Sellers, a South Carolina Democrat who emphatically supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, told BuzzFeed News that he and black Democrats have had patience with Sanders as he’s sought to better understand the role that race plays in the United States, even as Democrats have pushed Sanders to not just rely on the narrative that he marched with King in the 1960s.
To Sellers, anyway, Sanders’ time is up.