ATLANTA (AP) — Campaigning in Martin Luther King Jr.’s hometown, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Monday sought to position himself as a political heir of the slain civil rights leader.
The Vermont senator said that while King is remembered mostly for his efforts on racial equality, he should be more fully understood as a “revolutionary” who spoke out against “the entire establishment” on matters from race relations to economic and foreign policy.
“The truth is he did much more than just fight segregation and racism,” Sanders told more than 5,000 supporters at the Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta.
Sanders continued with a lengthy history lesson seemingly aimed at both the black voters he must win over to catch Hillary Rodham Clinton and the younger, white voters who dominated the raucous Fox assembly.
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What King said, Sanders mused, “was that, of course, we have to end segregation at lunch counters and hotels and universities and schools. But he also said, ‘What difference does it make if a family can’t afford to send their kids to those schools or eat at that restaurant?'”
King, Sanders recalled, railed against the Vietnam War as an unjust battle fought by poor and working-class Americans, and he went to Memphis, where he was assassinated, to support striking sanitation workers.
“He talked about a nation that had socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor,” Sanders said.
Hours before the Fox rally, Sanders met privately with one of King’s children, Bernice King. The pair paid their respects at her parents’ tomb as passages of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech played in the courtyard of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
The 74-year-old senator attended King’s famous 1963 address and participated in the preceding march.
The Atlanta visit comes as Sanders attempts to cut into Clinton’s lead among African-American voters.
Always a key Democratic constituency, black voters will be even more important in the 2016 nominating contest because the early primary calendar is dominated by Southern states where blacks form the backbone of the Democratic electorate.
Sanders, whose home state of Vermont is 95 percent white, acknowledges that if nothing changes in the next three months, Clinton will dominate the South on her way to the nomination.
He’s launched radio ads in South Carolina, the first Southern primary, targeting black audiences. He’s started visiting black churches and held news conferences to celebrate endorsements from black civic leaders.
At the Fox, he was introduced by rapper and activist Killer Mike, an Atlanta native who also took him to eat at a well-known restaurant near the city’s historically black college campuses.
In recent months, Sanders has begun telling voters more about his work in the civil rights movement as a college student.
He blasts the status quo as particularly unfair to non-whites and offers his policy ideas — raising the minimum wage, making public colleges tuition-free, decriminalizing marijuana, ending the for-profit prison industry — as the counter.
Yet his approach Monday suggests he’s uncomfortable making one argument to African-Americans and another to everyone else.
King, Sanders explained, was at the time of his death planning another march on Washington, one for the poor.
“It was a march not just of African-Americans,” Sanders said near King’s grave, “but of Latinos, of whites, of all people in this country to march on Washington to demand fundamental changes in our national priorities.”
At the Fox, he continued, “What we need to do is to keep … fighting for what he called the beloved community, his vision for a world of justice and peace and equality for all humanity.”
Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .