Appearing before a racially mixed crowd of more than 4,800 people at Morehouse College, a historically black school, Sanders stretched out the section of his stump speech on criminal justice.
He decried the images on television of unarmed African Americans being shot. He said that police officers who break the law must be held accountable. He called for “demilitarizing” police departments. He spoke out against mandatory minimum sentences. And he advocated for getting rid of the death penalty.
Sanders also talked at some length about the water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., recounting his visit this week with a small group of residents from the majority-black city. Sanders said he was particularly troubled after hearing from a mother whose daughter’s school performance had fallen off, apparently from prolonged exposure to the water.
“That ain’t right,” an audience member yelled out.
“That is more than ‘That ain’t right,’ ” Sanders replied, saying it was “beyond comprehension” that government officials had been so slow to respond.
He also sought to make the case that if the United States can spend money to rebuild Iraq, “we damn well can rebuild Flint, Michigan.”
Chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” grew so loud that Sanders eventually raised his arms to silence the crowd.
Before Sanders spoke, the audience heard from a series of black supporters, including two state legislators who had previously backed Hillary Clinton.
The latest convert was Vincent Fort, the No. 2 Democrat in the Georgia Senate, who said he recently realized that Sanders’s positions on issues such as health care, Wall Street reform, predatory lending and raising the minimum wage were better for his constituents.
The Atlanta audience also heard from South Carolina state Rep. Justin T. Bamberg, who serves as a lawyer for the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist who was fatally shot in April by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C.
Bamberg, who also appeared with Sanders earlier in the day at a campaign stop in his state, drew some boos when he said he initially planned to back Clinton and wasn’t planning to give Sanders “the time of the day.”
But then “I started to open my eyes and open my ears,” Bamberg said.
Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, both of whom have been traveling the country on Sanders’s behalf, also addressed the crowd.
Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, said Sanders is the only candidate whose positions on social justice line up with those of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Turner called the 74-year-old senator “a drum major for justice.”
All this played well in the gym at Morehouse. The question going forward is whether the message will resonate far enough beyond the room in southern states where Clinton has had large leads in the polls, particularly among African Americans.
Tuesday night offered a preview of how Sanders will try to make that happen.