NEW ORLEANS — Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders made his first major outreach to the African American community this weekend in Louisiana, courting civil rights leaders, sitting in the front row at a black church and invoking the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Though the senator from Vermont was warmly received by black voters as he decried income inequality and lingering racism in the United States, the visit also underscored one of the challenges Sanders faces in his bid for the Democratic nomination: His biggest event of the weekend, a raucous 4,500-person rally, drew a predominantly white crowd in a state that is more than one-third black.
Sanders, who represents a state that is 95 percent white, has never needed to court black voters to win an election. But his involvement in the civil rights movement dates to the 1960s, when he attended the March on Washington and was arrested while protesting school segregation. Those were among the points he emphasized in Baton Rouge on Saturday night as he wooed leaders of one of the country’s oldest civil rights organizations.
Sanders also lamented the high rate of unemployment among young African Americans and the money spent by the U.S. government on a prison population that is disproportionately black.
“To my mind, it makes eminently more sense to invest in jobs and education, rather than jails and incarceration,” the self-described democratic socialist told leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “That is an issue that we have in common, do we not?”
He was met with responses of “Yes” and “That’s right.”
“The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” said Charles Steele Jr., president of the SCLC. “He is having a conversation with us, and he’s saying the right things.”
Steele said Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton is far better known by African Americans, and is well respected. But he said Sanders’s emphasis on addressing income inequality will resonate with black voters, and he credited Sanders for being the only major candidate to accept an invitation to address his group, whose first president was King.
Most voters in the nation’s earliest nominating states — Iowa and New Hampshire — are white. But African Americans will be a key segment of the Democratic primary vote after those contests, starting with South Carolina, just as they were an important part of President Obama’s primary and general-election victories.
Sanders’s visit to Louisiana comes a week after an awkward encounter at the liberal Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, where both he and fellow Democratic hopeful Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland, were heckled by protesters aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement.
To many in that audience, Sanders seemed dismissive, even offering to leave the stage at one point.
This weekend, the senator was far more focused. In his speech Saturday night to the SCLC, Sanders quoted King when discussing the dual challenges of racism and economic inequality. He reiterated the point on a Sunday talk show.
“They’re parallel problems,” Sanders said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, acknowledged that “Bernie is not well known in minority communities” but also said there is plenty of time to address that: “It’s just a question of introducing him to people.”
In coming weeks, Sanders has stops planned in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina, all states with sizable populations of black Democrats. Sanders is also planning to meet soon with leaders of Black Lives Matter.
In Louisiana, Sanders came armed with a bevy of statistics about black Americans and a handful of policy pronouncements. He called for the “demilitarization” of police forces, widespread use of body cameras, an end to privately run prisons and an effort to address the “overincarceration” of nonviolent offenders.
Brenda Davenport, who traveled from Atlanta to Saturday’s SCLC gathering, said she thinks Sanders has an opportunity to connect with black voters by talking about issues important to them.
At the same time, she said, he clearly has a long way to go. At campaign rallies, Sanders is “filling up places with thousands and thousands of people,” Davenport said, but those crowds are virtually all white.
There appeared to be more African Americans at the rally Sunday night at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, than at Sanders’s previous rallies in places such as Portland, Maine; Madison, Wis.; and Phoenix. Still, a scan of the audience suggested that blacks accounted for no more than 1 in 20 attendees.
Aides said Sunday’s rally was originally scheduled for downtown New Orleans, where it might have drawn more African Americans. It was moved to accommodate a larger crowd.
Sanders delivered a mostly familiar speech at the rally, railing against the political influence and greed of “the billionaire class.” He pledged to level the playing field for working-class families by offering free tuition at public colleges and universities and making health care a right for all.
The Democrat also weighed in on the roiling national debate about law enforcement issues, citing the case of Sandra Bland, an African American woman who was “dragged out of her car” after a routine traffic stop outside Houston. The way police treated her, he said, is evidence that “we need some serious change in criminal justice in this country.”