Columnist: Sanders in the South — Disco inferno comes to Dixie

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 26, 2016

By John A. Tures

Contributing columnist

Sen. Bernie Sanders came to Birmingham, Alabama, for an MLK Day Celebration. It’s the kind of event he needs to have, if he is to overtake Hillary Clinton for the front-runner status for the nomination.

The raucous event began with The Trammps’s song “Disco Inferno,” featuring the lines “Burn Baby Burn,” no doubt a reference to Sanders supporters who say they want to “Feel the Bern.” A video of media appearances for the candidate blared from the screens at the crowded event, where every seat was taken and the arena floor was packed.

Dr. Cornel West fired up the crowd, pointing out that while Hillary Clinton claimed to have met MLK in 1962, she campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964. He called Donald Trump a multibillionaire pseudo-populist with an authoritarian streak. Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner followed with her “I know a man” speech, who would tell the rich “they can’t have it all,” and quoted MLK as saying there is socialism for the wealthy and “rugged individualism” for the poor.

When Sanders took the stage, he greeted the wild reception he received from the audience by saying “I thought Alabama was a conservative state.” He did talk about how well he was doing in the polls and in fundraising, which caused the speech to lose some momentum. But he regained it by pivoting to the issues. His focus on how he would raise funds — with individual contributions instead of SuperPACs — won the audience back again.

Sanders even pointed the finger at some of the wealthiest in America, calling them “welfare cheats” because they pay their workers so little. That forces their workers to seek government assistance, Sanders claims.

On the subject of MLK, Sanders claimed that the media treats him like a piece of history to be put up on a museum shelf. “But we must carry out his radical and bold vision for America,” the Vermont senator argued.

Perhaps the most jarring point in the evening occurred when a woman collapsed. Sanders halted his speech for about 15 minutes just as he was getting to the crux of his speech, called for medical attention, and the crowd quieted until the person could be treated.

“This brings me to my next point … health care,” he said to laughs from the audience. His speech focused on how America is rich enough in resources to employ the safety net that developed European countries provide their people, especially in minimum wage, college affordability and family leave.

The audience seemed pretty excited. I have never seen so many homemade signs at a campaign rally. Most were enthused by the speech, but wondered if he could really win. Barry Nelson, a Vietnam Veteran who worked for Organizing for America, said he met Sanders two years ago at a meeting when the Vermont Senator was considering running for president.

“He can win,” Nelson told me. “People forget that Obama won in 2008 when few people gave him a chance.”

It’s easy to conclude that the event was pointless. Why was Sanders even in Alabama? But there was more to the speech than meets the eye. In a possibly low turnout election like Alabama’s Democratic Party nomination battle, the partisans will matter more. He may not have time on Super Tuesday to hit every state, so he needed that event. And it sends a message everywhere else in America that Sanders will campaign everywhere, and not just the safe states and early caucus and primary locations.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College. He may be reached at