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Remarks by Senator Sanders at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Sanders calls on the nation to ". . . simultaneously address the structural and institutional racism which exists in this country, while at the same time we vigorously attack the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality which is making the very rich much richer while everyone else – especially the African-American community and working-class whites – are becoming poorer."

Thank you for inviting me to be with you tonight. Thank you for the work you continue to do as leaders in civil rights. You have always been a voice for the voiceless and champions for social justice.

Your courageous history dates back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott when one person, Rosa Parks, by the simple act of sitting down at the front of the bus, inspired a whole community to stand up and bring the transportation system in Montgomery to its knees, to capture the imagination of the nation and to cause what my friend John Lewis calls “a nonviolent revolution.”

You knew then, what the American people are beginning to remember now – that real change takes place when millions of people stand up and say “enough is enough,” and when we create a political revolution from the ground up. That is what the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has always been about. That is what is beginning to happen today. The American people are sick and tired with establishment politics, with establishment economics and with establishment media. They’re sick of being told that they don’t matter. They fully understand that corporate greed is destroying our economy, that American politics is now dominated by a handful of billionaires and that much of the corporate media is prepared to discuss everything except the most important issues facing our country.

I realize that many of you don’t know me very well. So let me take a moment to let you know a little bit about my background. I was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981-1989, Vermont’s lone congressman from 1990-2006 and a U.S. senator from Vermont from 2007 until today.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a penny in his pocket and without much of an education. My mother graduated from high school in New York City. My father worked for almost his entire life as a paint salesman and we lived with my brother in a small rent-controlled apartment. My mother’s dream was to move out of that three-room apartment into a home of our own. She died young and her dream was never fulfilled. As a kid I learned what lack of money means to a family, a lesson I have never forgotten.

​When I was a young college student, I came to Washington, D.C., to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I heard this organization’s first president, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., deliver his famous speech, and he inspired me, just as he inspired a whole generation – black and white – to get involved in the civil rights movement. In Chicago, I worked for housing desegregation and was arrested protesting public school segregation. During that time I was active in what was a sister-organization to the SCLC, the Congress of Racial Equality of CORE, which was headed up by the late James Farmer.

Since I have been an elected official, I have used my influence to stand with those who have no power, and to take on virtually every element of our current ruling class – from Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies to Big Energy, to the Koch Brothers to the Military Industrial Complex. That’s what I do.

The decision to run for president was a very difficult one for me and my family. I love my job as Vermont’s senator and love spending time in Vermont with my four kids and seven beautiful grandchildren – something, needless to say, that I am less able to do today.

My family and I decided that I should run for president because the reality is that this country today faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression and, if you include the planetary crisis of climate change, it may well be that the challenges we face now are more dire than any time in our modern history. And to address these crises we need leadership that is prepared to rally the American people, to create the political revolution that this country desperately needs, to take on the wealthy special interests that wield so much power.

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Let me take this opportunity to quote from an excellent article by the columnist Eugene Robinson which appeared in the Washington Post. Here are some excerpts from that article:

As we celebrate King’s great achievement and sacrifice, it is wrong to round off the sharp edges of his legacy. He saw inequality as a fundamental and tragic flaw in this society, and he made clear in the weeks leading up to his assassination that economic issues were becoming the central focus of his advocacy.

Nearly five decades later, King’s words on the subject still ring true. On March 10, 1968, just weeks before his death, he spoke to a union group in New York about what he called “the other America.” He was preparing to launch a Poor People’s Campaign whose premise was that issues of jobs and issues of justice were inextricably intertwined.

“One America is flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” King said. “That America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. . . . But as we assemble here tonight, I’m sure that each of us is painfully aware of the fact that there is another America, and that other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

Those who lived in the other America, King said, were plagued by “inadequate, substandard and often dilapidated housing conditions,” by “substandard, inferior, quality-less schools,” by having to choose between unemployment and low-wage jobs that didn’t even pay enough to put food on the table.

The problem was structural, King said: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”

Eight days later, speaking in Memphis, King continued the theme. “Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day?” he asked striking sanitation workers. “And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”

King explained the shift in his focus: “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

But what King saw in 1968 — and what we all should recognize today — is that it is useless to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of inequality. He was planning a poor people’s march on Washington that would include not only African-Americans but also Latinos, Native Americans and poor Appalachian whites. He envisioned a rainbow of the dispossessed, assembled to demand not just an end to discrimination but a change in the way the economy doles out its spoils.”

And that is the theme that I wish to pursue this evening. The need to simultaneously address the structural and institutional racism which exists in this country, while at the same time we vigorously attack the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality which is making the very rich much richer while everyone else – especially the African-American community and working-class whites – are becoming poorer.

Let’s go to an issue that is rightly on everyone’s mind, the continuing struggle for racial justice in America and the need to combat structural racism. Let’s start with the facts. The horrible facts.

  • If current trends continue, one in four black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime. This is an unspeakable tragedy.
  • Blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites.
  • People of color are incarcerated, policed and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.
  • One in every 15 African-American men is incarcerated, compared to one in every 106 white men.
  • A report by the Department of Justice found that blacks were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, compared to white motorists.
  • African-Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.
  • African-Americans make up two-fifths of confined youth today.
  • African-American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
  • Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences (10 percent longer) than white offenders for the same crimes.
  • Thirteen percent of Africa-American men have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions.

But as bad as those statistics are, and they are indeed a tragedy, the situation for many people of color is worse yet.

Too many African-Americans today are simultaneously having to deal the crisis of racial justice while coping with the effects of poverty and economic deprivation, such as drugs, crime, and despair.

Of course the majority of people of color are trying to work hard, play by the rules and raise their children. But there are neighborhoods where mothers are afraid to let their children outside for fear of gang violence and drugs. And they are also afraid of their children being targeted by the police because of the color of their skin. No person should have to worry that a routine interaction with law enforcement will end in violence or death.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., said; Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.

Across the nation, too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals. A growing number of communities do not trust the police and police have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect.

Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice. We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody. The chants are growing louder. People are angry. I am angry. And people have a right to be angry. Violence and brutality of any kind, particularly at the hands of law enforcement sworn to protect and serve our communities, is unacceptable and must not be tolerated.

We must reform our criminal justice system. Black lives do matter. And we must value black lives.

We must move away from the militarization of police forces. We must invest in community policing. Only when we get officers into the communities, working within the neighborhoods before trouble arises, do we really develop the relationships necessary to make our communities safer.

We need a federal initiative to completely redo how we train police officers in this country and give them body cameras. States and localities that make progress in this area should get more federal justice grant money. Those that do not should get their funding slashed. The measure of success for law enforcement should not be how many people get locked up.

For people who have committed crimes that have landed them in jail, there needs to be a path back from prison. The federal system of parole needs to be reinstated. We need real education and real skills training for the incarcerated.

We must end the over incarceration of non-violent young Americans who do not pose a serious threat to our society. It is an international embarrassment that we have more people locked up in jail than any other country on earth – more than even the Communist totalitarian state of China. That has got to end.

The war on drugs has been a failure and has ruined the lives of too many people. African-Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. From 1980 to 2007, about one in three adults arrested for drugs was African-American.

It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy. This must change.

We need to end prisons for profit, which result in an over-incentive to arrest, jail and detain, in order to keep prison beds full. We need to invest in drug courts and medical and mental health interventions for people with substance abuse problems, so that they do not end up in prison, they end up in treatment.

But we have to go beyond just violence perpetuated by the state. As we saw so horribly in South Carolina, there are still those who seek to terrorize the African American community with violence and intimidation. We need to make sure the federal resources are there to crack down on the illegal activities of hate groups. We need a new social movement to let all the racist haters out there know that they will no longer be accepted in a civilized society.

In addition to the physical violence faced by too many in our country we need look at the lives of black children and address a few other difficult facts. Black children, who make up just 18 percent of preschoolers, account for 48 percent of all out-of-school suspensions before kindergarten. We are failing our black children before kindergarten! Black students were expelled at three times the rate of white students. Black girls were suspended at higher rates than all other girls and most boys. According to the Department of Education, African American students are more likely to suffer harsh punishments – suspensions and arrests – at school.

We need to take a hard look at education system. Black students attended schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers, compared with white students. Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.

We must get into our schools and keep kids in school. We must ensure that children graduate from high school and don’t drop out. This is a complicated problem and I’m not going to stand here and say I have all the answers.

But one thing that will help kids stay in school is if they have a belief that they will be able to get a college education. For too many families college seems like an impossibility. We have got to change that. We need to give our children, regardless of their race or their income, a fair shot at attending college. That’s why I support making all public universities tuition free.

Communities of color also face the violence of economic deprivation. Let’s be frank: neighborhoods like those in west Baltimore, where Freddie Gray resided, suffer the most. However, the problem of economic immobility isn’t just a problem for young men like Freddie Gray. It has become a problem for millions of Americans who, despite hard-work and the will to get ahead, can spend their entire lives struggling to survive on the economic treadmill.

We live at a time when most Americans don’t have $10,000 in savings, and millions of working adults have no idea how they will ever retire in dignity. God forbid, they are confronted with an unforeseen car accident, a medical emergency, or the loss of a job. It would literally send their lives into an economic tailspin. And the problems are even more serious when we consider race.

Most black and Latino households have less than $350 in savings. The black unemployment rate has remained roughly twice as high as the white rate over the last 40 years, regardless of education. This is unacceptable. The American people in general, want change – they want a better deal. A fairer deal. A new deal. They want an America with laws and policies that truly reward hard work with economic mobility. They want an America that affords all of its citizens with the economic security to take risks and the opportunity to realize their full potential.

Income and Wealth Inequality

Today, we live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but that reality means little because almost all of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals.

There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent. There is something profoundly wrong when we have a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the same time as millions of Americans work longer hours for lower wages and we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth. There is something profoundly wrong when one family owns more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans. This grotesque level of inequality is immoral. It is bad economics. It is unsustainable. That is why we need a tax system that is fair and progressive, which makes wealthy individuals and profitable corporations begin to pay their fair share of taxes. This type of rigged economy is not what America is supposed to be about. This has got to change and, together we will change it.

We need to send a message to the billionaire class: “You can’t have it all. You can’t get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry. You can’t continue sending our jobs to China while millions are looking for work. You can’t hide your profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, while there are massive unmet needs on every corner of this nation. Your greed has got to end. You cannot take advantage of all the benefits of America, if you refuse to accept your responsibilities as Americans.”


But it is not just income and wealth inequality. It is the tragic reality that for the last 40 years the great middle class of our country – once the envy of the world – has been disappearing. Despite exploding technology and increased worker productivity, median family income is almost $5,000 less than it was in 1999. Throughout this country it is not uncommon for people to be working two or three jobs just to cobble together enough income and some health care benefits to survive.

​The truth is that real unemployment is not the 5.5 percent you read in newspapers. It is close to 11 percent if you include those workers who have given up looking for jobs or who are working part-time when they want to work full-time. And here is something we don’t hear much about. According to a recent analysis of Census Bureau data by the Economic Policy Institute, real youth unemployment in this country has reached crisis proportions. If you include those who are not working, who have given up looking for work or who are working part-time, white high school graduates aged 17-20 have an unemployment rate of 33 percent, Hispanics in the same age group have an unemployment rate of 36 percent while black youth have an unemployment rate of 51 percent. Today, shamefully, we have 45 million people living in poverty, many of whom are working at low-wage jobs.

Raising Wages and Benefits

Let us be honest and acknowledge that millions of Americans are now working for totally inadequate wages. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised. The minimum wage must become a living wage – which means raising it to $15 an hour over the next few years. The benchmark of full time work in America should be simple and concrete – that no full-time worker should live in poverty.

​And a living wage should not only be fair, it should be equitable. That is why we must establish pay equity for women workers by law. It’s unconscionable that women earn 78 cents on the dollar compared to men who perform the same work. We must also end the scandal in which millions of American employees, often earning less than $30,000 a year, work 50 or 60 hours a week – and earn no overtime.

Further, the United States must end the international embarrassment of being the only major country on earth, the only one, which does not guarantee workers paid medical and family leave, paid sick time and paid vacation time. Last place is no place for America. That is why I will fight for 12 weeks of paid family leave, at least 10 days of paid vacation time and seven days of paid sick time. My Republican colleagues talk a lot about “family values.” Well, let me be very clear. It is not a family value to force the mother of a new born baby to go back to work a few days after she gives birth, because she doesn’t have the money to stay home and bond with her baby. That is not a family value. That is an insult to everything that I know about what family is about.

Today, as a result of the collapse of our middle class and declining wages, the American people are working longer hours than the people of any other country – 137 hours a year more than the Japanese, 260 more hours per year than the British and 499 hours a year more than the French. Well, 100 years later we still have not achieved that. Incredibly, today, 85 percent of working men and 66 percent of working women work more than 40 hours a week. And do you know what? Many workers in this country get no or very little paid vacation time. That has got to end.

Protecting Our Most Vulnerable

At a time when millions of Americans are struggling to keep their heads above water economically, at a time when senior poverty is increasing, at a time when millions of kids are living in dire poverty my Republican colleagues are trying to make a terrible situation even worse. If you can believe it, the Republican budget throws 27 million Americans off health insurance, makes drastic cuts in Medicare, throws millions of low income Americans, including pregnant women off nutrition programs, and makes it harder for working-class families to afford college or put their kids into Head Start. And then, to add insult to injury, they provide huge tax breaks for the very, very wealthiest families in this country while they raise taxes on working families.

Well, let me tell my Republican colleagues that I respectfully disagree with their approach. Instead of cutting Social Security, we need to expand Social Security benefits. Instead of cutting Head Start and childcare, we need to move to a universal pre-k system for all the children of this country. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded us: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” And that is a test that we as a nation must once again meet and master.

We need to make health care a basic right in our society.

We need to make sure every parent has quality affordable child care and where all of our qualified young people, regardless of income, can go to college, by making a 4-year education at every public college and university in this country free. If Germany, Sweden and Denmark can afford to do this, then so can we.

We need to invest in jobs and job training, rather than to be building more and more jails and to be locking up more and more people. That is why I have submitted legislation to spend $5.5 billion dollars to fund job-training programs for inner city youth. Instead of building more and more prisons, we need to be building more and more meaningful lives where young people can have a future, not be stuck in a dead end with no hope or opportunity.

If we are serious about reversing the decline of the middle class we need a major federal jobs program that puts millions of Americans back to work at decent paying jobs. At a time when our roads, bridges, water systems, rail and airports are decaying, the most effective way to rapidly create meaningful jobs is to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. That’s why I’ve introduced legislation that would invest $1 trillion over 5 years to modernize our country’s physical infrastructure. This legislation would create and maintain at least 13 million good-paying jobs, while making our country more productive, efficient and safe. And I commit to you that as president, I will lead that legislation into law.

This is an ambitious program that would lift millions of families out of poverty and provide a pathway to greater economic security for all Americans. The right to a college education, the right to health care, and a guaranteed right to employment. It will not heal all wounds or relieve all tensions, but it would go beyond anything we have tried before, and it would send a clear signal that black lives matter.

Citizens United and Campaign Finance Reform and Voting Rights

I want to talk about our democracy. The billionaire class is controlling our political and economic lives because of the disastrous Citizens United case. The Supreme Court unconscionably gutted the Voting Rights Act. Make no mistake, we watching the erosion of our democracy and the gains that we have fought so hard to achieve.

Some of you may not see the connection between an out-of-control campaign financing system and the gutting of our voting rights, but you should not be fooled – they are two sides of the same coin. Our access to our democracy is being ripped away. The billionaires do not want people to vote.

My friends – let me be as blunt as I can while telling you what you already know. As a result of the disastrous Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, the American political system has been totally corrupted, and the foundations of American democracy are being undermined. What the Supreme Court essentially said was that it was not good enough for the billionaire class to own much of our economy. They could now own the U.S. government as well. And that is precisely what they are trying to do.

If we are serious about creating jobs, about climate change and the needs of our children, our veterans and the elderly, about reforming our criminal justice system, we must be deadly serious about campaign finance reform. That is why in my campaign for president, I have said that I will not nominate any justice to the Supreme Court who has not made it clear that he or she will move to overturn that disastrous decision which is undermining our democracy. Long term, we need to go further and establish public funding of elections, so that the dark money of American politics is stopped before democracy is bought and paid for by a handful of billionaires and corporations.

American democracy is not about corporations and billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections. It is not about Wall Street and big oil or the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson spending billions of dollars to elect candidates who will make the rich richer and everyone else poorer. According to media reports the Koch brothers alone, one family, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy. The defining principle of American democracy is one person, one vote – with every citizen having an equal say – and no voter suppression. And that’s the kind of American political system we have to fight for.

Not only are big moneyed interests trying to buy the American electorate, Republican-controlled legislatures have done everything in their power to make it more difficult to vote.

Voting is becoming more difficult, not less. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted by the Supreme Court, and efforts to repair it in Congress have been sidelined. Voter suppression today is alive and well in the form of unnecessary voter ID laws, restrictions on registering to vote, improper purging of voter rolls, felon disenfranchisement, and a staggering array of deceptive practices that are preventing eligible voters from participating in the political process. It is embarrassing that the United States’ voting system is so dysfunctional.

​We need to remember the price that was paid for the right to vote. We must restore our democracy’s promise of one man, one vote. We must repeal Citizens United and take the political process back from the billionaire class. We need to extend early voting, extend voting hours, make Election Day a holiday or move it to a weekend.

​One area that I have been interested in is voter registration. Unsurprisingly, most other advanced democracies make voter registration much easier than we do here in the United States. Some countries, such as Argentina, Belgium, and Germany, maintain a national or municipal population database and local election officials add eligible voters to the rolls based on those lists. Some countries hire workers to go door-to-door and register all eligible voters, including Great Britain and Indonesia. Mexico deploys such workers to rural areas.

France automatically registers 18-year-olds to vote when they register with the Selective Service. Canada uses info collected from other government agencies to add eligible citizens to the rolls—British Columbia uses DMV records; Quebec uses health insurance records. If more info is needed, the government reaches out by mail and sends the potential voter a registration form, with a postage-paid return envelope.

The U.S. is one of the few countries which puts the onus of registration on the voter, not the state. This is ridiculous.

In 2009, the Brennan Center released a study of worldwide voter registration rates, based on citizen voting-age population. Here are a few countries:

  • Argentina (2007): 100%
  • Great Britain (2008): 97%
  • Belgium (2007): 94%
  • Canada (2008): 93%
  • Germany (2005): 93%
  • Australia (2008): 92%
  • France (2007): 91%
  • United States (2006): 68%

The Census Bureau Population Survey says in 2012, 71.2 percent of Americans were registered to vote. The number varies by age—only 58 percent of 18-29-year-olds were registered to vote, but 79 percent of those older than 70 were registered.

We should be making voting easier, not harder.

Let us also be very clear that the stakes are very high. The right to vote is preservative of all other rights. And when in this last election in November 63 percent of the American people chose not to vote; 80 percent of young people chose not to vote; and almost 75 percent of low-income workers chose not to vote, it should not come as a surprise that the stranglehold that the billionaire class has on the economy is tightening around the middle class.

And when we talk about voting rights, we have to address the reality of over 2 million African-Americans who have been disenfranchised due to criminal convictions. This is not the way to help bring people returning from prison back into their communities. If you can believe it, in some states over 20 percent of the African-American population is disenfranchised. Florida – 23 percent. Virginia – 20 percent. Kentucky – 22 percent. But the percentages don’t necessarily give the entire picture because in many, many states with large African American populations, the percentage may be lower but the number of individuals who can’t cast a ballot is high. Georgia – almost 160,000 people; Texas – over 150,000 people; Alabama – over 135,000 people; Mississippi – over 107,000 people. That is why I am a sponsor of legislation introduced on the House side by Rep. John Conyers called the Democracy Restoration Act which would restore federal voting rights.

We must remember that the struggle for our rights is not a struggle for one day, or one year, or one generation – it is the struggle of a lifetime, and one that must be fought by every generation.

All of you in this room know it, but it bears saying out loud: civil rights are not just about for voting rights, but economic and social equality – and most importantly, jobs. 50 years later, it remains the great unfinished business of the civil rights movement.

In conclusion, I’ve been traveling this country for over a year now. People are ready for a new movement – a political revolution – to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally. In other words, we are building a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back.

I believe the time has come to say loudly and clearly: enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists.

​Now is not the time for thinking small. Now is not the time for the same-old, same-old establishment politics and stale inside-the-beltway ideas.

Now is the time for millions of working families – black and white, Latino and Native American, gay and straight – to come together, to revitalize American democracy, to end the collapse of the American middle class and to make certain that our children and grandchildren are able to enjoy a quality of life that brings them health, prosperity, security and joy – and that once again makes the United States the leader in the world in the fight for economic and social justice, for environmental sanity and for a world of peace.