Bernie Sanders touts $10B plan to boost HBCUs

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at Morehouse College. Alyssa Pointer/AJC

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at Morehouse College. Alyssa Pointer/AJC

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders connected the anti-Semitism that led to his relatives’ slaughter in the Holocaust to the systemic racism facing African Americans at a campaign rally Thursday at Morehouse College aimed at energizing young black voters who spurned his presidential bid three years ago.

Speaking a few feet from a towering statue of Martin Luther King Jr., the Vermont senator invoked the slain civil rights leader’s legacy as he told a diverse crowd of hundreds how his Polish ancestors died under Nazi oppression in the 1940s.

“We will do everything humanly possible to end all forms of discrimination in this country,” he said, later praising King’s grasp of an important ideal. “Real change never takes place from the top down, but from the bottom up.”

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Sanders used the event to unveil a $5 billion plan to train more teachers at historically black colleges and universities, and a separate $5 billion program aimed at preparing more black dentists and other healthcare professionals.

“We have to make sure that in African American communities there are the doctors, the nurses, the psychologists are there to provide the care that the people in those communities need.”

He railed against a “racist and broken” criminal justice system and a “dysfunctional” education regime, promising to make all public colleges and universities tuition-free and to cancel all student debt — a proposal that goes further than his 2020 rivals.

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And the 78-year-old Brooklynite tried to appeal to the crowd of mostly young black students, many bred in the South, by touting his support for historically black colleges and his hardscrabble New York roots.

“I come to you today not as the son of a billionaire or a millionaire, but as somebody who proudly comes from a working-class family. Who has stood up for the working class, and will take that fight into the White House.”

Hundreds attend a Bernie Sanders rally at Morehouse College in Atlanta. AJC/Alyssa Pointer.

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Sanders’ strategy

Sanders, who struggles in many polls with minorities, hopes his emphasis on free public college tuition and a government-run health care program could help narrow the gap.

His last campaign rally at Morehouse touched on many of the same themes. His February 2016 visit came just before the South Carolina primary, a first test of how his message resonates outside of whiter, and more liberal, pockets of voters.

It didn't bode well. He was pummeled by Hillary Clinton in South Carolina and, days later, she won a dominating victory in Georgia. Sanders has tried to cultivate minority support earlier this time around, including visits over the summer to Augusta and a black youth church convention in Atlanta.

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And, just like the last election, South Carolina’s vote will loom large in the outcome of Georgia’s March 24 primary. Only once since 1988 have Democrats in the two states backed opposing candidates — in 2004, when John Edwards won the South Carolina vote and John Kerry topped the Georgia primary.

Sanders' calls for a political revolution have energized the grassroots base but done little to win over the Georgia establishment. His most prominent Georgia backers also endorsed him in the last vote: Atlanta rapper Killer Mike; Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, a U.S. Senate candidate; and former state Sen. Vincent Fort.

Among the speakers was Julian Arriola Hemmings, the president of New Deal Democrats who implored students to embrace their idealistic side and "dream big." He said he wasn't endorsing Sanders, but that the senator "exists within the tradition" of battling the Washington establishment.

“Our country’s greatest moment of social and economic progress was not bought and paid for by the Koch brothers. It was paid for in blood, in sweat, in tears and ultimately faith in the higher ideals of justice and equality,” he said.

The speech was well-received by the crowd, which frequently interrupted Sanders’ with bursts of applause and cheers. Chants of “Stacey” broke out when he said “the governor shouldn’t be the governor.”

Some of the loudest ovations came when he outlined his criminal justice agenda, which calls for banning the death penalty, eliminating cash bail, ending the “horrific and destructive war on drugs” and decriminalizing marijuana.

“We are going to invest in more jobs and education,” he said, “not more jails and incarceration.”