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Armstrong: A whole lot of black voters still aren't feeling the Bern

There’s a reason so many voters aren’t all that familiar with the hashtag #BlackBerners.

Over the weekend, I saw a provocative new campaign ad produced by director Spike Lee in support of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

It features a diverse group of supporters speaking out for the presidential hopeful. One of them is the legendary singer and civil-rights activist Harry Belafonte, who says, "People of color have a deeply vested interest in what Bernie Sanders brings to us in this election."

The ad also features the daughter of Eric Garner, a New Yorker who died in 2014 after police put him in a chokehold, and Shaun King, a writer and Black Lives Matter activist.

It's a good spot, but way overdue since so many black folks still aren't exactly "feeling the Bern," so to speak.

I was reminded of that last week when Sanders visited Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, a historic black church at Broad and Fitzwater streets in South Philly. Sanders was fresh off his big win in Wisconsin and riding a wave of excitement. Given all the momentum and hype surrounding his campaign, you would have thought that even a last-minute community chat featuring a candidate vying for the Democratic presidential nomination would have been packed.


I showed up about an hour after doors were scheduled to open, yet I was able to park right next to the church. Practically no one was in line as I walked up. I breezed through security. Inside the sanctuary, there were plenty of empty pews. As I looked around, I was struck by the fact that of the roughly 250 in attendance, only about a third were black. Granted, there was a huge crowd well in excess of 10,000 waiting for Sanders to show up at Temple University's Liacouras Center just up Broad Street.

But still.

The Tindley event was billed as a "BlackVotersMatter" gathering, a "community conversation with Bernie Sanders," which ranged from what sounded like Sanders' usual stump speech to questions about issues of particular interest to African Americans. At one point, a student asked Sanders, if he were elected president, would he issue a formal apology for slavery.

"Want the short answer?" said Sanders as he stood and addressed the crowd. "Yes."

As the event drew to a close, Sanders was asked to make a case for why any remaining fence-sitters should support him instead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (The Pennsylvania Democratic primary is scheduled for April 26.)

"I think, if you go to my website and look at my biography, you will find that as a very young man, I stood up against segregation . . . and I know I give away my age here, but I actually marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington," he said to thunderous applause. "We have very serious problems in this country and criminal justice is one of the major crises that we face."

He did the obligatory candidate thing by shaking hands and then was off to the Liacouras Center. As people made their way out of Tindley, I chatted with an organizer who chalked up the relatively low attendance by black folks to the fact that they hadn't had much notice of the event.

"We had 24 hours to turn it around so literally that was just yesterday," pointed out entrepreneur Sulaiman Rahman, who founded Black Voters Matter last year to get more Philadelphians involved in the political process.

Rahman, who's also chief executive officer of Urban Philly Professional Network, added that "Bernie Sanders is new on the national scene. So, a lot of black voters are getting to know who Bernie Sanders is. You're going up against a name that's been around on a national platform for many years."

One of those just getting to know Sanders is Ife Carter. As she gathered her things to leave, Carter told me she remained just as undecided following Sanders' speech as she had been before she even got to the church. "He didn't offer specific details about how he would tackle issues affecting the African American community," Carter explained.

David Pulley, a psychologist, felt somewhat swayed by Sanders' presentation. "It didn't take me over the edge but it definitely affected my decision and made me want to look more at his overall views and listen more to what he has to say because tonight he definitely gave some influential responses," Pulley said.

Then there was Carmen Mitchell, 23, a lifetime member of Tindley Temple, who also remained undecided.

"I more know what I don't want than I know what I do want," Mitchell said.

And what is it you don't you want?