Dispatch From Mississippi: Biden, Sanders, and the Battle to Win Black Voters in the South

While the poorest, blackest, and most incarcerated states would seem to be fertile ground for Bernie Sanders, they’ve proven instead to be the most arid.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, right, talks to employees and customers, including barber Ron Davis, second from left, at the Head Turners Barbershop in Jackson, Miss., on March 7, 2020. Photo: Alex Zaitchik for The Intercept

On a bright and blustery Saturday afternoon, three days before the Mississippi primary, the 36-year-old mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, approached a group of men drinking beers around a pickup truck outside the Head Turners Barbershop. Bearing the seal of his office on a black windbreaker, Lumumba solemnly informed the men they were in violation of city ordinances, triggering peals of laughter all around. Then Lumumba got down to business. He was there to generate interest in Bernie Sanders, and skepticism about Joe Biden, the presumed favored candidate of Mississippi Democrats.

Lumumba had arrived at the barbershop from a nearby Baptist Church, where he’d launched a Sanders volunteer canvass of the historic black community of Presidential Hill. While volunteers knocked on screen doors and left flyers on porches, he and another surrogate, the Miami-based organizer and educator Philip Agnew, hit the barbershops of north Jackson.

Lumumba and Agnew tag-teamed what can be a heavy lift in Mississippi: introducing Sanders and his platform, defending his electability, and reducing his opponent Biden to a man, as Agnew likes to say, with black friends but no black policies.

“Can you name one Biden policy?” Agnew asked Head Turners’ 60-something barber, Ron Davis. “Being Obama’s vice is not sufficient,” he continued. “He was chosen to balance the ticket.” Lumumba and Agnew together sketched Biden’s authorship of the 1994 crime bill and large back catalog of racist and borderline racist comments. One time, Lumumba recounted, Biden told him and other black mayors at a conference in Atlanta that black parents can’t help with homework because they “can’t read or write.”

“I just want to make sure you know who we’re propping up,” Lumumba said as the meeting winds down. “We have a choice on Tuesday.”

The taciturn barber didn’t need much convincing that Sanders’s moral economy sounded like a good thing. “The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer,” he said. “People working all their lives, they should be retiring, but still have to work. That’s not right.”

But his questions, and the questions from others in the shop, belied a wariness that can’t be overcome in 20 minutes a few days before an election: Why isn’t Sanders a Democrat? How can he offer free health care and tuition when the Republicans are cutting existing benefits? Isn’t this a capitalist country?

While the poorest, blackest, and most incarcerated states of the country would seem to be fertile ground for Sanders, at least in the primary, they’ve proven instead to be the most arid. The Alabama primary was a repeat of the South Carolina vote that refueled Biden’s campaign and sent Sanders’s into a cross-country skid, and Mississippi will likely continue the pattern.

In 2016, there was no Mayor Lumumba in the barbershops arguing that Sanders deserves black votes and can beat the Republican, while the famous Democrat doesn’t and can’t. How that conversation develops will determine not just the viability of a Sanders nomination in 2020, but the long-term prospects of the multiracial, multigenerational social movement that was supposed to midwife it.


Organizer Philip Agnew, standing, addresses volunteers ahead of canvassing the Presidential Hills neighborhood of Jackson, Miss., on March 7, 2020.

Photo: Alex Zaitchik for The Intercept

From the start, Bernie Sanders has said his candidacy can only succeed if powered by an unprecedented coalition of black, brown, and working-class voters — a magnetized juggernaut that could attract disaffected Americans in a virtuous cycle of self-perpetuating people power. While the campaign did bring in large numbers of Latinos, new Americans, and millennial black voters, South Carolina showed the limits of any coalition that is missing the older black voters who form a base constituency in much of the country. Biden sealed his victory there with 60 percent of the black vote, with no surge in new voters, a number that he increased to 75 percent a few days later in Alabama on Super Tuesday.

Not much money is spent polling the Mississippi primary, but it’s possible that Biden will end up with 80-plus percent of the vote, with black voters making up 70 percent of the electorate. If so, it will be the second time in four years that Mississippi has handed Sanders his worst loss with a message taped inside of it.

What does that message say? Biden’s resurgence produced a market for neat explanations of black political behavior. The narrative seems to have settled somewhere over the broad thesis that black voters, especially in the South, are generally risk averse and have good reason for being so. South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden formalized the sense that, despite everything, Biden — with the familiar “D” next to his name — is the safest bet for a return to normalcy and a never-perfect status quo. Some white progressives find this rationale dismaying, given that Sanders performs well in head-to-head matchups against Donald Trump, and is running on a platform much more tailored to the needs of black communities across a range of issues, from health care to criminal justice reform. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio evinced this dismay when he suggested “the Clyburn effect” was a form of low-information false consciousness, echoing familiar Republican canards about black voters’ generational allegiance to the Democratic Party. Somewhere, right now, terms are probably being negotiated on a controversial future bestseller called, “What’s the Matter With South Carolina?”


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The pushback was just as swift. Black voters, a chorus of voices proclaimed, have as fine an appreciation for the limits, dangers, tragedies, and ironies of U.S. politics as anyone can. The Nation’s Elie Mystal saw the South Carolina vote expressing the cynical judgment that Sanders was too good for us and that his presence in the general would hand Trump reelection — because “most white people are selfish and cannot be trusted to do the right thing.” In this view, the political risk antenna of older black voters is reliable and hard-earned. If it warns to take even money rather than bet everything on promises that won’t be fulfilled, maybe there’s a reason.

But if the default conservatism of this position is understandable, it’s also dangerous and debatable, say Sanders supporters, not least for its failure to account for the urgency of the climate crisis. The Sanders campaign is based on a belief that a left supermajority can be formed, and that means finding ways to overcome resistance and win people over.

“Our organizing has fallen short in some ways with black folks across the South,” Agnew said. “We’re purging the feeling that these people don’t know what’s real, because they do know what’s real. They live real lives. They’ve been told some lies, so we need to be able to engage with it, to speak to people’s anxieties and say, ‘We’re not the risky bet here.’ We have the people, the volunteers, the energy. The path is uncomfortable and new, but it doesn’t have to be scary. Our job is to engage with that on a real level, not talk down to them or call them low-information.”

Organizers for Sanders say such engagement pays off in Mississippi the same as it would anywhere else, though the starting line may be a little farther back. The biggest obstacle to getting lifetime Democrats to question the party and imagine a new kind of politics is a lack of time and people, not just their “risk averse” natures.

“Many people we talk to are hearing about Sanders for the first time from us, or the only thing they know is that someone told them he is a communist,” said James Hempill, a Sanders organizer and Jackson native. “It’s a question of having time to explain his program, address electability fears, and explain democratic socialism. But it’s doable. I just met an older black lady who was leaving her house to go cook for the homeless. She cares about people, votes in every election — the kind of person you’d expect to know about Sanders and the primary. But she didn’t. Not because she’s dumb; she just didn’t know.”

Hempill racked up so many of these stories that when he started canvassing for six months ago, he decided, “if we had two years to raise awareness, knocking on doors and having conversations, Bernie wins Mississippi in a landslide.”


Organizer James Hempill holds up a pin indicating support for Sanders ahead of a canvassing event in Jackson, Miss., on March 7, 2020.

Photo: Alex Zaitchik for The Intercept

Something like a landslide occurred in February when Arekia Bennett, director of a Jackson nonprofit called Mississippi Votes, organized a “people’s caucus” to draw campaign surrogates to the state. The vote attracted 130 locals and surrogates representing Sanders, Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Mike Bloomberg. When Hempill arrived with a small group of Sanders supporters, he didn’t like the look of it. “It was mostly typical Biden voters — older black voters like my mom. We thought, ‘This isn’t our room.’ But after the surrogates all spoke, Sanders won big in two rounds of ranked-choice voting.”

The day after the caucus result, Lumumba endorsed Sanders — the first and only Mississippi Democrat with a statewide profile to do so. The pairing makes sense, as Lumumba is a rare Sanders-like figure in the Deep South. The son of a black revolutionary and activist turned lawyer and politician, Lumumba was elected on a progressive platform. He hosts people’s assemblies in which residents help plan Jackson’s municipal budget, which he calls a “moral document.” Even so, his Sanders endorsement raised eyebrows in Mississippi. “Local reporters were like, ‘The mayor of Jackson endorsed Bernie Sanders?’ People don’t expect Jackson to push against the system,” says Hempill.

Toward the end of Saturday’s barbershop tour, Lumumba and Agnew stopped in at a popular salon, Celebrity Hair Designs. None of the dozen or so stylists and customers knew much about Sanders, but they listened closely, and most seemed to like what they heard. When the salon’s owner took the mayor outside to discuss the potholes on Medgar Evers Boulevard, Sanders’s deputy campaign manager, René Spellman, stood up and described how the campaigns’ economic policies would impact the lives of women. “When you can go to college tuition- and debt-free, earn a fair minimum wage, and have a right to affordable housing, you can take risks and spread your wings,” she said. “If you’re a stylist, please carry this message to your clients between now and Tuesday. We have a choice. There’s a candidate that will fight for them.”

The idea that a presidential candidate would propose student debt relief and a $15 minimum wage was a revelation for one of the stylists, Dominique Wash, a single mother who works several jobs and is finishing a B.A. that has her $60,000 in debt. “It’s so important that women get paid appropriately, so we can take care of our family,” she said, finishing up a weave for a young CPA named Anita Bonner. Mississippi has no state minimum wage, and black women in the state earn just under 70 percent of the national median for black women.

“It’s important the campaign comes around, people need to hear this,” Bonner said. “I was going to vote for Biden, but now I’m really wondering. I didn’t know anything about the crime bill.”

That bill — the Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 — hovered over the stage of the Alamo Theater the following afternoon. The Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition and the Sanders campaign co-sponsored a panel on the ongoing human rights crisis in the Mississippi prison system, anchored by the notorious facility known as Parchman Farm. Agnew stood on the dais, where he reminded the audience of the campaign’s criminal justice platform, including the elimination of mandatory minimums, three strikes laws — “everything that was a part of the crime bill that Joe Biden wrote. Joe Biden wrote. Joe Biden wrote. Everything that’s a part of that bill.”

As Agnew spoke, Biden was holding a rally on the other side of town with special guest Vivica Fox, a sitcom and soap opera actress — his first trip to Jackson during the race. Sanders was also scheduled to be in Jackson that weekend, but he canceled to focus on Michigan, where his Sunday rally featured his latest endorser, Jesse Jackson. Sanders has visited Mississippi twice in recent years. The first was in support of striking workers at a nearby Nissan plant, the second for an economic justice forum hosted by Lumumba on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The New York Times reporter who covered the 2018 trip takes care to note that Sanders missed two chances to impress and connect with large black audiences. In an observation that now reads like a warning, he wrote that unless Sanders can “remedy his most significant vulnerability in 2016” — anemic support from black voters — he will “find it nearly impossible to win the 2020 Democratic nomination.”

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