With all the shenanigans erupting in Washington and America at present, it was disappointing to watch a couple of political activists kick Bernie Sanders to the curb in a recent interview. They were excited about some new blood from their own generation winning primaries as part of the growing socialist movement in the Democratic party. All that is exciting and speaks to the need for democracy to renew itself, but to regard Sanders as irrelevant is a sad portent – specifically because if that pattern continues, then they, too, will eventually be sidelined in similar fashion.
Bernie Sander’s history of activism is important because he was once where these activists are, only the price he paid for his beliefs was likely more severe. The photos of him marching with Martin Luther King Jr. flow freely on the Internet, as do those of him being arrested for what was in the 1960s in an early precursor of the Black Lives Matter movement. He went to great pains, along with thousands of miles of travel, to back a civil rights movement, not because it was a cause célèbre, but because it was what he always did and who he always was.
And in a day when many activists promote themselves on social platforms, Sanders still refuses to tell such stories and use them for political purposes today. In a documentary made about him earlier this year, his own family were brought to tears upon seeing just how ardent he was and the price he paid for his beliefs – stories they were only learning for the first time.
Sanders not only participated in equality movements, he helped to found them – another aspect of his life rarely talked about. He knew it wasn’t enough to demonstrate, but that work had to be done and organized in order to hold America to a higher standard over the long haul. And so, as a young student at the University of Chicago, he was voted in as chair of the university’s chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality. He then melded that group with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and then led those combined forces in the first sit-in outside the president’s office.
Sanders went on to demonstrate and lead movements on school equality. He chained himself to a number of black women protesting school segregation and when the police told him to leave, he refused. The resulting photo of him being carried off and arrested by police is now the stuff of legend, but in that moment Sanders did what so many others who voiced the same beliefs refused to do.
This account could go on and on, but the point is that Bernie Sanders is still at the front lines over a half-century later. He is the last remaining activist from that era left in the Senate. Earlier this year he stood in front of Disneyland, California, demonstrating against the park’s practice of payment that left 1 out of 10 of its employees homeless in the past two years, permits 2 out of 3 workers to be food insecure and that would leave 3 out of 4 of its staff unable to afford basic needs. And he’s recently taken on Amazon for its brutal treatment of its employees amidst all its wealth. All this while millions of citizens, perhaps even us sometimes, frequent the Disneyland rides and do an increasing amount of purchasing on Amazon.
And to get himself elected to the Senate, not as a Democrat or Republican, but as an Independent, takes a special kind of courage and conviction when the entire political establishment is divided into two parts. To run for president (he might again) on such an activist background takes guts. To stay involved following his loss takes commitment. To stay true to the principles of his youth takes belief.
This is why it’s ill-considered for today’s activists to put him out to pasture, because sometime it will be them who are considered too old, despite all they have accomplished in their lives. If they want what they are doing right now to matter decades from now, then they should be honouring someone who did remarkable things in the 1960s and every decade since.
What we do right now matters. And if we are still doing it 50 years from now, then it matters even more because it speaks to character, commitment and belief in others. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech during one of the marches Sanders was a part of: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” And if you are still doing that a half-century from now, then such commitment is beyond measure. Sanders was once young; he still is.