Beaufort News

Bernie Sanders talks civil rights, helping 'poorest of the poor' at historic Penn Center

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders evoked the rich history of the Penn Center at a campaign stop Sunday afternoon on St. Helena Island as he called on the crowd of hundreds to help him lift up those who are vulnerable and in need.

Sanders, the junior senator in Vermont, pressed the issue of juvenile and criminal justice reform, which he envisions including an end to the private prison industry, the death penalty and criminalization of simple drug possession.

Those systems that disproportionately impact blacks and other minorities serve as remnants of institutional racism and do not serve the country, Sanders said.

"We are going to do everything that we can so when an African-American gets in a car, he doesn't get dragged out of that car because he failed to make the wrong turns and up in jail and dead three days later," Sanders said, referencing the July death of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas. "We are going to end the disgrace of unarmed African-Americans that are shot in the back or dying in police custody."

Sanders spoke to an overflow crowd in Penn Center's Durah Hall, near where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached for equality and nonviolence at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

On Sunday, hundreds of people filled the space, lining the walls and craning their necks through the doorways to hear Sanders say that work is not done.

"Want to hear a radical idea?" he asked the crowd. "How about investing in jobs and education for our kids rather than jails and incarceration? I believe it makes a lot more sense to make sure young people are doing something constructive, earning some money or being in school rather than hanging out on street corners.

"It's a lot cheaper to send somebody to the University of South Carolina than it is to lock them up in jail."

From Beaufort County, Sanders traveled to Savannah, ending a three-day South Carolina campaign tour that began with visits to Charleston, Columbia and Orangeburg.

Here are three other highlights from Sanders' discussion:

1. Sanders voiced his support for the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would guarantee paid family leave for new parents and those caring for sick family members. He also explained how he would fund social security programs through 2065 by lifting the cap on taxable income to from $118,500 to $250,000, and would work to increase health benefits for the "poorest of the poor."

Despite the successes of the Affordable Care Act, Sanders said, 29 million people remain without health insurance.

"When you see millions of people in my state and all over America cutting their medicine in half so they can stretch it out -- not a good thing to do -- and in cold weather states, not adequately heating their homes, not buying the things they need, you don't cut Social Security. You expand Social Security."

2. Along the same lines, Sanders said he would work toward establishing free tuition to all public universities, opening the doors to higher education to all qualified students regardless of their family's income.

That plan, too, would help level the playing field for minorities, Sanders said, noting that more than half of black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed, compared to a third of white graduates.

Sanders called for a $1 trillion investment in a federal jobs program that would lower unemployment across the board, ship fewer jobs overseas and fund rebuilding of aging roads and bridges.

"I want you to think big, not small. If there's a slogan in this campaign, that's what it is. Don't get caught in the world view of thinking small."

3. Before taking questions from the crowd, Sanders reiterated one of his constant mantras on the campaign trail, the need for a "political revolution," and an effort to register as many voters as possible rather than limit who can weigh in at the polls.

"It has never, ever occurred to me -- not for one second -- to try to figure out a way to deny people the right to vote because they might vote against me. ... Any member of legislature who doesn't have the guts to participate in a free and fair election, they should get another job and get out of politics."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at

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