Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders brought thousands to downtown Birmingham on a cold Monday night to see him defying Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability” as the Democratic nominee for president.
Earlier on January 18, before the rally at Boutwell Auditorium, Sanders visited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, meeting with various city officials and others along the way.
The venue was full to capacity with its staff turning people away in droves, redirecting them to an overflow area that had been set up in Linn Park with a projector screen. Despite the weather — with wind chill values in the high teens at times — an estimated 1,000 people stayed to watch the event outside. Different local news outlets estimated the crowd’s size (including the people inside the arena) at anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 people, many of whom came in on chartered buses from as far afield as Mobile, Montgomery and elsewhere. Sanders’ supporters seemed to be in high spirits, even those left out in the cold.
Attendees’ ages ranged from young to old. Though there was a noticeably large cohort of voters in their 20s and 30s, there were also large numbers of older people. There was a noticeable racial and ethnic diversity as well. Large numbers of blacks and Latinos turned out. Courting minority votes has been one of the Sanders campaign’s major objectives, particularly in the South where these demographics comprise a large share of the Democratic Party electorate.
The first major speaker was the academic, activist and public intellectual Cornel West, who has held professorships at Harvard, Princeton and Union Theological Seminary. West is widely known in activist circles for his passionate rhetoric. He has been a harsh critic of President Barack Obama, particularly for Obama’s foreign policy including the use of unmanned drones.
“My dear sister Hillary Clinton,” West said. “She’s a Wall Street Democrat with flip-flop propensities. Don’t tell us you accept Wall Street money and then say Wall Street doesn’t influence you. We were born at night, but not last night!”
The crowd roared with approval. This echoes one of West’s primary rebukes of President Obama, who he has called a “Wall Street president.”
After running through a litany of major issues affecting black Americans — mass incarceration, police shootings of young black men and more — West introduced Sanders: “There’s nobody in American public life who has more integrity, honesty and sincerity than Bernie Sanders!”
The audience responded with applause and chants of “Bernie! Bernie!”
Next Nina Turner, former state senator from the 25th District of Ohio and minority whip in the Ohio Senate, gave an address marked with the occasional refrain, “I’m feelin’ some kinda way!” as she evoked the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his efforts in the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama and throughout the South.
Turner also mentioned Mother Pollard, a participant in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts who, when asked in the course of the events by King whether she was weary, was quoted as responding with the famous line, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”
Turner introduced Sanders, calling him a “freedom fighter for justice,” after which he took the stage to music and loud cheers from the crowd.
Sanders began his speech with a reference to Clinton: “When we began this campaign, we were 50 points behind the inevitable — inevitable — Democratic nominee. Well guess what? That inevitable candidate ain’t so inevitable today!” The audience shouted its approval at Sanders’ cursory reference to his steadily rising poll numbers.
“And here’s some pretty good news. Polls go up and down — this early in a campaign they don’t mean all that much — but what is interesting is the last poll that just came out yesterday had us 15 points ahead of our very good friend Donald Trump!”
For the next 45 minutes Sanders ran through his speech, hitting all of the high points of his steady, virtually unchanging campaign speech; Sanders, despite his perceived outsider status, is a practiced politician, and as his supporters point out often, he has been saying the same things — often quite literally the same things, in the same phraseology — for decades.
The unifying principle of Sanders’ appeal, however, is certainly economic. A self-described Democratic Socialist, he would like to collect more taxes from what he calls the “billionaire class,” break up the so-called “too-big-to-fail” banks, offer paid family leave to all citizens, make public colleges and universities tuition free and other proposals.
He is a proponent of large-scale infrastructure projects funded by the federal government, which he believes would stimulate the economy while rebuilding highways and bridges. One of the biggest applause lines of the night came when Sanders condemned the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which has allowed an influx of money into political campaigns.
Sanders concluded his speech by exhorting his followers to keep supporting him, in the event that he wins the election, even after the race is over, and to “think big.”
After the rally, Will Robinson Smith of Mobile said that he arrived at the event undecided and that he has yet to make up his mind definitively. “I want to let this percolate and sit with me for a while…but I liked a lot of the things he said tonight; it really resonated with me.”
Asked what his biggest issues were, Smith mentioned fighting global warming and making college affordable, both of which Sanders touched on in the rally to his satisfaction. “I came up with a group of recent college grads from Mobile, so [college affordability] is an issue that was really important to us.”
Gabriel Willis of Bay Minette said Sanders was already his favorite candidate going in.
“He’s absolutely my favorite now,” Willis said. “He’s the only candidate who seems genuine; the only one who seems like he really cares.” Willis also liked Sanders’ plan to break up big banks and corporations, which he said he felt would go a long way toward solving the problems the country faces. He said he is decided now: Sanders will be his candidate in the election.