As the Democratic presidential race next moves to the heavily black electorate in South Carolina, two misleading smears of candidate Bernie Sanders by prominent African-American supporters of Hillary Clinton taint the critics’ fairness and that of their institutions.
Washington Post editorial board member Jonathan Capehart and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights hero shown in an official photo at right, separately suggested that Sanders had puffed up his 1960s civil rights activism.
The controversies arose as Sanders and Clinton scramble for African-American support in the South Carolina primary Feb. 27 following Clinton’s victory in the Nevada caucuses Feb. 20. Looming ahead on March 1 are Super Tuesday contests in 13 states, mostly in the South where, as in South Carolina, much of the Democratic electorate is African-American.
Lewis dissed Sanders Feb. 11 at a news conference called by Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee at the Capitol Hill headquarters of the Democratic National Committee,
“I never met him,” Lewis said of Sanders, referencing the early 1960s when Lewis led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in courageous civil rights struggles that included the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama. “But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.” Two days later, Lewis had to walk back his remarks by noting that Sanders had been active in the early 1960s, whereas the Clintons had attended high school then and Lewis did not meet them until the 1970s.
Also on Feb. 11, Capehart published a Washington Post column Stop sending around this photo of ‘Bernie Sanders,’ citing Randy Ross, the widow of former Chicago student Bruce Rappaport, as saying her late husband was the man shown standing in a photo (below) that the Sanders’ campaign had been using to illustrate the presidential candidate’s commitment to civil rights.
Both Sanders and Clinton have refrained from comment, thereby standing above the battle.
But the controversy shows the deceptive tactics of candidate surrogates and media organizations in seeking a competitive edge for Clinton, the establishment candidate.
More dramatically, a much-honored photographer and civil rights figure, Danny Lyon, stepped forward to set the record straight.
1960s Civil Rights Student Activist
As a student at the University of Chicago, Sanders led a chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in sit ins that protested the university’s tacit support of segregated student housing in its Hyde Park locale surrounded by black neighborhoods. Sanders also participated in the famed 1963 March on Washington led by famed civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The University of Chicago has long identified Sanders as the man standing in the 1962 photo. Lyon, a photographer for the Maroon student newspaper, shot the photo and went on to become the official photographer for SNCC in pioneering civil rights activism.
Capehart is a contributor on MSNBC, whose host Chris Matthews presented the controversy as if it were a major campaign scandal that implied devious tactics by the Sanders camp just as the Vermont senator was trying to win African-American support following his strong showings in the white-dominated states of New Hampshire and Iowa.
If Sanders had falsely puffed up his civil rights record it would have been one of the worst possible introductions to the heavily black Democratic primary audiences in the South.
But the photographer Lyon stepped forward to confirm that Sanders was the man standing in the photo. Lyon denounced Capehart for shoddy reporting.
The photo, along with a similar one shown on the next page of this column, is courtesy of the Danny Lyon/Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library).
The Lyon statement, confirmed by his release last week of his “contact sheets” of images when he was developing his images for the university’s student newspaper, casts a poor light on Capehart, as well as his newspaper and cable colleagues at the Washington Post and MSNBC.
As one dimension, the website Men’s Trait reported in Pro-Clinton Columnist In Bed With Clinton Staffer — Literally that the pundit has been been living for years with a Clinton staffer.
True, such conflicts of interest between journalists and political advocates are common in Washington and other media centers, and are rarely revealed.
But it’s Capehart’s bad luck that his factually inaccurate smear during a presidential race elevates his questionable behavior into news, as here.