WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The C.E. Gaines Center at Winston-Salem State University was filled to capacity. The typical set list of U2 and Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac had been replaced by Young Jeezy. The young people in the audience, most of them young people of color, danced in the bleachers as they awaited the arrival of the man they’d come to see, one Senator Bernard Sanders.
The people who couldn’t get inside spilled out onto the street next to the gym, where campaign volunteers led them in chants of “Feel the Bern” and “Not me — us!” Then some of the young people, who held blue-and-white BERNIE signs and wore black-and-white BERNIE FOR HBCUS stickers, started their own chants:
I love my H in front of my B
My B in front of my C
I love my H-B-C … U!
This wasn’t your typical presidential campaign rally. Presidential candidates don’t typically visit Winston-Salem State, one of the dozen historically black colleges and universities in North Carolina. Hillary Clinton didn’t visit in 2016. Barack Obama didn’t come here in 2008. (Michelle Obama did.) When Bernie Sanders took the stage, the crowd erupted so loudly you could feel it standing outside the entrance to the Gaines Center.
Sanders says it will take nothing short of a revolution to overturn the political establishment in Washington and elect a democratic socialist as president. Four years ago, he ran on a class-focused message. In 2020 the Sanders campaign believes the path to the nomination, and ultimately the White House, means mobilizing not only working and middle class people, but also young people and people of color in record-breaking numbers. It’s why Sanders visits schools like Winston-Salem State. It’s why his campaign has one of the most impressive student organizing operations in the Democratic field. “The key to this election,” Sanders said last year, “is can we get millions of young people who have never voted before into the political process, many working people who understand that Trump is a fraud, can we get them voting?”
There are real doubts about whether Sanders can pull this off. He is staking his candidacy on two exceedingly difficult tasks: turning out young voters and voters of color in a way no Democrat has done since Obama, as well as convincing nonvoters to register and vote for him. He proved in Iowa and Nevada that he could appeal to voters of color and working-class voters, but he fell dramatically short with the older black voters who decided South Carolina’s primary.
Super Tuesday is the biggest test yet for Sanders. States with large numbers of voters of color — such as North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee, and California — will hold their primary elections and put to the test Sanders’ plan to build a cross-class, multi-racial movement — the very movement Sanders says can win him the Democratic nomination.
Here in North Carolina, Sanders entered Super Tuesday at a disadvantage, having only recently opened his first campaign office. (Mike Bloomberg, by contrast, had 11 offices in the state.) But North Carolina was a useful place to see Sanders’ coalition strategy on full display in the days before the state’s primary. His campaign blanketed local TV stations with an ad, narrated by actor Danny Glover, that touted Sanders’ work in the civil rights movement and his pledges to end police misconduct, ban cash bail, legalize marijuana, and invest in jobs and education.
The real action was on the ground, though, on college campuses and in urban suburbs and in grassroots canvasses across North Carolina. In 2016 and again in 2020, Sanders has paid special attention to HBCUs. Last fall, he went on a three-state tour of HBCU campuses in the South. His campaign launched an HBCU-focused campus organizing project. He introduced a plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in HBCU students and teachers.
After his speech at Winston-Salem State last week, Sanders joined a group of young people of color and led a march to an early-voting polling place on campus. There, I met Braxton Langston-Chapman, a senior at another nearby HBCU, North Carolina A&T State University, who supported Sanders.
Langston-Chapman told me that Sanders’ full-throated critique of capitalism and pledge to radically reimagine the American economy, politics, and healthcare system resonated with him. “Black people don’t thrive in capitalist societies,” he said. “Never have.”
He hailed Bernie’s outreach to young people of color, which he described as unmatched compared to any other presidential candidate in history, including Obama. “President Obama was relatable — he didn’t have to reach out,” Langston-Chapman told me. “But Bernie does, he’s willing to do it, and I feel like that’s something that’s never been done.”
He was keenly aware of how, at the state level, politicians had sought to dilute the power of voters who looked like him. North Carolina Republicans drew gerrymandered election maps that split his alma mater, North Carolina A & T, right down the middle into two congressional districts. A court threw out that map late last year. Super Tuesday held a greater significance for him, he told me: It was the first time in his life he’d be able to vote using a fair map.
Standing nearby, working the crowd with a megaphone and urging people to vote, was Delaney Vandergrift, who runs the “Bernie for HBCUs” organizing project. Vandergrift described herself as a child of the liberation movements that helped birth HBCUs: Her parents had gone to HBCUs as had her grandparents on both sides of the family. “I was brought up going to homecomings,” she told me. “I feel like for some folks they know about HBCUs and they’ve heard about them. I know about HBCUs because that’s how I was raised.”
Vandergrift went to North Carolina A&T to play volleyball but quit the team after a semester and threw herself into activism. She cofounded a group called Black University to mobilize HBCUs in North Carolina. She organized against HB 2, the state’s discriminatory “bathroom” bill. She didn’t support a presidential candidate in 2016. “I don’t think specifically young black people are impressed with any politician anymore,” she told me. “In 2016, there was a shift and people were deciding that maybe they didn’t want to vote at all but they did want to do something. That can be more powerful than casting a ballot for somebody you don’t completely believe in.”
Yet when the Sanders campaign asked her last fall if she would lead their new HBCU organizing effort, she took the job. Since joining, Vandergrift has helped support Sanders organizers on roughly 50 HBCU campuses nationwide, hosted online seminars that connect the history and traditions of HBCUs to Sanders’ message, and help bring Sanders himself to HBCU campuses. “HBCU students and black people more than anyone know what it feels like to be tokenized and used as a prop,” she said. “This program was created to make that didn’t happen, not on my watch.”
Vandergrift was refreshingly honest about why she supported Sanders. She felt drawn to his vision for reimagining capitalism. She said his campaign was the only one that felt like a movement to her, one that would create space for the grassroots local organizing she’d done in the past. But she was not a Bernie Sanders stan, she told me. “I think he’s an incredible leader,” she said. “I think he is a very nice man who is going to be a wonderful president. But the most important thing to me is that millions of people have decided that they want to be a part of this process. They’re being taught that organizing is good and organizing connects you with people. Bernie Sanders’ policies, him believing deeply in movements, changes the public discourse around movements, period.”
A few days after the Winston-Salem State rally, the Latino and Chicano organizing group Mijente held a volunteer meeting at Salud Cervecería, a craft brewery in northeast Charlotte, to talk about why Tío Bernie — Uncle Bernie — was the right candidate on the issues most important to the Latino community.
A week earlier, Mijente had endorsed Sanders on the eve of the Nevada caucuses, which Sanders won with a majority of the Latino vote. Now, Mijente’s North Carolina’s chapter was activating volunteers to help Sanders perform well on Super Tuesday.
Arianna Genis, Mijente’s North Carolina director, told me that her strategy relied in large part on partnering with activists that have deep roots in local communities. Many of those groups have led the fight against ICE deportations and new anti-immigrant policies at the state and federal level. “Now, with the endorsement of Sanders, we’re able to use that as a pivot to get people involved in electoral politics that may not otherwise get involved,” she said.
Genis said Latino voters gravitate toward Sanders because of his consistency on issues like health care, higher education, and workforce. “He’s the candidate that will stay consistent with his values when he’s elected and the candidate that’s gone out of his way in the Latino community to make people feel seen,” she told me.
Genis said Mijente and its allies have a goal of registering 30,000 Latinos in North Carolina this year. Their work, in other words, won’t end when Super Tuesday is over. And while Mijente is independent of the Sanders campaign, Genis said that her group is also relying on younger generations to drive support for Sanders. “These leaders are talking to their parents and their grandparents,” she told me. “The people that are fuera Trump” — Trump out — “that I’m meeting now are often younger, and some are undocumented. Even if they can’t vote, they’re saying I don’t care, I’m going to mobilize people to vote.”