- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders may be about to hit a “black firewall” in South Carolina, as one Vermont activist on race issues put it Friday, but support for him appears to run deep in Vermont’s tiny black community.

While progressive politics and home-state loyalty appeared to boost support for the state’s U.S. senator at a Black Lives Matter event at the Statehouse on Friday, some observers said he could have done more during his time in the U.S. House and Senate to cement relations with residents of color and thereby keep more current on race relations in America.

Dozens of activists gathered Friday to call for a racial justice agenda in Vermont, including more hiring of black teachers and school administrators and having more accountability for state agency hiring practices.

The event followed comments from long-time civil rights leader and Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia, who endorsed former senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton and said he had no recollection of meeting Sanders during the major events of the 1960s civil rights movement, some of which Sanders has said he attended.

Burlington para-educator Ranjii Eddins said he respects Lewis immensely.

“I can’t really speak to his personal experience,” Eddins said. “In my mind, what’s more beneficial and pertinent now is to address people based on what they’re speaking and doing now.”

Mark Hughes, leader of the group Justice For All-Vermont, said he understood why many blacks in South Carolina, site of the next Democratic primary, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus were taking an approach to Sanders that might be summed up with the phrase, “Hello, who are you?”

Because Vermont is 93.5 percent non-Hispanic white, the second-whitest state after Maine, and because Sanders has not done a lot to reach out to people of color during his time in the U.S. House and Senate, “I think there’s a lot of folks from his home state where they might be having the same discussion,” he said.

“We don’t have a lot of interaction with our congressional delegation,” Hughes said.

Still, Hughes, who brought up the “black firewall” in South Carolina, and others said the self-described democratic socialist’s positions on issues including income inequality and criminal justice reform were enough to move many to support him for president.

Vermont Law School student Brittmy Martinez said Sanders “will put forward progressive agendas and not be complacent to what is currently happening.”

“I feel Hillary Clinton is saying we’re doing good and we need to keep the momentum,” Martinez said.

Martinez, who grew up in Houston, said she found Vermont more open to discussions like the one the activists took to the Statehouse on Friday.

“The fact that we have the space and the platform to speak on it … that’s what Bernie Sanders stands for,” she said. “I think a lot of black people here in Vermont support him because of what Vermont stands for.”

At a Democratic debate in Wisconsin on Thursday, Clinton and Sanders tangled over immigration reform, an issue closely watched by Hispanics, and discussed ways of addressing institutional racism, an issue of interest to blacks. Sanders, who handily won the New Hampshire primary, said the guiding light for him on immigration reform “is to bring families together, not divide them up.” Clinton, who narrowly won the Iowa caucuses, said the first speech she gave on her campaign was about “criminal justice reform and ending the era of mass incarceration.”

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