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In Bernie’s Brooklyn, Political Revolution Was Mainstream

To many Americans, Bernie Sanders’s brand of socialism seemed to leap onto the national stage from out of nowhere. But in the postwar Jewish Brooklyn where he grew up, the socialist tradition and a veneration for the New Deal were central touchstones of mainstream politics.

Bernie Sanders running track in high school in Brooklyn, New York.

In his two bids for the presidency in the 1950s, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson mobilized support from his leading ally Eleanor Roosevelt’s loyal base of followers in Brooklyn — the vast ranks of which included Bernie Sanders’s mother, Dora. Amid the Korean War, Stevenson challenged Eisenhower by casting himself as a supporter of peace and international cooperation, calling for US adherence to the United Nations policy in Korea and touting his support for the New Deal.

As Eleanor told readers of her widely syndicated “My Day” column in late October 1952, “I think the overriding concern about peace, and about preserving the well-being that the people now enjoy in this country, will make them vote for Governor Stevenson.” Although Adlai got crushed, losing both New York State and the nation by 55-44 percent, he carried Brooklyn by over 200,000 votes. Over one-quarter of those tallies came from the Sanders family’s district in Flatbush (now Midwood).

In late October 1954, Stevenson came back to Brooklyn to stump for Eleanor’s New Deal slate in the New York statewide races — and this time he landed three blocks from the Sanders family’s home. Bernie later explained that his parents “went to only one political meeting that I can recall, when Adlai Stevenson spoke at my elementary school, PS 197.” Bernie (born 1941) was in eighth grade at the time.

Bernie and his parents attended what the then-liberal New York Post described as a “tumultuous rally,” joining one thousand fellow Democratic loyalists who were “yelling themselves hoarse” and “wielding cowbells.” Outside, an additional thousand Stevenson enthusiasts gathered to listen to the proceedings via loudspeakers. Stevenson was there to express support for Averell Harriman, a former Truman cabinet member now running for governor of New York; and FDR, Jr, a member of Congress (representing Manhattan’s Upper West Side) but now vying to become the state’s attorney general.

As the Post noted, Stevenson’s address focused on national rather than local issues. While the governor himself was a relative moderate on economic issues, his stump rhetoric, aimed at New York City’s large base of left-liberals nostalgic for FDR. He accused the Eisenhower administration of “giveaways” to favored business interests. “From taxes to atomic energy,” Adlai declared, and “from oil to timber to grazing lands,” the Republicans had shown “a vigorous consistency in transferring from the many to the few.” More than six decades later, Bernie would echo that critique at his own raucous rallies in Brooklyn and across the nation.

Bernie’s first foray into politics reflected the Cold War humanitarian liberalism espoused by Eleanor and Adlai. In his first few years at James Madison High School, Bernie had been more focused on athletics, gaining notoriety as a standout runner. His older brother Larry (b. 1935) was president of the Young Democrats at Brooklyn College. Larry brought Bernie to a few meetings but says that Bernie did not fully immerse himself in political issues.

As Larry recalls, he and his parents were thus “all caught off-guard” in the fall of 1958 when Bernie told them he planned to run for class president for the spring semester. Bernie then surprised his classmates by making a foreign policy issue the centerpiece of his platform.

Earlier in the fall, Bernie’s friend Myron Kalin — who had been elected as treasurer of the student government and would be named “most popular boy” in the Madison senior yearbook — had helped spread word about the plight of Korean war orphans. Kalin remembers first learning of the hardships faced by the 200,000 children in need (most of whom had been fathered by US soldiers) at a city government event for high school student leaders.

Bernie, one of three candidates for school president, then made the orphans’ plight central to his platform. “It was so far out in terms of what we usually heard,” says Bernie’s classmate (and fellow track star) Lou Howort, “that it went over students’ heads — and I knew he wouldn’t get elected.” Bernie indeed finished third. The winner, Robert Rockfeld, had been the leader of Sing, the school’s very popular musical production group.

Bernie, however, continued to serve as a fundraiser for Madison’s orphan support efforts, which included sponsoring an elementary school student in Korea. With Rockfeld’s assistance, Bernie fulfilled a campaign pledge by organizing a charity basketball game in late March 1959, raising money for the child.

Although Bernie’s initial political work was in sync with mainstream Democrats of the era, his eyes were soon opened to alternative visions. As Bernie later explained to novelist Russell Banks, it was at a freshman orientation event at Brooklyn College in 1959 that he was first introduced to Eugene Debs.

At a table for the campus chapter of the Eugene V. Debs Club, Bernie asked about the group’s figurehead. “We’re the local socialists,” a club member told him. And Bernie said that he was “amazed” because “here there were real live socialists sitting in front of me!”

Even though the campus was known as the “Little Red Schoolhouse,” Bernie was not politically active during the year he spent at Brooklyn College. According to Banks, Bernie’s “one major political act … was to write a letter to the school newspaper complaining about regulation against sitting on the campus grass.”

After his freshman year, Bernie left Brooklyn College for the University of Chicago, where his enthusiasm for Debs grew exponentially — and where he became active with the Congress of Racial Equality and other groups.

Bernie’s first semester in Hyde Park also saw the election of John F. Kennedy, the archetypal cautious Cold War liberal who dodged the pressing issue of segregation. While Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley famously helped deliver Illinois for JFK, the Democrat’s nearly two-thirds margin in Brooklyn enabled him to carry New York. In Brooklyn, JFK united FDR’s Jewish-black coalition with the borough’s large Catholic vote. And in the Sanders family’s district, the Democrat took home over 75% of the vote.

But Bernie had begun to move to the left. It was on the segregated South Side of Mayor Daley’s Chicago, as he later recalled, that he “first began to understand the futility of liberalism.”