ATLANTA—Marcus Ferrell may have the most difficult job in the 2016 presidential campaign—convincing black folks to “feel the Bern.”
As the Bernie Sanders campaign’s director for African-American outreach and Southeast political director, Ferrell, 38, knows his candidate won’t win the nomination without significant black support. When I catch up with him on a recent Monday morning in his team’s third-floor office inside the Atrium Building, in the city’s downtown, he is friendly but clearly burned out. He has just caught a 5 a.m. red eye from Nevada.
“I haven’t slept at all,” he says, looking down at me from his 6-foot-4-inch frame.
He takes me to a back room where we can have some privacy and quiet. The only furniture is a simple, six-seat table lightly stacked with Sanders campaign materials and the two office chairs we’re sitting in. Staffers and volunteers come in and out of the room handing him paperwork to review or reminding him not to forget something.
Ferrell needs all the help he can get.
Recent polling data suggests Sanders won’t win the black vote on Super Tuesday next week, when Georgia and 10 other states vote in the primaries. Ferrell and his staff are also up against former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 25-year courtship of black people on the national stage. Ferrell adds that President Bill Clinton, despite his harmful 1994 crime bill, gave black people unprecedented access to the Oval Office, which many African-Americans are still thankful for.
“He was probably one of the first presidents to open up the doors to the White House,” he said. “Probably one of the first people to open up the doors for minorities who have always tried to figure out, ‘How do I get in here and make this money?’ I’m not going to give him a shining endorsement, but I will say that’s the reason so many of the folks I look up to have so much respect for him. He helped open up black consulting. Yeah. I’ll admit that.”
Ferrell is careful not to say anything that could be construed as a jab against Hillary Clinton, focusing our conversation on his team’s strategy to gain black support. He joined the Sanders campaign after the senator’s still-criticized July appearance at the Netroots Nation conference. During his one-on-one interview with journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, protesters interrupted, shouting, “Black lives matter!” Sanders looked like he didn’t know what to do or how to respond. When he did, it came off as abrasive and patronizing.
“Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” he said. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”
It got worse from there.
Ferrell says Sanders has come a long way since then, pointing to a 20-point gain in black support in South Carolina in the six months since he joined the team. Until now, no one has spoken with Ferrell at length about his job as Sanders’ top adviser on all things African-American. Frankly, given how challenging it’s been for Sanders to register with black people, some find it surprising that Ferrell (or any other black person, for that matter) would want the job.
So, I have to ask: Why you?
“My people not getting free as fast as I want them to get free,” he replies. “Us not giving economic equality a try right now. I saw what happened in 2007. I have friends who lost their houses. And I saw it from 2007, not just from 30 to 40 years of economic poverty and inequality. I’m talking about since 2007, where well-to-do black families lost their homes and their dad, with a college degree, is trappin. Trappin right now. Never got out of that rut. But in 2006, he was happy as hell because he bought that brand new house with a loan that wasn’t backed up by wealth.”
(Explainer: You may not be used to political operatives using the term “trappin,” but it simply means selling drugs.)
Sanders has pulled a notable number of respected celebrities to back his candidacy. Killer Mike, an Atlanta-based rapper and the senator’s most active surrogate, relies on his street cred to argue that Sanders is just not some liberal white man-come-lately. Harry Belafonte, Spike Lee, and Danny Glover have also thrown their support behind Sanders. Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, his biggest political supporter to date, came on board in November.
None of these additions seem to have convinced black people that Sanders is the better alternative to Clinton.
So far, not enough black voters seem to be buying into Sanders’ message of economic inequality. The senator does a great job identifying the problems black people face, but critics say that he provides few solutions that will actually address them—and that many of the solutions he does provide are hopelessly unrealistic.
When I ask Ferrell how he plans on overcoming that perception, he says part of his team’s strategy is convincing African-Americans that “Bernie’s candidacy is a pathway to start the process of becoming economically free.” Moreover, he says many loyal Clinton supporters who voted for then-Sen. Barack Obama over her in 2008 don’t want to do so again in 2016.
Ferrell says the campaign has had to spend time and money fighting the media over months-long mischaracterizations of his candidate, such as the assertion that Sanders is unwilling to speak about race beyond talking points. When I ask Ferrell to point me to a speech where he doesn’t do that, he brings up Sanders’ speech on race at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in July. Media, Ferrell says, underplayed it. One report really bothered him.
“You know what the headline said? ‘Bernie Sanders Speaks At SCLC Meeting.’ That was it,” he says. “We got a blurb. One blurb. And it probably was one of the most important speeches on this presidential campaign.”
Ferrell knows Clinton has a lot of older black voters on lock, so his team is courting younger ones heavily to make up the difference. On Feb. 16, Sanders makes a stop here to speak at Morehouse College, a historically black institution. The event is Ferrell’s team’s most important to date because it can prove they can actually organize a black Bernie rally. They would come close.
Hundreds of black students, many bused in from surrounding colleges and universities, stream toward Forbes Arena, where Sanders is set to speak. Most of the people waiting to be patted down by the Secret Service are white, but when I run into Ferrell on the way to the entrance, he says it’s the biggest showing of black attendees at any rally the campaign has organized.
“You need to take pictures of all of this,” he tells me. Danny Glover, the campaign’s HBCU Outreach Director, estimates the crowd at 5,500 at a 6,000-seat arena, and it appears that close to half the people in the stands are black. I walk around the arena for an hour or so to get a sense of how many black people were actual Bernie supporters. Half tell me they are voting for the senator; others are undecided.
Sanders makes it to the stage after several supporters charge up the crowd (including Jasmine Guy, better known as Whitley Gilbert from A Different World), and the arena erupts into cheers. He launches into his usual stump speech, railing against Wall Street, and rattling off numbers as examples of economic racism against African-Americans. A lot of black people in the stands nod their heads in agreement.
As Ferrell sees it, they were looking at the man who will lead the next political revolution. It’s a term Sanders uses often, and a lot of people are unclear on what the hell it means. I ask Ferrell to break down what a political revolution represents for black people.
“Fulfilling the wishes of MLKs, Fannie Lou Hamers and movements before us to get us to a place where we can start talking about being free,” he says. “There are rich and powerful people that are making money off of the African-American community that Bernie is fighting against. A lot of the reasons why we’re poor or we’re hurting or there’s systematic racism comes from the laws that aren’t allowed to be put in place. And why won’t they be allowed to be put in place? Because there are very rich people who are influencing our lawmakers to not even bring it on board. So what we’re talking about is cutting the snake off at the head, not trying to chop it up from the tail up. That’s the political revolution. That’s what it means to black people.”
It’s easy to understand why Ferrell is drawn to Sanders’ message of fighting economic inequality. He grew up in the black part of Tallahassee, Florida, where his mother, Rosetta Bobo, a native of Mississippi, took every every chance she got to teach her son how to fight racism. She told me about a time when Bernard, as she and the family call him, got into a fight on the school bus with some white kids when he was in the ninth grade. All of the black kids were told they could no longer ride the bus, but the white kids weren’t punished at all, as Bobo remembers. She had to go to the school and insist that her son be allowed back on.
As a young black man, “You aren’t going to be treated the same,” she recalls telling him. It was the first of many lessons his mother would teach her son about racism. Ferrell says his mother’s upbringing informs his political outlook to this day. He enrolled at Florida A&M University in 1996, but didn’t graduate. That year, as an 18-year-old freshman, he cast the first ballot of his life for Bill Clinton’s re-election.
“Though he’s campaigning against my candidate right now, it was his election that got me interested in politics,” Ferrell says. “I was wondering, ‘Why are all of these black people around me supporting him?’ So, it got me interested in the process.”
He served five years in the U.S. Navy before returning to Tallahassee in 2002 and got involved in local politics and community organizing. Nine years later, the Occupy movement’s focus on empowering the 99 percent drew him to organizing on behalf of the city’s poor black population, whom he felt the movement was ignoring. His first major position in local politics was as field director for the 2011 mayoral campaign of Alvin Brown, who won and became the first African-American mayor of Jacksonville.
Justin Spiller, an attorney and former vice-chair of the Florida Democratic Party, remembers him as a keen political operative who had the respect of the Jacksonville community.
Marcus can tell you what’s really going on out here,” he says of his friend of six years. “And not some ol’, ‘I’m a homeboy telling you this.’ He sees statistics. He sees the game. He’s not out here just armchair quarterbacking.”
A Brown campaign video shows Ferrell in action. He’s charging up his canvassing team, telling them the naysayers are wrong about their shot at winning.
“We gots to work,” he says in the video. “We’re underfunded. Understaffed. And everybody in the city thinks we ain’t got got a chance. But guess what the polls say?”
“We do,” a woman out of camera view says in a soft tone.
Ferrell gestures in agreement.
In 2016, he’s up against new naysayers and the polls aren’t in his candidate’s favor this go-around; most polls report Bernie doesn’t have a shot with black voters.
When I ask Ferrell how he is going to reverse the course, he analyzes the challenge through a hip-hop analogy. Leading the campaign’s black outreach efforts is very much like the ebbs and flows of a 16-bar rap verse, he said. It may not start off great, but a real MC can pick it up around the eighth bar and bring it home on the sixteenth.
“I think this campaign is like 1994 hip-hop, when it was raw,” he said. “I personally think that was the best year of rap. Maybe ’93 closely follows behind it. And I think this campaign organically matches that. We’re right before you blow up and way before you sell out. Now, we’re on the cover of Source magazine at this very moment. That’s where Bernie is. He’s that ’94, drop that Five Mic album. He still hasn’t become a billionaire yet. He’s not the rap mogul. But he just dropped his first album and it was a raw album. It was pure. Now, it’s on us to keep him accountable and make sure the rest of his albums don’t go pop.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.