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Featured photo by Ciara Kelley

“You ask yourself whether there is authenticity in the voice of the person you are listening to,” said Danny Glover at the Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center on Saturday, Feb. 1. The actor and activist told YES! Weekly that he recognized that quality the first time, he spoke to Bernie Sanders, which is why Glover campaigned as a surrogate for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 and is doing so again in 2020.

Presidential surrogates, meaning celebrities or public figures speaking for candidates on the campaign trail, date back at least to 1860, when the Hutchinson Family, the era’s most popular American singing group, stumped for Abraham Lincoln with speeches as well as songs about abolition and preserving the union. In the 19th century, it was considered unseemly for a candidate for the nation’s highest office to campaign for himself.

Despite the Hutchinsons, most surrogates were politicians rather than celebrities—at least until 1916, when Babe Ruth campaigned for Woodrow Wilson. Of course, the taboo against presidential candidates campaigning for themselves vanished many decades before the 2016 election of Donald Trump, who has since spent almost as much time rallying the faithful as playing golf. Despite this, surrogates are more common than ever.

Glover told YES! Weekly that he began campaigning with Sanders in late 2015, and spent most of the winter and spring of 2016 as Sanders’s surrogate, concentrating on North and South Carolina.

“When I started, Bernie was not yet a household name, at least not then, when the news cycle was dominated by the image of Mrs. Clinton, and before, her, Obama, but I knew about him well before then.”

Glover may be best known as Roger Murtaugh, Mel Gibson’s long-suffering partner in the Lethal Weapon action film franchise, but has won acclaim for performances in The Color Purple, To Sleep With Anger, Witness, Places in the Heart, and The Royal Tenenbaums, as well as the T.V. mini-series Lonesome Dove and Mandela, receiving an Emmy nomination for his title role in the latter.

But he was a city administrator and community developer before he became an actor, and the son of postal workers active in the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement, which led to his own activism, both as a student and afterward. While attending San Francisco State University, he took part in the five-month walk-out that was the longest student strike in American university history, and which helped to create not only the first Department of Black Studies but the first School of Ethnic Studies in the United States.

“I’m a product of movements,” Glover told YES! Weekly, “both as a beneficiary of the civil rights struggle, and as someone who was a student activist in the late-’60s. And as someone who has long been involved in such struggles, whether anti-colonialism or the end of Apartheid or opposition to other ways of subjugation, I recognized something in listening to Bernie.”

Glover said that what he recognized was “a voice that was reshaping and elevating the narrative that I and so many others were looking for, which we had not heard in the voices of Obama and Hillary Clinton.”

He acknowledged that Obama and the Clintons fought for affordable health care. “But the struggle for universal health care is a very old one, going back to Eleanor Roosevelt, and in its early 21st-century incarnation, it was compromised to death.”

“The question now,” he continued (ignoring the hand signals of the person motioning to him to end the interview), “is where do we now take this movement and moment, because what has always happened is that the demand for change always outweighs the accepted notions of change. The demand is so strong, but there are so often compromises within the demand, and when you’ve got someone in a place who is able to talk about what we need, as opposed to what we can get, there’s a different kind of framework. You’ve elevated people’s expectations, but at the same time, you put what I call wholesome pressure on the system, pressure to make the requisite changes that are necessary. And I saw that Bernie was that wholesome pressure.”

The person gesturing to Glover shifted from winding-down to “cut-off” motions, but Glover kept speaking. “If we’re going to carry these, we’re going to have to be right here talking; whether we’re young, whether we’ve been disenchanted with the processes in the Democratic Party, wherever we are, we’re going to talk about those issues and have great expectations not only of Bernie but of ourselves.”

Glover was in Greensboro, attending the International Civil Rights Center and Museum Gala honoring the 60-year anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-In, where he was to be presented with the Trailblazer Award. Other awardees included Al Sharpton (Lifetime Achievement), Clayola Brown (Unsung Hero), and Rev. Dr. Cardes H. Brown, Jr. (Lifetime Community Service).

When the Bernie Sanders campaign reached out to the press and offered individual interviews with Glover, it was requested that questions be confined to the Sanders campaign and the award ceremony. Due to Glover being called to that ceremony earlier than expected, YES! Weekly was not able to ask him about the award or the Sit-In, but he did stay long enough to answer a difficult question, despite the insistence that he was needed elsewhere: Had Sanders’s position on racial inequality evolved since 2016? Some criticized the candidate’s seeming belief that class issues trumped racial ones, particularly after Sanders’s former chief of staff Hank Guttman told NPR that, “Bernie’s central concern has always been with the condition of what he calls working-class families” and has “never been war or civil rights or gay rights or women’s rights.”

“I’m not so familiar with that,” Glover said, “but I know if Bernie said those words directly, he would have since modified that position. He certainly has in his current campaign, where he has talked about the issues of race and his relationship with race and everything that surrounds that. I think that what’s important is that race is pivotal to the issue right here. You can’t construct an idea around change without entering in the factor of this country’s racial injustice. It’s virtually impossible. If that’s what some people thought he said, that’s a whole other thing, but certainly, the whole issue is about race as well as class.”

Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.

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