The campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, the national civil rights group that organized the Freedom Rides, decided to take action. And Sanders helped organize a sit-in at the office of the university’s president, aimed at making him reverse the school’s discriminatory policy. The sit-in lasted for 15 days, as CORE worked out a compromise with the administration—it would vacate the premises if the university included representatives from CORE in a new commission that would study the housing issue.
During his junior year, Sanders, by then president of the university’s CORE chapter, led a picket of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Chicago, part of a coordinated nationwide protest against the motel and restaurant chain’s racially discriminatory policies. Sanders eventually resigned his post at CORE, citing a heavy workload and took some time off from school.
Sanders was fined $25 for “resisting arrest” during a demonstration against segregation in Chicago’s public schools. Chicago Tribune
But he remained active on civil rights. At the time, the University of Chicago was in the midst of a massive urban renewal campaign to remake Hyde Park, a mixed-race neighborhood on the city’s South Side. The result was the eviction of many poor black residents. Sanders, as he would throughout his career, viewed the conflict in his backyard as a piece of a much larger issue, and penned a letter to the editor of the Maroon in February of 1963:
To attempt to bring about a “stable interracial community” in Hyde Park without hitting, and hitting hard, the segregation and segregation mentality that exists throughout this city, is meaningless. Hyde Park will never solve its racial problems until these problems are solved throughout the city. Segregation (in the form of “benign quotas”), the promise to white people that Negroes will not be freely admitted into the neighborhood, cannot work on any long term basis.
In the summer of 1963, Sanders took a bus to Washington, DC, to attend the March on Washington. That same summer, he was charged with resisting arrest during a demonstration against segregation in the city’s public schools, and fined $25.
Civil rights weren’t his only passion. Sanders was also active the Young People’s Socialist League (“Yipsel”), a leftist organization which advocated for the “social ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution,” but was explicitly anti-communist. (It fielded an intramural football team called the Budapest Eight, in honor of the Hungarian revolution that was suppressed by the Soviets, and enjoyed a rivalry with another squad of leftists called the Flying Bolsheviks.) When LBJ aide Sargent Shriver visited campus during Sanders’ senior year to make his pitch for the new Peace Corps, Yipsel organized a picket. In an open letter in the Maroon, the group explained why: “Mr. Shriver, those who are sincerely interested in economic and social justice will not serve as a front for your capitalist system; instead they will oppose it in any way they can.”
Sanders and his cohorts succeeded in nudging the university forward on civil rights over the course of his three years on campus. But it was a struggle. The committee to study the university’s housing practices, for instance, was a far from satisfying outcome for many of the student demonstrators, Sanders included. (When the journalist Rick Perlstein brought up the subject of the compromise in a recent interview, the Senator issued “a weary sigh.”) And after the initial furor over Sanders’ sexual-freedom manifesto died down, life on the quads returned to normal—late-night curfews and all. In that sense, it was an appropriate lesson for a young activist who would go on to spend most of his political career as an outsider. Lasting political change doesn’t come overnight. Even if you use ALL CAPS.