Associated Press

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) – Civil rights leader John Lewis on Saturday softened his dismissal of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ work in the 1960s on behalf of racial equality.

Lewis, a Georgia congressman who has endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race, had said about Sanders’ role in the movement: "I never saw him. I never met him."

Two days later, he felt compelled to clarify his remarks "in the interest of unity."

"The fact that I did not meet him in the movement does not mean I doubted that Sen. Sanders participated," Lewis said, and "neither was I attempting to disparage his activism."

As the campaign swung South to South Carolina after early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders’ team rolled out a television ad extolling his commitment to civil rights and saying "no president will fight harder to end institutional racism."

South Carolina’s Democratic primary is Feb. 27, followed by others across the South in states with predominantly African-American Democratic voters. Sanders trounced Clinton in New Hampshire after a tight finish in Iowa, two states with a less diverse electorate.

On his campaign website, Sanders says he has a "long history of fighting for social equality and the rights of black Americans – a record that goes back to the early 1960s."

While a student at the University of Chicago, Sanders was involved in the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He also was arrested while protesting segregation.

Lewis, a leading figure in the Freedom Rides through the South, lunch counter sit-ins and the 1963 March on Washington, had made his remarks about Sanders at a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday where members of the Congressional Black Caucus’ political action committee delivered a strong endorsement of Clinton.

But in his statement Saturday, he said, "Thousands sacrificed in the 1960s whose names we will never know, and I have always given honor to their contribution."

Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Sanders noted his endorsement of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid as evidence of his record on supporting black candidates.

"There were, very, very few white public officials at that point who were endorsing Jackson, but I thought what he was saying made sense. I had the courage to do that," Sanders said. He added that he thought his message of political reform would resonate with African-American and Latino voters.

"We think we’re going to do a lot better in South Carolina than people many people believe," Sanders said.

In a telephone interview on Saturday, Rev. Jesse Jackson told The Associated Press that the civil rights movement took different forms across the country and that Sanders had participated in efforts aimed at equitable housing while in college.

"There is some evidence that he was a part of protests at the University of Chicago," Jackson said. "The movement in the north was different than the movement in the South."

Jackson, a Greenville native who has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary, met with Sanders last year.

Jackson also said that either candidate’s history or experience pales in comparison to the importance of their current stances on issues that appeal to black voters.

"We make a mistake in trying to measure what Sen. Sanders or Hillary Clinton stand for by looking in the rear-view mirror," Jackson said. "I see both Hillary and Bernie as being decent, forward-looking people."


Catherine Lucey reported from Reno, Nev.

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