John Lewis: I did not mean to ‘disparage’ Bernie Sanders’ civil rights activism

After saying he never saw Democratic candidate during 1960 s movement, congressman says he did not mean to voice doubt Sanders was involved

John Lewis, the influential congressman who this week appeared to dismiss Bernie Sanders credentials on civil rights issues, has sought to softened the ensuing controversy over his remarks.

On Thursday, as the Congressional Black Caucus( CBC) political action committee endorsed Sanders rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, Lewis appeared to play down the Vermont senators involvement in the civil rights motion in its 1960 s heyday.

I never insured him, Lewis said. I never met him.

On Saturday, he said he had not meant to express doubt that Senator Sanders participated in the civil right movement, neither was I attempting to disparage his activism.

As the presidential primary campaign changed its focus to South Carolina, which votes on Saturday 20 February, the comment attracted attention. Sanders lost to Clinton in Iowa by a hair and beat her soundly in New Hampshire, but Clinton has a solid support base among African American voters in the south, largely constructed during her husband Bill Clintons two general election wins.

Sanders, whose run for president has assembled significant momentum, has nonetheless trailed Clinton in most national opinion poll.

As a student at the University of Chicago, Sanders was involved in the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee( SNCC ), of which Lewis was chairman. Sanders was also arrested while protesting. On the campaign trail, as he seeks to answer charges from foes that he does not understand contemporary civil rights issues, he has discussed such experiences.

Lewis was a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960 s, prominently involved with the Freedom Riders of 1961, the 1963 March on Washington and Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama in 1965. In Selma, he was badly beaten by police.

On Saturday, the Georgia representative issued a statement through the CBC, in which he said: In the interest of unity, I want to clarify the statement I made at Thursdays news conference.

I was responding to a reporters question who asked me to assess Senator Sanders civil rights record. I said that when I was resulting and was at the center of pivotal actions within the civil right movement, I did not gratify Senator Bernie Sanders at any time.

The fact that I did not gratify him in the movement does not mean I doubted that Senator Sanders participated in the civil right motion, neither was I attempting to disparage his activism. Thousands sacrificed in the 1960 s whose names we will never know, and I have always given honor to their contribution.

Comments by prominent supporters have become a key issue in the Democratic presidential contest. On Friday, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright wrote a New York Times op-ed column in which she sought to explain statements made at a Clinton rally in New Hampshire last week, in which she appeared to say women should vote for Clinton on grounds of gender alone.

Lewis also clarified a comment made on Thursday in which he said he had known Bill and Hillary Clinton in the civil right era.

Lewis said he did not say that I fulfilled Hillary and Bill Clinton when I was chairman of SNCC in the 1960 s.

He added: My phase was that when I was doing the work of civil rights, led the Voter Education Project and organized voter enrollment in the south in the 1970 s, I did intersect paths with Hillary and Bill Clinton in the field. They were working in politics, and Bill Clinton became attorney general of Arkansas in the 1970 s as well.

That began a relationship with them that has lasted until today.

This article was amended on Saturday 13 February 2015. The endorsement of Clinton was made by the CBC political action committee , not the CBC itself as originally stated.

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