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Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders marked Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Birmingham's Boutwell Auditorium. (Photo: Bernie Sanders campaign)

Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders marked Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Birmingham's Boutwell Auditorium. (Photo: Bernie Sanders campaign)

Thousands Turn Out for 'Political Revolution' Rally in Conservative Stronghold Alabama

'To truly honor the life of Dr. King, we must fight to carry out his radical and bold vision for America,' Sen. Bernie Sanders told the overflow crowd of 7,000.

Lauren McCauley

Thousands of supporters, hungry for "political revolution," braved rare sub-freezing temperatures in Alabama on Monday night to rally around the man they hope might bring it.

"There must be a mistake," Sen. Bernie Sanders joked to the diverse crowd of 7,000. "Somebody told me Alabama is a conservative state."

The presidential hopeful marked Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Birmingham's Boutwell Auditorium, where he delivered an impassioned speech on inequality, the challenges that working class Americans face today, and how he hoped to carry out King's vision for this country.

"To truly honor the life of Dr. King, we must fight to carry out his radical and bold vision for America," Sanders told the crowd. "And his vision was of a nation in which we not only end all forms of institutional racism, and bigotry, but a nation in which all of us, black, and white, and Latino, Asian-American, Native American, all of us, come to together to create a country which provides economic, social and environmental justice for all."

Sanders' speech touched upon many of his campaign pillars including single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, a $15 minimum wage, equal pay for women, mandated medical and family leave, a swift transition to renewable energy, breaking up the big banks, and ending corporate welfare.

"I know that people in Alabama and all over this country hear a lot about welfare. Let me tell you who the biggest welfare cheat is in America—it's the Walton family of Walmart. You know why? Because many of their workers are paid wages so low they have to get Medicaid, they have to get food stamps, they have to get subsidized housing," he said.

As the crowd booed, Sanders joked, "You are familiar with Walmart?" Walmart employs roughly 38,000 workers in Alabama. 

"I got a message for the Walton family," he continued. "'Get off of welfare pay [and] your workers a living wage,'" he said. "We're going to help them do that because we have the wild and crazy idea that if you work 40 hours a week in America you should not be living in poverty."

Sanders' campaign estimates that there were 5,700 supporters inside the auditorium while another 1,400 watched the speech on a jumbo TV in an overflow area outside. As the candidate vies for more minority support in the South and elsewhere, the strong showing gave the senator hope.

"I think we'll do pretty well in Alabama on March 1," he said. According to Alabama Votes, roughly a third of the states' 3 million registered voters are minority, and a quarter are identified as African American. "We have got to go out to our white working class friends ... and we have got to go out to our brothers and sisters there and say, 'Stop voting against your own best interest,'" Sanders added. 

The senator's aspirational speech contrasted sharply with that given by his primary competitor Hillary Clinton earlier in the day Monday. Speaking at a rally commemorating King in Colombia, South Carolina—which all three Democratic candidates attended, including Martin O'Malley—Clinton told the crowd: "I don't want to over-promise. I don't want to come out with concept or theories that may or may not be possible."

Observers interpreted this as a dig against Sanders' lofty proposals. However, polls showing Sanders gaining or leading in key primary states, as well as nationally, indicate his big ideas are increasingly well-received.

Birmingham resident Amanda Palmer, who attended Monday's rally, told local reporters that Sanders is "the only person in politics that I can say that I trust," adding, "It's time for a revolution."

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