Republican Niger Innis, an African-American congressional candidate and civil rights advocate, said Thursday the easy thing to do would be to condemn Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy for saying blacks on government assistance might be “better off as slaves.”
Instead, Innis said he picked up the phone and talked for an hour with Bundy about his comments, hoping for what the candidate called “a teachable moment” — and hoping he could convince the rancher how wrong his remarks were.
“I understand his intent, which was to shine a light on a crisis in our urban centers all across the country, particularly in the black community,” Innis said in an interview after he spoke with Bundy Thursday morning. “But I told him he was wrong to bring up the issue of slavery. … He didn’t get it at first.”
In speaking with Bundy, Innis said he compared American slaves’ battle to regain their freedom to Bundy and other Western ranchers’ efforts to gain more freedom to use public lands instead of the federal government controlling them.
“I think he finally got it,” Innis said. “Toward the end of our conversation, he realized he was wrong. … The greatest sin of slavery is it robs people of the very freedom he’s fighting for.”
Asked if Bundy apologized, Innis said, “He did. He said, ‘I’m sorry for using that analogy.’ He did not apologize to me.”
At a news conference later, however, Bundy stood by his comments.
Innis has met several times with Bundy and backs his battle against the Bureau of Land Management, which called off a roundup of his cattle April 12 to avoid a violent confrontation with armed militiamen defending Bundy.
The BLM, backed by two court orders, was rounding up more than 500 head of cattle because Bundy owes more than $1 million in grazing fees and hasn’t paid the agency in 20 years. Bundy claims rights to the Gold Butte land some 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas because his family has been on it since the 1870s.
Bundy’s comments came while chatting with supporters camped out at his ranch.
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said, according to the New York Times, which Thursday first published an account of his remarks. Media Matters later posted a video of Bundy’s comments.
Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas.
“There is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do,” Bundy said. “They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do. And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Innis, a spokesman for the New York-based Congress of Racial Equality run by his father, Roy Innis, said he follows Martin Luther King Jr.’s example of confronting racism when he sees it instead of simply condemning it.
“The easy way out of this is to just condemn,” Innis said. “I think leadership demands more than condemnation. It demands confrontation.”
He said he told Bundy that urban poverty “is not just a black problem. This is an American problem.”
“I said, ‘You may have had a decent intent, but you made a mistake of using the slavery analogy,’ ” Innis said. “I told him his fight for freedom is the thing that was robbed from blacks during slavery. That’s when the light bulb went on.”
Innis helps run a school that teaches U.S. citizenship and English to immigrants, he said. Bundy invited class members to come to his ranch for a barbecue “to get to know him and his family.”
Innis said he plans to outline his first piece of proposed legislation, the Nevada Parity Act. He said its goal is to reduce the amount of Nevada land the federal government controls, now 85 percent, to about 45 percent, the average of the nine states with the most land under federal control.
Innis is running in the 4th Congressional District, which includes Bunkerville. His June 10 GOP primary opponent is Assemblyman Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite. They’re trying to unseat freshman U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev.
Horsford, who met Thursday with Mesquite officials about the BLM-Bundy matter, condemned Bundy.
“Cliven Bundy’s remarks are truly hateful,” said Horsford, Nevada’s first black congressman, who grew up in North Las Vegas in a poverty-stricken family. “His despicable comments about ‘the Negro’ belong in the dustbin of history.”
Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.