I arrived in New York for the National Action Network National Convention expecting to see something interesting, but not knowing what interesting would look like. Many of the names that normally appear as email text would suddenly be connected to faces I’d never seen in person. I tend to shy away from the celebrity types, since I enjoy producing my own ideas without the obstructive distraction of incestuous personal connectivity. While I enjoy interacting with others who do what I do, I try my best to tell it like it is. I also looked forward to seeing high action, high energy NAN members up close, which is always both thrilling and challenging. NAN doesn’t mess around.
Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is unlike any other group in America. They don’t get together to talk about what will make the world a better place, they actually get out there and do it. They don’t sit and clap for you if they think you’re unworthy. They stand up and tell you when to sit down and shut up. They are national in scope, with the heart of tough New Yorkers. I find them to be incredibly passionate and progressive.
That passion came to the surface when Fox News host Bill O’Reilly showed his face at the convention. O’Reilly was booed off the stage after showing tremendous disrespect for the Civil Rights Movement. I am not sure if it was deliberate or not, but it didn’t take him long to get the audience agitated. They weren’t taking any of his stuff. One must give O’Reilly credit for showing up in the first place, but we’d be remiss not to ask why he was even there.
Another highlight of the conference was the speech given by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Although Duncan is less than inspiring in his speaking presence, he gave an address that was respectful and empathetic to the challenges of members of the audience. He did a good job of reminding the crowd that he is well-informed of the educational hurdles of black and brown children across America, and I am convinced that he and Obama want to do the right thing. In other words, I was persuaded just a little bit, and I hope that his words are backed up by relevant policy.
I also had a chance to speak for 20 minutes one-on-one with the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Bill Spriggs. We didn’t see eye to eye on the black unemployment situation, but there was mutual respect. Spriggs made the valid argument that African-Americans are doing better than 20 years ago, when the economy was as bad as it is today. He stated that while a 16.5 percent unemployment rate is high, it is not nearly as high as the 25 percent unemployment rate that African-Americans experienced under Ronald Reagan.
My concern about Spriggs’ argument was that it almost seems to argue that we should give up (at least temporarily) on the concept of obtaining true equality in the short-run. It says that “you were once in the fire, and now you’re just in the frying pan. We are not abusing you as much as the last guy.” I can understand why someone would use such an argument, but it must be remembered that there is never an excuse to stop fighting aggressively for real economic equality in America. Black people are tired of living at the back of the economic bus and we should demand our respect.
I saw the faces of NAACP President Ben Jealous and Rev. Jesse Jackson. I was happy to see that Jackson was invited, in spite of his affiliation with Tavis Smiley (who is fast becoming the new Rush Limbaugh of the black community). Rev. Jackson is a great leader, worthy of our respect. While Smiley is also worthy of respect, his commitment to undermining the Obama presidency has been perceived by millions as being less than tasteful.
At the conference, I also saw a wide array of political figures, union presidents, civil rights leaders, talk show hosts, etc. My favorite? Warren Ballentine, who convinced me that he and I were brothers in a previous life. Warren and I will co-host the National Leadership forum tomorrow with Tom Joyner and Roland Martin. I expect it to be exciting.