This past week, Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network held its 15th annual convention in New York City. Convened over three days at spaces around the city, the convention featured panels, presentations, workshops and a “Keepers of the Dream” banquet where U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was the keynote speaker.
Holder wasn’t the only government official with a presence at the NAN banquet however. The dinner opened with a video address from President Barack Obama, who paid homage to the work of the organization. “When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was marching for change his vision was one of a country that lived up to the promise of its founding documents,” said Obama. “Today, 45 years to the day Dr. King was struck down, it’s a vision the National Action Network has carried on as your own.”
Sharpton, who created NAN more than 20 years ago, spoke with theGrio early last week. “Ours is the first national gathering of civil and human rights activists to include top members of the administration and religious leaders since President Obama’s re-election,” he said.
Holder highlights challenges ahead
Holder spoke from a prepared speech Thursday night highlighting important legal issues within the black community, including disproportionate incarceration and voting rights. Holder promised, as attorney general, to continue to enforce voting rights even in the event the Supreme Court decides to strike down a portion of the Voting Rights Act saying, “as we await the Court’s decision, I want to assure you that – no matter the outcome – the Department of Justice will remain committed to the aggressive and appropriate enforcement of all voting and civil rights protections, including every part of the Voting Rights Act.”
The dinner with Holder headlined the convention but its spirit was perhaps most embodied by the “Measuring the Movement” panel discussion, held on the final day of the convention at First Corinthians Baptist Church in Harlem. The talk was moderated by Sharpton and featured speakers Juanita Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Sr., Marc H. Morial, C.T. Vivian, Otis Moss, Jr. and an assembly of younger activists representing the NAACP, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, among other groups.
The panel struck an interesting tone, separated by generation, with the younger activists on one side of First Corinthians’ pulpit and the “legends” on the other. In the beginning, Sharpton prompted the younger members of the group to share the recent work and initiatives of their respective organizations. They discussed state challenges to voting rights, employment, urban gun violence and education, before the conversation moved over to the legends.
Not a ‘post-racial America’
“We have to understand where we come from to understand where we are,” said Juanita Abernathy, widow of civil rights icon Ralph David Abernathy. “There are so many of our young adults and even older people who don’t understand how we arrived to where we are today … We have opened a lot of doors and think we have arrived but we’re not there. There’s discrimination all over corporate America. There’s still discrimination in or schools, as quietly as it’s kept.”
Palpable in the church – and throughout many of the convention’s events – was a sense of umbrage around the notion of a “post-racial America,” where traditional activism on behalf of the black community’s interests is thought by some to no longer be needed. Jackson, evoking the Biblical narrative of the Hebrews wandering the dessert, called today a “wilderness period.”
Pushing back on that sentiment, Sharpton told the gathering there is a need for continued civil rights activism. “They did not give Mr. Obama and the First Lady the deed to the White House. They gave them a four-year lease,” Sharpton said. “What will happen between now and then and what will happen after they’re gone? We need to be guided by those who made that possible and we need to be prepared so we use this window of time properly. But if we relax, acting like the struggle is over, we’re going to end up worse than it was before we started.”
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR.