If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would be turning 82 years old. And one can only imagine what he would think about the country he fought to make better and live up to its promise, or the first black president whose ascendancy he predicted. The King holiday is a day devoted to service, and it is a perfect time to reflect on the legacy of a quintessentially American hero. This is also a good opportunity to reflect on the future of black leadership. One person that comes to mind is Al Sharpton, the reverend, the civil rights activist, talk show host and author. Is Al Sharpton the next de-facto leader to fill Dr. King’s shoes, or at least will he come close to trying?
If Sharpton is the prime candidate for the next leader to pick up the mantle of Dr. King, then Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. of Rainbow/PUSH is his immediate predecessor. A former King aide who was present at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when the civil rights leader was shot on the balcony, Jackson took electoral politics further than any African-American in history.
With Chicago as his base, Jackson ran for president in the 1984 and 1988 Democratic primaries, garnering 21 percent of the vote and 8 percent of the delegates the first time around. In 1988 he did even better, winning 11 state primaries and 6.9 million votes. Media pundits patronizingly asked, “What does Jesse want?” According to some critics, after the 1988 election Jackson squandered the opportunity to build a political and social movement with the Rainbow Coalition he created. At the same time, supporters point to Jackson’s successes, including his diplomatic and negotiating skills, which secured the release of Americans held hostage in troubled areas of the world. However, recent scandals including a well publicized gaffe during Obama’s presidential bid has contributed to the notion that Jackson’s star has faded, making way for Sharpton.
WATCH REV. SHARPTON DISCUSS DR. KING’S LEGACY ON ‘MEET THE PRESS’
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Unlike King, whose base was in the South, Rev. Alfred C. Sharpton, Jr. is a New Yorker. At a young age, after his father left, he moved with his family from Hollis, Queens in New York City to the projects in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Brownsville was a hot spot in the struggle for the African-American community to control the education of their children, in a neighborhood whose teachers were predominantly white and Jewish.
In 1969, Jackson — Sharpton’s former mentor — appointed Sharpton the youth director of his group Operation Breadbasket, which fought for better jobs for the black community. In 1991 Sharpton founded the National Action Network, which, according to its website, is one of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations, with chapters throughout the country. “NAN works within the spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote a modern civil rights agenda that includes the fight for social justice and one standard of justice and decency for all people regardless of race, religion, national origin, and gender,” according to the organization.
Sharpton has built on the civil rights legacy by committing himself to a host of issues, including law enforcement, education reform, child development, immigrant rights, prisoner’s rights, business development, homelessness, and others. Sharpton recently asked the FCC to ban Rush Limbaugh for his bad habit of making racially offensive remarks on the air. He teamed up with the New York City Police commissioner for a gun buyback program to take deadly weapons off the streets. Sharpton led the Redeem the Dream march against police brutality and racial profiling, which commemorated the 37th anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. and Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Further, his new Decency Initiative addresses the indecency in music and entertainment that has pervaded the black community. And NAN has engaged with the hip-hop community as well.
Sharpton’s similarities and ties to King are evident. His organization is committed to safeguarding the constitutional rights of peaceful petition, assembly and nonviolent protest. NAN’s first chairman, Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, was the founding Pastor of Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church and had served as chief of staff to Dr. King. And to underscore the dangers inherent in social activist, just as King was once stabbed in the chest by a deranged black woman in Harlem, Sharpton was stabbed in the chest by a drunk white man during a Bensonhurst protest on January 13, 1991 — twenty years ago this past week. Controversy has followed Sharpton’s career wherever he goes, which is not uncommon for many high-profile, community-oriented black leaders. His detractors have called him divisive and a demagogue, a radical and a racial arsonist, an attention grabber who craved the limelight. In an earlier time, white critics in particular pointed to his gold medallions, track suits, and trademark hairstyle — an homage to his father figure James Brown — as proof that he was fraudulent and not to be taken seriously. Sharpton’s support for Tawana Brawley earned him the ire of white America.
In 1987, Brawley, a 15-year-old African-American girl, went missing and was found four days later covered with dog feces and racially slurs on her body. She claimed a white police officer had raped her. The officer was cleared of all charges. Large segments of the white community believed the allegations were part of a hoax, but many in the black community believed Brawley, who received support from Sharpton and others.
Over the years Sharpton has evolved, just as anyone else grows and adapts to changing times. But the Reverend has been consistent in his willingness to challenge the people in power. And frequently, if leaders are truly doing their job, they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Martin Luther King and the civil rights workers were regarded as outside agitator by Southern segregationists who didn’t want to disturb the status quo.
The black community has viewed Rev. Sharpton as the person who is always there when you are in trouble and in need of help. He came when no one else would bother. In 1989, Sharpton protested the murder of 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins by a white mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Echoing the “up-South” racism King faced when he fought against segregation and inequality in Cicero, Illinois, Sharpton was greeted by white residents of the neighborhood who held watermelons and shouted “n*****s go home!”
In the 1990s, Sharpton was front and center in the movement against police brutality and misconduct in New York and across the United States. Amidst an epidemic of torture, beatings and shootings of victims of color by law enforcement, Rev. Sharpton took up the cause of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant who was shot to death in a barrage of 40 bullets by NYPD officers in 1999, and whose family was later awarded $3 million in a wrongful death suit against the city. More recently, Sharpton lent his support to the case of Tahisa Miller, who was gunned down by police in Los Angeles, and Sean Bell, who died from 40 bullets from the NYPD.
But even though Dr. King was widely associated with leading a justice movement in the U.S., he knew that the fight for civil rights was also connected to the international realm, particularly with U.S. foreign policy and the war in Vietnam. While more parochially-minded urged King to stay on the domestic civil rights “plantation” so to speak, Dr. King dared to question and condemn the Vietnam War. He paid dearly for his stance, earning a cold shoulder from the Johnson administration. It may have even cost him his life. Certainly, this has not been lost on Rev. Sharpton, who led delegations to Rwanda, Africa and the Sudan to address issues of slavery and genocide. He even spent 90 days in a federal prison for acts of civil disobedience against the U.S. Naval bombing exercises in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
And yet, as Al Sharpton has been a thorn in the side of power structure over the years, he has become an insider. While people cracked jokes about his hair style, he was becoming a power broker. Sharpton ran for Mayor of New York, had three bids for the U.S. Senate, and in 2004 he ran for president as a Democrat. In the age of Obama, when America was supposed to enter post-racial era that never arrived, black civil rights leaders are at times dismissed as obsolete. But Sharpton has proven that black leadership is useful and even necessary on the outside, even when the most powerful leader in the free world is a black man.
Dr. King had a working relationship with President Johnson which led to the passage of the ever-important Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. But King pushed hard and challenged L.B.J. on Vietnam, and the alliance was frayed. Sharpton, on the other hand, is playing the role of Obama shadow cabinet member — an ambassador to the black community, a “go-to” guy who will support the president, and rally the troops when Obama is facing criticism from without. The president needs Rev. Sharpton so that he can continue to “keep it real” with the base. As evidence of Sharpton’s clout with the White House, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan are celebrating King Day with breakfast hosted by the National Action Network. This is a fundamentally different relationship than those of past civil rights leaders and presidents.
Meanwhile, black leadership has morphed into celebrity status in the era of the 24-hour news cycle and media ubiquity. Rev. Sharpton is an activist, to be sure, but he is a mass media personality with a radio show and regular appearances on the broadcast and cable news circuit. Often, civil rights leaders have sacrificed and are required to do so. And with massive poverty, unemployment and economic inequality in America, audacious leadership is necessary to face these problems when elected officials are unwilling or unable to act.
Yet, it is difficult to imagine Rev. Sharpton or other leaders facing the types of sacrifice that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X imposed upon themselves for the sake of the community. After all, King donated his $54,123 in Nobel Peace Prize money to the movement — and that was a lot of money back then. King called for a revolution of values, a fundamental shift in the way the nation operates. And that is why Dr. King was martyred. Whether times have changed, and that is too much to expect from black leadership these days is up for debate.
In the meantime, Rev. Sharpton is stepping up his game, as he continues to build his legacy and his movement. He kicked of the new year by announcing he is writing a memoir, and planning to build a $20 million headquarters in Harlem. Clearly, much of his work is yet to be completed.