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Sharpton still matters


Should the Rev. Al Sharpton get a prime spot during the Democratic National Convention? And if he is allowed to speak, will it matter?

As the race for the Democratic nominee heads toward the finish line, it is already obvious that Rev. Sharpton will not be the nominee, but then nobody — not even Sharpton himself — ever thought that he would be. It is also becoming obvious that Sharpton won’t arrive at the Democratic Convention with anywhere near the number of delegates or clout that Jesse Jackson had 20 years ago when he made his first run for the presidency; Jackson registered a record number of voters and delivered one of the most memorable convention speeches ever. When Sharpton first announced his candidacy in January 2003, he indicated that this was precisely the kind of effect he hoped to have. But without the clout of delegates — and it is all about the delegates — it is unlikely that he will live up to even his own expectations.

Then again, the majority of Southern states have yet to weigh in as of this writing. He just might be able to get the large numbers of black voters in those states to buy into the idea that a vote for Sharpton is not a wasted vote but a vote for a loud African-American voice in a party that’s turning a deaf ear to our concerns while still counting on our undying support.

Randall Robinson, who has been at the forefront of numerous civil rights and human rights battles on behalf of African-descended people throughout the diaspora, said on the Tavis Smiley radio show last week that he has become so fed up with America and the way it continues to ignore the concerns of blacks that he is leaving the country and moving to the Caribbean. For years, I’ve heard many other black leaders express the same thing. The Democrats take us for granted and the Republicans ignore us altogether. This is not to say that these folks are on the Sharpton bandwagon, but it does lend credence to the perception among many black voters that we are being increasingly marginalized and kicked to the curb with each passing election.

So if that’s true, then where does that leave black America in 2004? If black voters — Sharpton’s base — decide that beating President George Bush is more important than being heard once Bush has (hopefully) been defeated, then that will deal a serious blow to Sharpton’s influence on the national stage. Unlike Jackson, who worked hard to represent himself as a candidate who was not only campaigning on behalf of African Americans but of all America’s dispossessed (remember “Save the Family Farmer”?), Sharpton doesn’t hide the fact that he is really in this for the black folks. Anybody who runs for office and says openly that they want to do more for black people in this country, and who still insists that racism is a major problem that needs to be confronted at the national level as it was during the days of Martin Luther King Jr., will automatically turn off the majority of white voters. Most whites are tired of hearing about racism because most whites want to believe that racism was effectively banished with the so-called conclusion of the civil rights movement.

Sharpton’s unwillingness to be silent about the fact that racism persists and that the civil rights movement is far from over, combined with his uncompromising focus on the so-called “urban issues” that are of primary concern to his support base, are among the reasons he has not been able to extend his appeal far beyond African-Americans. Once you stir in some of the shadier, murkier aspects of Sharpton’s past, such as the handling of the Tawana Brawley mess, then it becomes clear why he has never managed to quite catch fire like Jackson did, despite his brilliant speaking abilities and his willingness to focus attention on issues that none of the other candidates will touch.

And, of course, it’s pretty hard to overlook the recent allegations reported by The Village Voice, a longtime critic of Sharpton’s, that “Roger Stone, the longtime Republican dirty-tricks operative who led the mob that shut down the Miami-Dade County recount and helped make George W. Bush president in 2000, is financing, staffing, and orchestrating the presidential campaign of Reverend Al Sharpton.”

So once again, where does that leave black folks in 2004? If Sharpton’s voice is erased, then who can we count on to argue on our behalf? A colleague of mine suggested that perhaps blacks should consider getting out the vote for the Democratic nominee this time around since removing Bush is so important, but then working to elect an “electable” Democratic black candidate in 2008. There is merit in this approach, but I don’t see a black Democratic Colin Powell on the horizon who has the ability to unite the base.

Moreover, unless the eventual Democratic nominee, whether it be Sen. John Kerry or Sen. John Edwards, suddenly finds himself having lots to say about the current battered condition of urban America and what he plans to do about it, then I don’t how we can do without Sharpton. Although certain issues important to urban voters are being addressed by Kerry, such as the importance of keeping more jobs from skipping overseas — or the importance of job creation, period — neither he nor Edwards has come forward with a commitment to anything that even rhymes with urban agenda.

Somebody at the convention needs to speak to these issues out loud and directly. And despite his faults and liabilities Sharpton is the only somebody in sight, as he proved several months ago at the Fox Theatre candidates’ debate, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. Sharpton was the only one to speak to issues relating directly to Detroit without being prodded by Fox TV news anchor Huel Perkins.

With a lot of African-American voters here in Detroit, especially after the recent candidate snub at the Freedom Institute’s Town Hall Meeting, it’s not as much about how much better a Democrat would be for America than Bush, but whether that Democrat can be trusted to remember us if he gets into office. It won’t be easy to sell black voters on the prospect of either a wealthy, white elite Northeasterner or an all-smiles Southerner as urban saviors unless the ultimately anointed savior makes his presence felt in the urban areas.

And it won’t be easy to keep either candidate focused on urban issues unless someone is holding his feet to the fire. Right now Rev. Al Sharpton is the one in the best position to keep the fires high.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]

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