Other honorees at the gala included NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, MSNBC President Phil Griffin, Universal Motown President Sylvia Rhone and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders. Martin Luther King III, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), former New York Gov. David Paterson, Spike Lee and Stevie Wonder were among the luminaries in attendance.
MSNBC on-air personalities Tamron Hall and Ed Schultz acted as co-hosts, and Bill Cosby gave a rambling keynote speech on — what else — the need for black people to take personal responsibility for raising their children and creating better communities (“We suffer from too many preachers and not enough sermons,” he said).
Consider the proceedings as the latest step in an evolution that Sharpton has undergone. He entered mainstream public awareness as a bouffant-coifed rabble-rouser who was sued for slander over the Tawana Brawley case (“He was not always listened to; people thought he was a rabble rouser. He was a fat guy in a track suit,” noted former New York Mayor David Dinkins in a short video that was aired during the gala). A tireless champion of justice for police-shooting victims and victims of violence, from Amadou Diallo to Sean Bell, Sharpton ran for president in 2004 (and was later fined by the Federal Election Commission for breaking campaign-finance rules). That bid paved the way for the svelte, silver-haired radio-show host and Beltway power broker of today.
The NAN convention continues through Saturday, with a variety of panel discussions, breakout sessions and celebrations. A panel discussion to be televised Sunday, April 10, on MSNBC, titled “A Stronger America: The Black Agenda,” will be co-hosted by Sharpton and Schultz.
Does the title remind you, of, say, a little “black agenda” summit that talk-show host Tavis Smiley held last March, and the ensuing debate between Smiley and Sharpton over how black leaders should relate to the Obama administration? More than once on Wednesday, Sharpton dropped references to nameless critics of the president “who are more concerned with their posturing than our communities’ development.” Ouch.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is The Root‘s deputy editor.