If you had any doubt at all about the political clout the Rev. Al Sharpton has accrued since the start of the Obama administration, seeing the political heavyweights who showed up and spoke at the 20th-anniversary convention of his National Action Network (April 6-9) should put those doubts to rest. President Barack Obama himself made remarks at a gala celebration for the convention Wednesday night in New York City, with several cabinet secretaries addressing the gathering in daytime sessions.
It appeared that President Obama, by addressing a gathering of mostly black civil rights activists so soon after kicking off his re-election campaign, is signaling that he would not make the same mistake again that took place during the 2010 midterms: calling on members of his base at the 11th hour, when it was way too late to rally them against the GOP tide. It was also the fulfillment of a campaign promise he'd made in 2007 when then-candidate Obama spoke at a NAN gathering.
"Back then I had fewer supporters," he quipped Wednesday night at the Keepers of the Dream awards gala, which recognizes those who continue the mission of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Most of you couldn't pronounce my name … I had a lot fewer gray hairs."
Earlier in the day, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, as well as former Senior White House Adviser David Axelrod, all addressed a packed room of hundreds of members and guests of NAN at the Sheraton hotel in Manhattan. The gist of their message to the largely black crowd: Speak up and support the president at the polls in 2012, or you won't like what the Republicans have in store for you. The possibility of a government shutdown over the failure of Democrat and Republican lawmakers to agree on the 2011 federal budget adds extra weight to that message.
"Look, I know that as hard as times have been for the country, they've been even harder on minority communities," said Axelrod. "In that environment it's easy to lose heart, but it's also important to remember what's at stake. In 2012 people are going to have a choice. It's not just Barack Obama that's going to be on the ballot. It's going to be things like Head Start, Pell Grants; it's going to be things that will make a big difference for young people." Expected at the convention later in the week to reinforce the message are Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett and Deputy Assistant to the President Michael Strautmanis.
All day, those gathered were reminded by speakers how bad things were — the banking crisis, the mortgage meltdown, the auto-industry implosion — when the president took office. It's another message you can expect plenty of times during the 2012 campaign. "Let's not get amnesia," cautioned Sharpton during his introduction of the president. "He came into office when we had great challenges, and what many people have conveniently forgotten is that this president took this nation from where it had never been before in our lifetimes and put it back on a solid course."
Speaker after speaker emphasized the role of personal responsibility — as voters, parents and citizens — in turning around the country, healing their communities and beating back a White House takeover by the GOP. "Low expectations is the new racism," Sharpton warned, calling to mind a popular Republican catchphrase during the Bush years: "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
Holder distilled the message into this slogan as he discussed how citizens should approach the problem of youth violence in many communities: "Take it personally." President Obama invoked it in relation to the need to better educate our children. "Without parental responsibility, nothing else we do will matter," he said.
In fact, most of the president's address — in front of roughly 1,000 NAN members, politicos and celebrities — focused largely on better education as a solution for the problems our nation faces. He cited the Race to the Top grant program, investment in HBCUs and modifications to the federal student-loan program as accomplishments that will help the nation achieve the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the end of the decade.
Obama also assured the audience that he feels their pain when it comes to tackling chronic unemployment ("I got my start tackling the problems of joblessness and hopelessness that afflict so many of our cities and rural communities") or paying off student loans ("I remember the end of the month"). He acknowledged how worn down many of his supporters feel, the kind of frustration that led veteran Velma Hart to say she was tired of defending the president.
"There are times when change can seem painfully slow to come by," Obama said. "There are times when some of you may have said, I don't know what Obama is doing there. There are times where you lose hope, times when folks in Washington focus on scoring points instead of solving problems. And some of you may just put up your hands and say, politics is too tough. But in those moments when we start asking ourselves if change is possible, you've got to remember what we've done together over the past few years."
He continued, "Remember all the children who will graduate from high school ready for college and beyond. Remember all the Americans who will no longer have to worry about going bankrupt because they got sick. Remember all the families who will no longer be exploited by insurance companies or a credit card company or a mortgage lender."
The president concluded by invoking the image that inspired so many African-American voters back in 2008: that he is "a living testament that change is possible." Willing to go back to that place in their hearts for a few moments, the audience gave the president a warm standing ovation as a send-off.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson, one of the honorees at the gala where Obama spoke, was among those left impressed by the day's proceedings. "How great was it that the president came to speak tonight, and brought so many members of his administration down to the conference?" Johnson remarked to The Root, adding that he looked forward to helping to raise money for the 2012 re-election run.
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.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is senior editor-at-large of The Root and a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editorial consultant. Follow her on Twitter.