by E.R. Shipp
The Rev. Al Sharpton, in the public eye since his days as a teenage civil rights advocate, has changed before our eyes so many times. He has gone from the big-mouthed "No Justice! No Peace!" local protest leader to someone who is comfortable with Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, conservative big mouths on the Fox News Network. He has shed the neon-colored jogging togs for tailored suits. The big hair has become a more conservative perm.
And, along the way, as Sharpton's National Action Network convention in New York City this week has demonstrated, he has become someone who can attract the Republican National Committee as a sponsor and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee as a speaker. Sharpton has long had ties to the entertainment world, but this time around the performers included Wyclef Jean, Mariah Carey, The Roots band and Miri Ben-Ari — all Grammy winners.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg profusely thanked Sharpton and the National Action Network (NAN) "for being our partners in starting to turn our schools around" and noted that Sharpton and the city's school chancellor are working on a national equality project. "They are actually a powerful one-two punch in the fight for quality and equality in schools coast to coast," he said at a gala awards dinner that was also an opportunity for the lionization of Sharpton. "Al, this dinner honors keepers of the dream - Dr. King's dream, the American Dream-and if we continue to work together for the young people of our city, then we can make the dream and dignity for all of them a reality. Thank you for everything you are doing."
That's a far cry from the days when Mayor Rudy Giuliani made no secret of his disdain for Sharpton and refused to meet with the reverend during his eight years in office. Now he has the implicit support of President Obama, who sent messages to the conference through members of his cabinet who are participating, including his Secretary of Health and his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who used the occasion to announce actions that will immediately benefit many people facing housing difficulties.
Both Sharpton, through NAN, and Jesse Jackson, through Rainbow PUSH, lay claim to being direct successors to Martin Luther King Jr. To some extent, I suppose they each have a point. Jackson was head of MLK's Operation Breadbasket, which became Rainbow Push after internal disagreements within SCLC, headed by MLK until his assassination, led Jackson to go out on his own. Sharpton was a youth leader who went on to found the National Youth Movement, which was not exactly a national movement, and then went on to found NAN. Sometimes he and Jackson are thick as thieves. Sometimes they are rivals. Sometimes they are brothers; at other times they are mentor and mentee. Jackson was among those singing Sharpton's praises at the NAN conference. So was Bill Cosby, the keynote speaker Thursday night.
It clearly takes a lot of money to put on one of these conferences, which I liken to a traveling caravan that will also see similar events produced in various cities by Jackson's Rainbow PUSH and by some of the old line civil rights organizations, as well as national church organizations and sororities and fraternities. There is lots of glad-handing as preachers, politicians, business people and media people work the room during dinners and lunches. It's the ultimate in networking.
This is a win-win for all who showed up, whether in person or in corporate sponsorships. The politicians become more legitimate in connecting with their constituencies. The corporations like Home Depot and Wal-Mart, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Toyota show their connection to their consumers - and their diversity officers and community outreach officers can justify their salaries. NBC Universal has had a big presence, and its president and chief executive officer, Jeff Zucker, who has not had a very good year, was nevertheless presented the Corporate Executive of Excellence Award.
The veterans of various civil rights and human rights struggles can feel appreciated and rewarded. The organization brings in money and gains higher media recognition. And Sharpton is recognized as a primary keeper of the dream.
The question is how much all this will mean for the people who are the subject of so many panel discussions, including those who are unemployed, those who are facing the loss of their housing, those with no health care and those who are incarcerated.
The conference, for which about 5,000 people registered, continues through Saturday.
E.R. Shipp won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996.