Back in 2011, when President Barack Obama last spoke at the National Action Network Convention, NAN's founder and president, the Rev. Al Sharpton, introduced him, saying, "He took this nation from where most of us have never been in our lifetime and put us back on a solid course."
Three years later, as NAN prepares for its 2014 gathering, which is scheduled to include remarks by the president for the second time since he's been in office, the organization is strategizing about what it will take to stay on that "solid course" when it comes to voting rights, health care, criminal justice and a host of other civil rights issues.
We spoke to Sharpton about what he hopes to hear from Obama, why he has included a focus on the perspectives of black intellectuals and the concrete results he expects from the conference, which will take place in New York City April 9-12.
The Root: What is your primary goal for the conference?
Al Sharpton: The main goal is to come out with an action agenda for the midterm elections to protect our voting rights and to also make, in 23 states … "Stand your ground" a paramount issue as people decide what state legislator and congressional candidates they'll support. The goal is to impact, from a policy point of view, the midterm election, similar to what we did with stop and frisk in New York City.
Every year we end our convention with what we call "Measuring the Movement," where we lay out in each area the issues that are discussed and what we're going to do on those things. We lay it all out, and the next year we report on what we did and did not do. This conference isn't about socializing and partying—it's action and accountability.
TR: What do you hope to hear from the president?
AS: I hope that we hear from him about the issues of income inequality and the continued imbalance based on race in this country, both where he has gone and where he wants to go … He's generally been supportive of policies. It will be good to have him there.
TR: How have things changed, from NAN's perspective, since his 2011 remarks?
AS: We're further down the road. No one needed affordable health care more than the African-American community. For the Justice Department to stand up on voter ID and "Stand your ground" was, in my opinion, huge. I've not seen a Justice Department more active since the 1960s. I think if we're talking about a civil rights agenda—"Stand your ground," stop and frisk, voter ID, commuting sentences—they've been solid. A lot of that is because of continued dialogue and meeting with civil right leaders and with the Congressional Black Caucus.
TR: The agenda includes a lot of input from academics from the legal field and the social sciences, and even a "black intellectuals" panel. Why is it important to include their views?
AS: I think that its importance is a two-way street. We need to hear what academics think, and we want them to put things in perspective. Historically, where are we? How should we be looking at these times? How would people 50 and 100 years ago be looking at us?
They have the intellect to contextualize it. And they need to hear from the NAN delegates because there are many times they're in ivory towers and they may talk about people they never talk to or have an understanding [of] beyond what they see in the news.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.