He Has a Dream
The crowd squeals with delight as he presses on: "Don't sell out! Don't back down! Don't give up! Just hold on! I don't care what mistakes you made in life!" Sweat is pouring down his face, and out comes a pressed white handkerchief. In a soft voice, he whispers: "Martin, if you can hear me today, you won." He pauses and then continues: "What do you mean he won? He got killed before he was 40, but he won. What do you mean he won? They scandalized his name. Yeah, he won. What do you mean he won? He left his wife and children young, but he won."
Sharpton is in full flight now. After forty years of preaching he has an exquisite sense of timing: He rocks back and forth on his heels, swaying to the rhythm of his own words. "What do you mean he won? Because on Monday, in the Mississippi Delta, where they used to lynch us, where they cut our daddy's genitals, where they raped our sisters and our mamas, in the Mississippi Delta, the Post Office will be closed, the schools will be closed, the federal buildings will be closed, to honor a black man from Atlanta, Georgia, who kept on dreaming! You won, Martin!"
Massive applause. He's shouting, but his voice retains its force and control. "Martin! Those who swore you were a communist, those who swore you were a womanizer got the day off, 'cause it's your birthday! Don't nobody celebrate George Wallace day! Don't nobody celebrate Lester Maddox day! Ain't nobody celebratin' Strom Thurmond's day! But the rich and the poor and the powerful and the powerless and the failures and the unknowns got to stop Monday! Won't be business as usual. It'll be a holiday 'cause one black man believed in his dreams!"
There's pandemonium in the room. The noise from the crowd is drowning out the sound system, but Sharpton's voice keeps booming through the hall. "Because of Dr. King, I'll never give up! I'll never stop dreaming!" His pace accelerates. "Some of you been hurt, some of you been wounded, some of you got broken hearts, but hold on anyhow! God will make a way! Hold on anyhow! We gonna make it through George Bush! We gonna make it through John Ashcroft! We gonna make it to the promised land! Don't stop dreaming! Don't stop dreaming!"
The first chords of "Amen" emanate from the keyboard, and Sharpton breaks into song. The crowd handles the chorus, while he interjects the verses: "Happy birthday, Martin/Thanks for the dream/never stop fighting..."
Sharpton, 46, has not stopped fighting. In recent years, the man who was once beaten down by a firestorm of criticism has transformed himself into a political kingmaker and a celebrity icon. He still lives in the shadow of his past, but his stamina and resilience have brought him to a new level of recognition and even acceptance. For the first time in his long career, he has a solid infrastructure behind him. In 1991 the New York Times reported that the National Action Network, with three staffers and an office in Brooklyn, had $16.43 in its bank account. Today, NAN has a budget of $1.5 million; three New York offices, including one in the Empire State Building; twelve staffers; new chapters in Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis and Houston; and 4,000 dues-paying members on its New York rolls.
The more significant transformation, however, is in Sharpton himself. While the press analyzes his hairstyle, wardrobe and waistline, he has positioned himself as a national spokesman for African-Americans. Last August Sharpton, along with Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King III, convened the massive "Redeem the Dream" demonstration against police brutality and racial profiling in Washington, DC, which attracted 80,000 people. That was not his first public appearance with the King family: A few months earlier, from the podium of Sharpton's annual black-tie fundraising dinner in Manhattan, Coretta Scott King hailed him as "a voice for the oppressed, a leader who has protested injustice with a passionate and unrelenting commitment to nonviolent action in the spirit and tradition of Martin Luther King Jr."
Sharpton's indefatigable work on police brutality and racial profiling have done much to bolster his reputation. When Amadou Diallo was gunned down by New York City policemen in February 1999, Sharpton spearheaded a thirteen-day protest movement that resulted in over 1,100 choreographed arrests. "What progressives talked about, we did," he said recently. "There has not been a better example of multiracial progressive civil disobedience since the 1960s than the Diallo movement."