He Has a Dream
The organization has an annual budget of $1.5 million. Two fundraising dinners each year bring in $300,000. Membership dues and the Saturday morning rallies, which are modeled on Jackson's PUSH rallies in Chicago, add to the total. After he concludes his fiery sermons, Sharpton's demeanor will rapidly shift, from invincibility to vulnerability, and he will blurt out: "This movement doesn't run on sweat alone. I need ten of you to give one hundred dollars right now!" (If the room is crowded, he'll ask fifteen people to step forward.) In that manner, NAN rakes in $1,500-$3,000 every Saturday. Sharpton also has a growing network of black business supporters. They range from Earl Graves Sr., CEO and chairman of Black Enterprise magazine, who gives $100,000 to NAN each year, to Frank Mercado-Valdez, founder of the African Heritage Network, who, according to Rep. Charles Rangel, has a criminal past.
Sharpton's growing ties to the black business community are evident at NAN's office in the Empire State Building, where his Madison Avenue Initiative is headquartered. MAI, which aims to direct advertising revenue to the black press, originated in May 1999, when Sharpton received a leaked memo about marketing to minorities from the Katz Radio Group, an advertising sales firm, counseling clients to seek "prospects not suspects." Sharpton swung into action: He alerted the press to the memo, and formed an organization to combat what he saw as a "blackout" from national advertisers. After meeting with black and Hispanic radio-station owners, Sharpton announced that "we had stations that were No. 1 or No. 2 in a market, but No. 10 or 11 in revenue," and he cited industry data showing that of the $160 billion that is spent marketing to consumers each year, only $870 million went to black-owned media.
More than 100 black and Latino media companies and advertising agencies--including Inner City Broadcasting, Ebony magazine and Black Entertainment Television--have rallied to the MAI, as have the industry trade associations. According to MAI, the campaign has already achieved positive results, among them that Colgate-Palmolive increased its black and Hispanic advertising budget by 22 percent, and the Federated Department Stores (which includes Macy's) did so by 25 percent; PepsiCo increased its minority advertising budget by 13 percent, and even installed Sharpton on its Ethnic Advisory Council.
With MAI, Sharpton has quite consciously sidestepped some of Jackson's mistakes. In recent months the New York Post and The New Republic (along with a conservative watchdog group, The National Legal and Policy Center) have accused Jackson of endorsing the GTE/Bell Atlantic mega-merger in exchange for a $1 million contribution from those firms. MAI, says Sharpton, is carefully structured to avoid the appearance of any quid pro quo: The organization takes a flat fee from its members and refuses corporate--as well as foundation--contributions. "We do not get money from the white corporations that we challenge," Sharpton insists. "That's the real problem Jackson and them were getting into.... How do you fight organizations that you are funded by?" Still, for Sharpton, there are perks built into MAI's structure: If the black media nationwide--radio, TV, print--increase their revenue as a result of MAI's efforts, those media outlets have every reason to dedicate ample coverage to the organization's primary mover and shaker: the Rev. Al Sharpton.
But Sharpton is not content to patrol the corporate suites on behalf of black interests. What he really wants is to lead the entire progressive movement, as Jackson tried to do in the 1980s. "The Democratic Party betrayed us in Florida by not raising the voting rights matter," Sharpton said recently. "There's going to have to be a showdown between the Democratic Leadership Council and the progressive forces." In a fundamental way, Sharpton wants to be Jesse Jackson, but he also wants to be Dr. King. The trappings of his ambition are visible: Not long ago, he received an honorary doctorate from an obscure Louisiana bible college, so he now calls himself the "Reverend Doctor Al Sharpton." One of his favorite locutions is "those of us in the King tradition..." Posters for the "Redeem the Dream" march contained stark images of three men: Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Luther King III and...Al Sharpton.
Sharpton sees himself as the last of a dying breed: the militant civil rights leader in the Powell-King-Jackson tradition. "The reason hip-hop artists relate to me is that their fans relate to me," Sharpton avers. "In many ways, I'm the only activist they know." Not long ago, Sharpton dined with former Black Panther Dhoruba bin Wahad at a Chinese restaurant near Columbia University. Sharpton recalls: "The older, seasoned black left--like Dhoruba and them--are not that visible now. You have to be in the movement to know who they are. The kids from Columbia coming over and shaking my hand didn't know who Dhoruba was." In the leadership classes he offers to young activists and professionals--the curriculum includes seven classes--Sharpton claims he has a lot of explaining to do: "I have to actually teach them the history of Jesse Jackson, because a lot of them don't know Jesse from 1969-88."
Sharpton himself is an avid student not only of the civil rights movement but of black politics in general. Manning Marable recalls that when he arrived at Columbia in 1993, Sharpton phoned and requested an appointment with him. "He sat down and showed me one of the books I had written for Verso--Black American Politics, which was published back in 1988--and he had underlined passages in it. He had thought through and really wrestled with my critique of the failures of Afro-American leadership."