He Has a Dream
In fact, Marable views Sharpton's rise as inextricably linked to those very failures.
"The Rainbow is now just a shell. Jackson, for whatever reason, is responsible for destroying his own organization. Go back to 1989-90. He dismantled his own group, much to everyone's amazement, including Sharpton's. So Al stepped forward locally, as Farrakhan did nationally." For a while, Farrakhan served the needs of a young generation searching for charismatic leadership. But, Marable says, "the Nation of Islam had no understanding of how to build a broad-based coalition, or operate in a way that was not hierarchical and authoritarian. By late 1996, everything had fallen apart, even though NOI brought, arguably, a million folks to DC. By '97 and '98, the vacuum becomes very apparent at the national level, and that is what Al seeks to fill."
Sharpton as the inheritor of the Rainbow? It's a heady notion, especially given the fact that the Reverend remains anathema to many white liberals, despite his insurgent state and citywide political campaigns in 1992, 1994 and 1997. But other liberals and progressives, especially in the wake of the Diallo movement, seem willing to give him another chance. Sharpton's "shadow inauguration" on January 20 drew a multiracial crowd of a thousand people. In full preacher mode, Sharpton is probably the most electrifying speaker in the country, and his speech not only addressed police brutality and racial profiling but also abortion rights, environmental justice and gay liberation. (He didn't mention universal healthcare, which formed part of his 1994 Senate campaign platform.)
Progressives who have collaborated with Sharpton in New York voice a wide range of opinions. Andrew Stettner, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, worked with Sharpton on police brutality issues, beginning with the Diallo protests, at which 125 JFREJ members were arrested. In August 1999, when a young Orthodox Jew was shot by police in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Stettner recalls that Sharpton called him to inquire if NAN and JFREJ might team up on the case. "If you want to get involved in civil rights issues--as JFREJ did--he's one of the few people you can work with who can bring major press attention to a cause. The white liberal community ought to take a closer look at him." Bertha Lewis, co-chair of the Working Families Party and executive director at ACORN in Brooklyn, thinks many progressives need to be set straight when it comes to Sharpton: "Black folk have said over and over and over again, and I've heard them say this directly to him: 'Keep on doing what you are doing.' I don't believe people really want him to run for office; they want him to be who he is and what he is: someone who sticks it to the Establishment, calls a spade a spade and functions as an agitator." Still, Lewis would like to see him redirect his focus to grassroots issues: "I have no problem with the leadership classes. [But] how do you teach somebody to be a leader until you've taught them to be an organizer? How are you going to lead anything if you haven't built anything?" Progressive labor leaders, likewise, tend to view Sharpton as someone who can incite emotion and bring attention to specific acts of injustice. They don't see him as a leader capable of building or sustaining a mass-based organization or protest movement.
The most telling assessments of Sharpton's weaknesses, however, come from those closest to him. NAN insiders agree that if Sharpton defers to anyone, it's the chairman of NAN, Wyatt Tee Walker, senior pastor of Harlem's Canaan Baptist Church and Martin Luther King Jr.'s chief of staff from 1960 to 1964. Sharpton confers with Walker nearly every day. "He was Dr. King's right-hand man!" Sharpton says breathlessly. "He was the architect of Birmingham!"
Walker, 72, is a volatile, elusive individual who shuns the press, but he consented to a brief interview about Sharpton. "Not everybody in the black community loves Sharpton, but more do than don't, and that is because he is fundamentally a grassroots leader," says Walker. "He has an attraction and a command and a respect from ordinary folks because his background is so very ordinary. Despite that, he has gone to extraordinary heights." Walker continues: "He's a very serious young man, very talented, with an extraordinary IQ. He has a real grasp of the great issues that hover around race and human rights, and he's reasonably well read. He is very religious."
But Walker does not hide his differences with the Reverend: "He and Jesse Jackson were developed in an era when, unconsciously or subconsciously, buried deep in their psyches is the idea that leadership has to do with exposure. And neither one of them has been able to shake it. I have warned Mr. Sharpton against doing anything to get attention, even if it's a good cause. I think there are times when he needs to retreat from media attention--because the same media that will give you exposure is the same media that will eat you alive later on. There's a difference between having a psychological need for the media, and using the media creatively for the purposes of struggle." How does Sharpton respond to such criticism? "Well," Walker says with a long sigh, "he'll absorb it for a while. It's an unconscious and deep-seated psychological thing."