He Has a Dream
Jackson, too, has taken issue with his young protégé. In public, Jackson is full of praise for Sharpton, and will mention him in the same breath as Dr. King. But in his private moments, he is rather more conflicted. At the end of Marshall Frady's superb biography, Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson (1996), we see Jackson ruminating about "a young black activist with a promise apparently not unlike his own as a youth." Frady now confirms that the activist was the Rev. Al Sharpton, and the conversation took place in the back of a car in 1992. What Jackson said was this:
His image of authority and respect are ministers as social leaders like Adam Clayton Powell, Dr. King, like myself--he wants that flair and command. But you got to have some meat beneath that gravy, that flair and command is just the part that people see, and it can become dangerous in itself. Of all the gifts that a prodigy can have, the most dangerous are the most powerful gifts. The gifts of tongue--you can talk your way out of anything, or into anything and then back out of it, because the gift has that kind of power.
Those gifts have enabled Sharpton to travel a long way. His leadership role in the black community is secure; his challenge now is to expand his constituency beyond that base. He must, in effect, choose between the contrasting political visions of his heroes, Adam Clayton Powell and Jesse Jackson; it's a choice, ultimately, between a black politics and a multiracial politics.
To a considerable extent, Sharpton has already reached Powell-like heights as the kingmaker of black New York. It's a role he inherited by default: Because many white voters in New York depise him, Sharpton cannot win a mayoral or gubernatorial race. He can, however, mobilize large numbers of black voters on behalf of the candidate of his choice. So on January 15, all four candidates in the 2001 New York City mayor's race dutifully appeared at the House of Justice, where Sharpton and hundreds of Harlem residents grilled them for hours on topics ranging from housing to the homeless. Sharpton is also a major player in New York's 2002 gubernatorial contest. On February 18, he endorsed former State Comptroller Carl McCall, who is vying with former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination. Sharpton issued his endorsement at a dinner sponsored by black and Latino lawmakers in Albany, and his remarks were a thinly veiled threat to Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, who were in the room. Sharpton intimated that an attempt by them to remain neutral in the race would be interpreted by some voters as "political racial profiling." (McCall is African-American.)
Marable and others think that Sharpton might be ready for a Jackson-like role, but they question his nearly exclusive focus on race. "Sharpton's calling card is state violence against black folks," says Marable. "That's the core issue around which he mobilizes. What he has to do is focus on the fact that state violence is actually a larger manifestation of a structure of unequal power and privilege that cuts through American society. Race, as powerful as it is, is ultimately secondary to a fundamental contradiction--that of inequality and the incomplete character of democracy."
But to replace Jesse Jackson requires a unique vision and sensibility. At his best, Jackson imparted moral authority; like Dr. King, he aspired to "redeem the soul of America." Frady, in his book, reminds us that Jackson, in the 1970s and 1980s, mediated strikes by airline workers, marched with coal miners in Kentucky, rescued hostages in Iraq, stood up for the Palestinians and comforted earthquake victims in Armenia. "What he had in mind," Frady writes, "was nothing less than trying to recreate the popular consciousness, and thereby conscience, of the country--all aimed toward shaping a transracial, transclass, egalitarian common American neighborhood fulfilling the old Peaceable Kingdom dream of the movement." During Jackson's 1988 campaign, Frady followed him to Iowa, where he received an ecstatic reception in the little country town of Greenfield. At one point Jackson wandered into a place called Toad's Cafe, a small eatery of minimal decor. "The proprietor," Frady writes, "came barreling out of the kitchen in a baggy apron and, arms akimbo, bawled to Jackson, 'Where were you this morning? I was gonna fix your grits for you.' Jackson said, 'Got tied up. Next time, next time.'"
These days Sharpton can get his grits in much of the urban Northeast; he has earned it through devotion to the most beleaguered members of his community. But when he is feted in places like Toad's Cafe, Main Street USA, we'll know he has arrived. When he is called on to intercede in labor disputes; when he helps defuse a hostage crisis overseas; when he embraces unpopular causes like justice for the Palestinians; when he transmutes black rage into a broader, multiracial blueprint for social change--then it will be clear that he has truly become Jackson's heir.
But first Sharpton must shed the weight of his tangled history. Certainly, that will be difficult: A public reckoning on the Brawley case could alienate some of his most ardent black supporters, who admire him for his willingness to defy the white establishment. Likewise, for some of his most vociferous critics, nothing he could say now on the Brawley matter will ever convince them he is anything but a charlatan. Between those extremes, however, are countless potential supporters who would welcome a principled attempt by Sharpton to confront his past. In the absence of such a reckoning, he will remain a formidable political force but a largely black phenomenon. With it, however, his future takes on new possibilities. If he meets the challenge, perhaps one day it will be said: You won, Sharpton, you won.