On the corner of 125th Street and Madison Avenue in Harlem, surrounded by soul-food joints, doughnut shops and thrift stores, sits a shabby three-story building. Scotch-taped to the front door is a black-and-white photograph of the Rev. Al Sharpton, smiling. At 9:30 on a bright January morning, the tiny vestibule is jammed with people waiting to climb the rickety stairwell to the second-floor headquarters of Sharpton’s National Action Network–dubbed the “House of Justice” by Jesse Jackson at an elaborate ceremony in 1996, when Sharpton moved his office here from Brooklyn. Sharpton’s weekly rally on Saturday morning, which is broadcast live on the radio and shown on cable TV in Manhattan, normally attracts an audience of two or three hundred. But the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is forty-eight hours away, and the overflow crowd is buzzing with anticipation.
A speaker is warming up the audience with community announcements and breathing exercises. The room seats over 400 people. Photographs of Sharpton are everywhere, along with portraits of King, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Jesse Jackson and James Brown.
The organist takes his seat. “Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice announces, “the Negro national anthem.” The crowd rises to its feet, fists in the air, for a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” More announcements follow. Then Sharpton himself strides into the hall, to a burst of applause, and takes a seat on the stage. He waits there patiently, scanning the room with his eyes. The crowd is already cheering.
“And now,” the announcer excitedly proclaims, “let me bring to you the soul reacher, the liberation seeker, the people’s preacher, the president of the National Action Network, the honorable Reverend Al Sharpton!”
Sharpton rises, grasps the podium and, with all the strength he can muster, shouts: “No justice!”
“No peace!” the crowd roars.
As always, his sermon begins slowly, with self-deprecating jokes and gentle admonitions. Then he turns to politics. “The inauguration of George Bush is an affront on the voting rights of the citizens of this country,” he proclaims. “It is an insult to the memory of Martin Luther King!”
“Yes, it is,” the crowd murmurs.
For a month, Sharpton has been planning a “shadow inauguration” in Washington, DC, which will occur the following Saturday. “I was on some show this week,” Sharpton announces, “and people said, ‘Why don’t you just let it go? Why don’t y’all just get over it?’ Get over what? Get over Dr. King dying? Get over Medgar Evers dying? Get over Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner dying? Get over those four girls in Birmingham dying? We are never gonna get over it, and we are never gonna let you forget it!”
“That’s right, Rev,” the audience mutters.
Suddenly, with an explosive outburst, he vents his ire on the crowd. “Many of you sitting here today have compromised your dreams! You have lost your fervor to achieve something!” Mumbling in the crowd. “Imagine how King felt, back of the bus. But he dreamed–in the South in 1955!–that we’d run cities, that we’d be heads of government. He had an ability to dream beyond his circumstances!” In a voice tinged with contempt, Sharpton taunts his audience: “You sittin’ up here with degrees and credit cards and have no ambition and no goals! Think how hard it was for them to come through mountains and valleys, and you’re too cheap and lowdown and full of self-hate to have a dream and hold on and achieve it!” He mimics, “‘Reverend Sharpton, you don’t know my background, I been to jail.‘ Well, you out now!”