The Reverend Al Sharpton held the annual conference for his National Action Network last week in New York. The event, affectionately dubbed the Sharpton Primary by the press, addressed many issues including a panel discussion on the media and racial issues. It was the presence of the three major Democratic candidates, however, which brought this conference into the national spotlight. John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama all spoke at the convention; each eagerly vying for the Reverend Al’s endorsement.
Dismissed by those on the right as a fringe player, Sharpton’s career as an activist has been mired in controversy. But his presence and significance has increased dramatically since his 2004 Presidential race when his blunt approach and rough assessment of the Bush Administration resonated with a lot of Democratic voters. The Reverend Al has built on this visibility and has become a dominant figure in today’s civil rights movement. This did not, however, stop the attacks from the right when the Democrats announced their visit to the Sharpton Primary. (Rush Limbaugh likened Sharpton to the left wing equivalent of David Duke when speaking of this years NAN conference during his nationally syndicated radio show.) The criticism did not deter the Democrats, who understand the importance of Sharpton’s clout. The staggering amount of support they receive from the African American community makes the Reverend Al’s endorsement a valuable asset.
The relationship between Sharpton and Senator Barack Obama is a bit unclear. Back in March, the New York Post reported that The Reverend wanted to “tear down” Obama’s campaign, citing his lack of involvement with the black community. The feud was dismissed as being a fabrication of the Murdoch press but what we do know for sure is that Sharpton has withheld any formal endorsement of Obama, leading many to believe he is holding out for a possible Clinton nod.
This all made Obama’s appearance at the NAN conference all the more dramatic. Approaching the podium to the chant of “O-Bam-A” the freshman senator brought his rock star image to a constituency that yearns for a strong national figure that supports their fight against racial injustice. Paying homage to those who have come before for him, Obama mentioned Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley Braun, Shirley Chisholm and the Reverend himself as precursors to his presidential campaign. “They paved the way and I stand on their shoulders,” Obama told the enthusiastic crowd. Obama stressed the need for personal responsibility and explained how we must band together as a community, as a means to hold our government accountable. Listing the various areas of needed improvement, he urged the gathering to use his campaign as a vehicle for a movement of change.
A moment of improvised comic relief was provided when Sharpton’s errant Blackberry was vibrating under the podium, cutting Obama off in mid-sentance. “Is that Hillary calling?” Obama asked as Sharpton retrieved the device. The comment, made in jest, revealed the underlying tension regarding Sharpton’s alleged alliance to the Clinton campaign. With the remark, the Senator insinuated that the two former rivals have become a little too close for comfort and that Sharpton’s loyalty should not rest with the centrist candidate but with Barack. The crowd loved it, exploding into yet another chant of “O-Bam-A”, giving what was, at least from them, a ringing endorsement.