Al Sharpton has torn a ragged hole in his own reputation, calling
into question his capabilities as a leader. Morose and bathed
in self-pity, the presidential candidate in late October descended
into what resembled a slow motion, weeklong emotional breakdown,
triggered weeks before by the resignation of campaign manager
Frank Watkins, the long-time aide and confidant of the Jesse
Jacksons, Senior and Junior.
5, when Sharpton finally flailed his way to the bottom of a breathtakingly
self-destructive spiral, he had managed to read himself out of
the Black Political Consensus, at least temporarily, having demeaned
the pantheon of Black congressional and institutional leadership
as a mere “club.” Sharpton shed a great deal of personal dignity
along the way, and squandered hard earned trust that will not
easily be reclaimed. Overwhelmed by the pain of perceived betrayal
by the Jacksons, Sharpton struck back at Black leadership as
a whole. Amazingly, he staged his dreadful tantrum at the precise
moment when African Americans were demonstrating near-unanimous
opposition to George Bush’s latest attempt to pack the
We do Rev. Sharpton
a kindness in saying that he must have been out of his mind.
was the personification of the tango-like dance that for a time
partnered Sharpton, Jackson Sr. and his namesake, the Congressman.
Watkins, a white man, served Rev. Jackson throughout the Seventies
and Eighties, as communications director and general strategist.
No one besides Jackson himself was more responsible for the strengths
and weaknesses of the Rainbow/Push Coalition leader’s 1984 and ’88
presidential bids, history-bending campaigns that transformed
raw Black electoral numbers into an awesome force with a face and
When 30 year-old
Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. won a Chicago congressional seat in 1995,
Frank Watkins was there. The two collaborated on an extraordinary
More Perfect Union: Advancing New American Rights,” which
called for constitutional amendments to guarantee citizens’ rights
to: full employment; high quality health care; decent and affordable
housing; a public education of equal high quality; equality of
the sexes under the law; a clean, safe and sustainable environment;
fair and progressive taxation; and a constitutionally explicit
right to vote. The book is a powerful exposition of a comprehensive
social democratic agenda, and a tour de force of the history
of race in American politics.
the 2000 election, Rev. Sharpton spoke often of making his own
run for president – but the elephant sitting in the collective
African American living room was, of course, Rev. Jackson. It
was plain that a Sharpton bid was inconceivable without Jackson’s
tacit assent, yet in the first year of the Bush presidency the
two men avoided appearing on the same venues. A modus vivendi
was reached, in which Frank Watkins became Sharpton’s campaign
manager, and Sharpton adopted three Jackson-Watkins constitutional
rights planks to his campaign platform – on
voting, health care, and education. Kevin Gray, a Jackson operative
from the Eighties campaigns, signed on as coordinator of Sharpton’s
critical South Carolina effort.
September 30, Frank Watkins and Kevin Gray resigned. "I
have nothing but the highest regard for Frank Watkins and will
always refer to him as Uncle Frank and look forward to his
sage advice over the course of this campaign," said Sharpton.
Watkins said the breakup was due to “personal reasons,” and
that he’d continue to serve as an unpaid advisor to the campaign – and
planned to vote for Sharpton. But even a rookie observer of
Black politics should have known that the Reverend’s vision
of the campaign was about to unravel.
The die was cast when, during the last week in October, Rep. Jackson joined
Howard Dean on a trip to South Carolina. On Monday, October
27, Jackson introduced Dean
to a Southside Chicago church crowd as the candidate with "the best chance” of winning the presidency. "I've
seen him stand up for health care," Jackson said. "I've seen him
stand up for students. I've seen him stand up for ordinary Americans. I'm
asking you to stand up for Howard Dean."
The next day,
in Washington, Rep. Jackson’s office announced that the Congressman
would soon make a formal
endorsement. Howard Dean "doesn't put his finger in
the air to test the wind before he takes a stand," said
the prepared statement, read by a Jackson spokesman – Frank Watkins.
went ballistic, firing off a blistering statement,
by far his harshest criticism of a fellow Democrat of the entire
campaign: "Howard Dean's opposition to affirmative action,
his current support for the death penalty and historic support
of the NRA's [National Rifle Association's] agenda amounts to
an anti-black agenda that will not sell in communities of color
in this country."
Words on paper
do not convey Sharpton’s physical demeanor. He seemed struck,
wounded, desperate for space to breath and bellow, as if the “Jacksons” had
cornered him or – worse – cut him adrift. "Any so-called
African American leader that would endorse Dean despite his anti-black
record is mortgaging the future of our struggle for civil rights
and social justice." Sharpton had never used such language
against any of his fellow performers on the Democratic Presidential
road show. Clearly, this was not about Dean at all.
Congressman’s retort came just as quickly:
was Al Sharpton who said in the first debate in South Carolina,
by ABC, that the 'Democrats should not have a debate and
George Bush turn out to be the winner.' He has constantly
reminded his fellow Democratic presidential candidates that
the goal is to defeat President Bush in November, 2004. He
has also said that while he understands there will be competition
between each of them, none of them should do any harm to
the other candidates that would prevent them from defeating
Rev. Sharpton has rejected his own advice. The spirit
of Rev. Sharpton's release in that regard is over-the-top
and mostly inaccurate. Rev. Sharpton is inaccurate
when he says that Howard Dean is `opposed to affirmative
action.' Even the 1995 quote he attributes to Gov.
Dean is not a statement 'opposed' to affirmative action,
but an argument for a broader criteria. More importantly,
during this campaign Governor Dean has clearly stated for
the record that he supports affirmative action based on race,
gender and class - which is what the law requires.
"I also don't
understand Rev. Sharpton's attempt to introduce 'race' into
the campaign by using such rhetoric as `anti-black' with
respect to Gov. Dean. I challenge all of the other
candidates to urge Rev. Sharpton to resist using such inflammatory
response only served to further inflame the preacher/activist
from Brooklyn. Gone was the jocularity, the fine-tuned wit
that snapped and smartly slapped but did not savage the other
Democratic candidate. Dean was by now little more than a short
white guy standing in for Sharpton’s perceived nemesis, the
Jacksons. A fuming, furious Sharpton took his demons to Boston
for the Rock The Vote debate,
The public spectacle
by a young Black man’s question, Sharpton lit into the former Vermont Governor
for his “I want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate
flags in their pickup trucks" remark, a recent paraphrase
of Dean’s statement that had brought down the house at a meeting
of decidedly liberal Democrats, in Washington, back in February. All year long, Sharpton had had no quarrel
with the line, but that was before the Jackson “betrayal.” Democratic
frontrunner Dean had become Sharpton’s straw man.
of all, Martin Luther King said, "Come to the table
of brotherhood." You can't bring a Confederate flag
to the table of brotherhood. (APPLAUSE)
you can't misquote Martin Luther King like that. I
come out of the King movement, I didn't just read him.
He talked about us leaving racism there. And I think
that Maynard Jackson said that the Confederate flag
is America's swastika. If a southern person running,
if John Edwards, a Bob Graham had said that, they'd
have been run out this race.
don't think you're a bigot, but I think that is insensitive,
and I think you ought to apologize to people for that.
Bill Clinton was found to be a member of a white-only
country club, he apologized. You are not a bigot, but
you appear to be too arrogant to say "I'm wrong" and
go on. (APPLAUSE)
not going to win in this country, and even worse, Democrats,
if we don't have a big tent. And I'm going to tell
you right now, Reverend, you're right. I am not a bigot.
And Jesse Jackson Jr. endorsed me and has stood up
for what I said.
Reverend Jesse Jackson went down to South Carolina
last week and went to a trailer park which was inhabited
by mostly white folks making $25,000 a year. We need
to reach out to those people, too, because they suffer
understand the legacy of racism in this country, and
I understand the legacy of bigotry in this country.
We need to bring folks together in this race, just
like Martin Luther King tried to do before he was killed.
He was right. And I make no apologies for reaching
out to poor white people.
Confederate flags is not for white people, and that's
sounds more like Stonewall Jackson then Jesse Jackson.
And he... (CROSSTALK) Jesse Jackson went to South Carolina
with all of us protesting the flag. The issue's not
poor southern whites. Most poor southern whites don't
wear a Confederate flag, and you ought not try to stereotype
was a nonsensical exchange, made more ridiculous when North
Carolina Senator John Edwards danced onto center stage, bouncing
like he’d found money.
me tell you [Dean] the last thing we need in the South is somebody
like you coming down and telling us what we need to do. (APPLAUSE)
That's the last thing in the world we need in the South.
opportunistic ally in the Dean beat-down sounded exactly
like a 1950s-era Deep South politician, ready to run the “outside
agitators” out of town or into a shallow grave. Who knows
what the audience was really clapping about? When the same
people applaud Sharpton and Edwards, something very
wrong is going on. Sharpton kicked Dean around as a surrogate
Jesse Jackson – and for no other reason, since it is Edwards,
not Dean, who stands the best chance of beating Sharpton
in the crucial South Carolina primary.
February statement, later clumsily repeated although with
no discernible shift in meaning, was: "White folks in
the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals
in the back ought to be voting with us and not them, because
their kids don't have health insurance, either, and their
kids need better schools, too." This straightforward
commentary on white racism – the false consciousness
that leads whites to act against their own interests – earned
Dean a standing ovation from a progressive audience nine
months ago. Sharpton strung together a riff full of Martin
Luther Kings, Maynard Jacksons, and even Jesse Jacksons that
cynically turned Dean’s words inside out with such
disorienting effect, the performance had a southern Senator
doing a buck-and-wing.
commentators described the spectacle as a standard, get-the-frontrunner
pile-on, and for Edwards and other white candidates, that
certainly was the case. (Carol Moseley-Braun appeared genuinely
repelled by the mauling.) Sharpton, however, had gone from
Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in the space of a week. He was coming
unglued, laid low by Jesse Jacksonophobia.
diagnosis was confirmed the very next day, November 5. As
leaders of a wide and deep spectrum of Black America prepared
to urge Senate Democrats to filibuster Janice Rogers Brown’s
nomination to the federal bench, Sharpton was busy spouting
the Republican line to the Sinclair chain of TV stations.
don't agree with her politics,” said Sharpton of Janice Brown. “I
don't agree with some of her background. But she should
get an up-or-down vote.” Sharpton opposed the filibuster,
a last-ditch tactic designed to deny a legislative majority – in
this case, Republicans – an up-or-down vote in the full Senate.
Then Sharpton spoke words that could have been scripted for
Armstrong Williams or some other Black GOP hireling."We've
got to stop this monolith in black America because it impedes
the freedom of expression for all of us. I don't think she
should be opposed because she doesn't come from some assumed
The “club” Sharpton
derides encompasses the entire Congressional Black Caucus,
gloriously unified in their demand for a filibuster. As Sharpton
vented his misplaced rage, other “club” members were preparing
for a pro-filibuster press conference coordinated by the Leadership
Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR):
organization leaders at the press conference were Julian
Bond, chairman of the board of directors for the NAACP; Reverend
Dr. Joseph Lowery, chairman emeritus for the Black Leadership
Forum and president emeritus for the Southern Christian Leadership
Dorothy Height, president emeritus for the National Council
of Negro Women and chair for the Leadership Conference on
Civil Rights; William
Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists
and international secretary-treasurer for the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees; Clyde
Bailey, president of the National Bar Association; and
Julianne Malveaux from the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority National
Social Action Commission.
Executive Director Wade Henderson was dumbfounded when informed
of Sharpton’s madness
by the Washington
Times. "I don't believe it,” he exclaimed – and who
could? “That can't be true," he said, still doubting the
rightwing paper’s account. "It would be shockingly surprising."
reversed his position a day later, but the damage had been
done – to himself,
by himself. His November 6 statement, as reported by BlackAmericaToday.com,
"I am strongly
opposed to the nomination of Janice Rogers Brown to the D.C.
Circuit Court of Appeals," the statement read. "She
is so far removed from the judicial mainstream that she poses
a serious threat to the progress we have made in civil rights.
This morning, I made phone calls to Senator Leahy, through
his chief-of-staff, Luke Albee, and Senators John Edwards,
and Charles Schumer, to convey my opposition to the nomination
of Justice Brown. I asked the Senators to do everything within
their means to prevent her from gaining a lifetime appointment
to this important Court, and call upon the full Senate to take
the same steps to ensure that she is not confirmed."
That’s what an Al Sharpton
in his right mind would have said and done on November 5. Instead,
imagining Junior and Senior Jesse Jacksons opposing him at every
turn, Sharpton lashed out at Black political leadership in general,
casting himself out of a “club” that includes almost everyone
he seeks to influence. If he were intent on political suicide,
he had succeeded in finding the perfect time and issue to end
on April 24, in “What
the Black Presidential Candidate Must Do,” we wrote: “We
believe that Al Sharpton is up to the task, if he maintains
a clear vision and personal discipline.” The “task” was to
cause “the largest possible number of African Americans [to]
coalesce behind one candidate in order to prove that there
still remains a formidable Black bloc vote. If you are the
unabashedly Black candidate,” we said, addressing
Sharpton directly, “that should be you.”
Sharpton’s job was to
be available for the voters in the primaries, thus allowing them
to make a political statement that would be heard clearly throughout
the Democratic Party. His primary task is not to win the nomination
or trigger some flood of endorsements. Sharpton is an intelligent
man, who began his campaign journey well aware of the possibilities
and limitations of his candidacy. In cautioning Sharpton that “Black
voters are your only hope of wielding clout as a leader of an
effective Party bloc,” we purposely did not give weight to endorsements
from Black elected officials, who must play the game on an already
existing field. Sharpton’s mission was to alter that field by
the weight of his Black tallies on primary days, especially the
February 3 ballot in South Carolina, where Blacks should comprise
a majority of Democratic voters.
hope Sharpton can still do well in South Carolina, although
no one can predict
the immediate or long term fallout of his bizarre behavior during
his week of deep, dysfunctional funk, when he lost all semblance
of “clear vision and personal discipline.”
Meanwhile, the Service
Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have endorsed
Howard Dean. is
pleased that both these large (numbers one and four, respectively)
and heavily Black unions are backing the former Governor, the
only top-tier candidate who credibly opposed the Iraq war. We
were equally impressed with his remarks on pickup trucks and
Confederate flags, which we understood as a rare statement by
a white politician on the idiocy of delusional white men. How
ironic that it took a temporarily delusional Black man to mangle
Dean’s words beyond recognition.