Carl Horowitz

It takes no great insight to grasp the symbolism behind Reverend Al Sharpton's choice of Memphis as the site to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King this past April. This was where King had died of an assassin's bullet; he'd come at the invitation of local union officials during a bitter municipal sanitation workers strike. Holding a "recommitment" conference-rally at the river city's glorious Peabody Hotel would serve as moral payback and a reminder of the job ahead.

The theme of the conference -- I was an uninvited attendee -- was "No Justice, No Peace." That's been Sharpton's tag line for many years, a four-word summation of his philosophy of uniting belief and action. For him, as for many other black civil-rights leaders, America remains a land of oppression, inevitably inflicted by whites upon blacks. No matter how inaccurate and often slanderous his accusations, Al Sharpton remains undeterred in his quest for what he sees as a just society.

Through his nonprofit organization National Action Network (NAN), Sharpton, now facing serious back tax claims by the IRS, has built a wide network of Left-leaning civil-rights activists from the worlds of business, labor, entertainment, philanthropy and religion. Speakers at the Memphis confab included Jesse Jackson, Benjamin Hooks, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Black Enterprise magazine publisher Earl Graves, and actress Cicely Tyson. Panel presentations covered such topics as health care reform, financial literacy, the role of the black church, and appropriate uses of public-employee pension funds.

What the casual observer might not be aware of is the extensive corporate role in financing the event. Among companies listed as sponsors in the NAN conference program were: Allstate, Anheuser-Busch, Citigroup, Colgate-Palmolive (singled out as "Corporation of the Year"), Comcast, Continental Airlines, Daimler-Chrysler, FedEx, Ford, General Motors, Home Depot, Johnson & Johnson, Macy's, PepsiCo, Pfizer and Wal-Mart. That's an impressive roster. And to understand why corporate America has drawn close to Sharpton, one has to get beyond familiar caricatures.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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