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.
Alfred Charles "Al" Sharpton Jr., now 53, more than anyone else has come to define the substance and tone of black politics in this country. Don't take my word for it. The New York Daily News in February 2007 called him "the most prominent civil-rights activist in the nation." Only Jesse Jackson can be considered his equal. Well, the similarities between the two are clear enough. Like Jackson, Sharpton is a Baptist minister whose speeches are immersed in the language of the black church, filled Biblical parables and metaphors. Like Jackson, he's adept at threatening or holding demonstrations over any incident (e.g., the recent Duke University "rape" case) that reinforces a narrative of black victimhood. And like Jackson, he's a master manipulator of news media.
Sharpton founded National Action Network in 1991, in the group's own words, "to assist individuals with crisis intervention nationwide and recently internationally as well as to empower communities socially and economically." That's a nice if not necessarily grammatical way of saying he's an expert at fomenting conflict under the guise of mediating it. His syndicated daytime radio talk show and various runs for public office, most recently the U.S. presidency in 2004, are extensions of the in-your-face activism he's been practicing for more than two decades.
The conventional wisdom about Sharpton is that he's a charlatan, a hustler merely "using" the legacy of Martin Luther King and other mainstream civil-rights heroes to advance his own vainglory. Up to a point, that's true. He is a hustler. But this view is also way incomplete, ignoring, among other things, the inconvenient fact that the King family itself is 100 percent behind him. King's late widow, Coretta Scott King, back in April 2001 praised Sharpton as "a voice for the oppressed, a leader who has protested injustice with a passionate and unrelenting commitment to nonviolent action in the spirit and tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr." And King's oldest son, Martin Luther King III, served as co-host of the Memphis event, speaking (as I can attest) with great admiration for Sharpton at NAN's 10th annual "Keepers of the Dream" Awards Dinner on April 2.
Al Sharpton reveres the King family, and the King family reveres Sharpton. And why should this not be? Sharpton got his first taste of civil-rights activism as an adolescent working in the New York City office of Martin Luther King's multi-city business shakedown campaign, Operation Breadbasket. (Jesse Jackson, born more than a dozen years earlier, ran the Chicago operation). Reading the text of King's major speeches, it's easy to see why Sharpton cites them for inspiration.
It isn't just the King family who is on board with Sharpton. His allies among black civil-rights activists also include NAN Chairman W. Franklyn Richardson, New York City Council Member Charles Barron, Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, and Myrlie Evers Williams (widow of slain 60s civil-rights leader Medgar Evers). They know he's not "playing" at being one of them; he is one of them, fully possessed of the view that we need a long-overdue "national conversation" on race that, dare one say, ought to be dominated by blacks. Sharpton considers himself a patriot -- Part I of his 2002 autobiography, Al on America (Kensington), is titled, "America, the Beautiful" -- but his is a patriotism highly circumscribed by black-identity politics.
Most of all, Sharpton connects with the "street." It's a short list of people who can match his ability to create a massive rally on short notice, whether in Brooklyn, N.Y. or Jena, Louisiana. The idea that Sharpton is "out of touch" with the black mainstream doesn't hold water. When Al Sharpton speaks, blacks by the millions listen. And they vote his way, too, if not for him, then for candidates he endorses. If Al Sharpton were the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee, I'd wager he'd win the black vote by at least a 90%-10% margin over Republican John McCain, despite the latter's ceaseless genuflections to the memory of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Blacks as a whole always support their own.
But Sharpton also has managed to corral support from white executives from the nation's leading companies. It takes more than a "hustler" to pull that off. Obviously, something else is at work here. And without going too far out on a limb, I can give three highly plausible reasons why corporate America bankrolls him.
First, Sharpton is a classic alpha male. Whether speaking or marching, he projects a ballsy, defiant confidence that is utterly without inhibition. And he doesn't care what his critics think of him any more than his two late original role models, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and singer James Brown, cared what their respective critics thought. Sharpton writes, self-revealingly:
Working with James Brown taught me something that black America must also learn -- to stop seeking the approval of white people or people in general and build your own image. I learned early on that if I was going to be successful, I had to define for myself my own set of standards, and I had to create my own image. I had to be me, regardless of what anyone else felt or thought about me. That's true power.
Consciously or not, corporate officials admire someone like this. Indeed, they hire and promote on that basis -- wallflowers need not apply. H. Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, for one, calls Sharpton "a dynamic leader," and "someone you can sit down with, talk with and build a relationship with." With his aggressive made-in-New York City bling, Sharpton comes off as a black proletarian version of Donald Trump. He knows it, too. Back in June 2004, when Sharpton was preparing to launch his short-lived career-makeover reality television show, "I Hate My Job" (on Viacom-owned Spike TV), he declared: "I'm the working man's Donald Trump. He brings people into the penthouse. We bring them into the house."
Second, inasmuch as corporate officials respect Sharpton, they also fear him. They know this is a guy who can create negative opinion among black consumers on a dime. A company unwilling to lose its reputation and the revenue that goes along with it is likely to donate to National Action Network as a low-cost form of damage control. As a twofer, such a contribution can boost the firm's image as a team player for "diversity," something that could come in handy in averting a lawsuit. What's a lousy $10,000 to a company with tens of billions of dollars in assets anyway?
Third, and most ominously, corporations have come to adopt the affirmative-action worldview that Sharpton relentlessly promotes. Companies are circumspect about admitting as much, yet their rhetoric suggests nothing less, as a recent exchange between National Legal and Policy Center and Colgate-Palmolive indicates. NLPC President Peter Flaherty had written Colgate-Palmolive Chairman Reuben Mark to justify the company's support for the Memphis event. Mark's response, dated April 22, 2008, without once mentioning Sharpton's name, was pure spin:
For Colgate, with a global commitment to treating all people with respect and valuing the unique contributions of our worldwide employees, participation in a community celebration of this civil rights history was consistent with our values and the concerns of many of our customers...The "Corporate Excellence Award" presented to us in Memphis was in recognition of our commitment to fostering and valuing diversity in the workplace and in the community, as reflected by our workplace practices and our community programs like Bright Smiles-Bright Futures.
Such language is now standard issue for U.S. corporations, right down to the d-word, "diversity." That's why Sharpton approaches them for money. He knows potential allies when he sees them.
In a sense, you can't blame Al Sharpton for what he does. He's a politician even when he's not running for office. He has to please his constituents, ensuring that America's "debt" to blacks one day will be paid in full. Support for this endeavor has come from many sources. Corporations, however, don't have to be among them. Surely, somewhere there is a prominent CEO capable of saying as much.