It was noted in this article that Sen. Obama is the first black politician to have a serious chance of winning not only the Democratic nomination for President, but the Presidency himself.
For Sharpton, the hyperkinetic pace of his past year and the pleas for support from presidential aspirants provide the answer to the question some are posing: How does Al Sharpton remain relevant in a Barack Obama world?You have got to be kidding me here. Of course in the history of politics in America aspiring politicians have had to deal with shady characters because they control the votes in a given area. Of course I wonder how many votes Sharpton controls.
Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, has emerged as the first black politician with a serious chance of capturing his party's presidential nomination and the White House. And there have been other notable, if quiet, political successes, such as Deval Patrick becoming the first African American governor of Massachusetts, and David Paterson being elected New York's first black lieutenant governor.
Those successes have led some to suggest that the country is ready to embrace, in the post-civil rights era, a new kind of black leader, one who transcends race and appeals to as many white voters as black.
Sharpton has "been eclipsed, because Obama puts guys like Sharpton in the shadow," said Fred Siegel, a historian of New York City at the Cooper Union college in Manhattan. "Suppose Obama is elected president. He's terrible for Sharpton, because that takes away Sharpton's job. He's a kind of racial ambulance chaser. It's hard to engage in that game if there's another powerful African American politician."
But Sharpton has thrived this year with his high-decibel microphone-to-megaphone activism, even in the face of a federal investigation of his 2004 campaign finances. In an interview punctuated by interruptions from his cellphone, he scoffed at the notion that he is being overshadowed or is any less relevant.
"It borders on insulting to say that because some blacks are doing well in politics, we don't need organizations to protect civil rights," he said. "The role I play in American life, and the role that Deval Patrick and Barack play, are two different roles."
He also calls that view of his diminishing importance a misreading of modern black history. "We've always had blacks on the inside and blacks on the outside," he said. "You always had blacks so-called in the system and blacks outside."
In New York, his home base, Sharpton remains a polarizing figure for many, best remembered for championing the cause of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who said she was abducted and raped by six white law enforcement officials but whose claims were later discredited.
But Sharpton has survived those past controversies to become a political power broker of sorts. Once shunned for his street antics, jogging suits and bling, he is now courted by local and state politicians who dutifully troop to the Harlem headquarters of his National Action Network every January for his celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.It's great to know blacks aren't all that monolithic but disheartening to know that he'll always be "relevant". At least Rev. Jesse Jackson has some respectability he doesn't have the baggage Rev. Sharpton has (although I've read that Sharpton patterned himself somewhat after Jackson).
"He seems to have evolved into a new respectability, at least in the city," said Norman Siegel, a lawyer and former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who has known Sharpton for 20 years. Regarding the King celebrations, Siegel said, "Every single elected official, no matter what they said about him in the past, they'll show up."
But Siegel said Sharpton still has a negative reputation among many white New Yorkers; Siegel has acquaintances who ask him, somewhat derisively, whether he is still friends with Al Sharpton.
Sharpton derives his role in large part because of a continued sense of dispossession and racial injustice that persists among many in black America. "Reverend Sharpton is the catalyst that continues to bring people together on issues of empowerment and injustice," said Charles Ogletree, the Harvard University law professor and scholar on race and equality matters. "Whenever there is any event involving racial injustice, he is always the first responder."
Even with the rise of successful mainstream black politicians who are able to transcend racial issues, Ogletree said, "Since the black community's concerns and issues are not monolithic, the Reverend Sharpton will always be relevant."
He has managed to maintain his clout even while continuing to face controversy, most recently an FBI and IRS investigation into financial records from Sharpton's 2004 presidential campaign. Earlier this month, federal agents served early-morning subpoenas on eight of Sharpton's aides, ordering them to produce records and documents for a Brooklyn grand jury.
Sharpton dismissed this latest probe as government harassment resulting from the protest he led last month outside the Justice Department where he demanded increased enforcement of civil rights laws and more prosecutions of hate crimes. "If that doesn't look retaliatory, what does?" he asked.