Clarification to This Article
The original version of this article said that Al Sharpton "won every black district in the District of Columbia." He won 34.4 percent of the vote in 2004; Gov. Howard Dean won the D.C. primary.

If He's So Irrelevant, Why's He in The Post?

By Charlie King
Monday, October 29, 2007; 4:58 PM

Just days after the Rev. Al Sharpton's testimony to Congress about injustices in Jena, La., and across the country, just months after he helped hold Don Imus to account for his sexist and racist remarks on air, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that Sharpton is "irrelevant."

Set aside from the obvious irony of The Post devoting space in its Sunday newspaper to cover an "irrelevant" individual. The column defies reality and uses flawed analysis. Far from irrelevant, Sharpton is at the height of his leadership.

Sharpton has become a civil rights leader across this country despite the media, not because of it, as Coates claims. His leadership and effective advocacy for the people most victimized by injustice in society is apparent. He won justice for victims of police misconduct in cases like Sean Bell, Abner Louima, and Taisha Miller in California. The National Association of Black Journalists and parents of the Rutgers womens' basketball team reached out to Sharpton for help in taking Don Imus to task for his offensive statements.

Sharpton led, Imus was fired, and a national decency campaign was ignited. His hard-won successes in these arenas are the reason why the press often thrusts a microphone in Sharpton's face to discuss offensive rap lyrics, hate crimes or police misconduct. He is one of the leading voices of our time on these issues.

As Coates acknowledges, Sharpton is having a "banner year," as even the poll he cited proves -- a 50 percent approval rating is testament to his leadership. Even so, opinion polls are not a true measure of leadership. Great leaders do not always take the most popular positions. Think of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill. Neither Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (the one black leader Coates gave short shrift to ) nor Malcolm X, for example, enjoyed widespread popularity within the black community until after they were tragically taken away from us. Same with Lincoln or Churchill.

In Coates' last, desperate attempt to mislead the Post readers on Sharpton's relevance, he examines his activities in the electoral arena, focusing on a subset of primaries in the 2004 presidential campaign. Coates claims that his run left him "far afield" of the White House -- neglecting to mention that Sharpton did well in the District of Columbia, for example, as well as the city of Detroit.

Defining black leadership by presidential primary victories misses the point of Sharpton's critical contribution to that presidential campaign -- and his role as a national black leader. More African-Americans were attuned to the presidential campaign because Sharpton was a candidate. Like Shirley Chisolm and Jesse Jackson before him, Sharpton raised issues that no other presidential candidate would raise. He kept John Kerry and others honest when discussing how well this country was doing in protecting civil rights.

Polls show that Sharpton would likely do well if he were to run for office in New York City. However, that is not how he views role as a civil rights leader. In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Sharpton believes that he needs to be free to fight against injustice no matter where that fight takes him. He has been outspoken against friend and foe alike when they have been on the wrong side of justice issues.

Sharpton hosts a daily radio show in 40 media markets, where he communicates with millions of African Americans in a way that prior black leaders could only dream about. Few are as effective as he is right now. Far from declining, his relevance -- like his leadership -- is on the rise.

Charlie King is acting exective director of the National Action Network, a civil-rights organization founded by Al Sharpton.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company