Not Relevant? Sharpton Scoffs at the Idea

This has been a banner year, says the Rev. Al Sharpton, hailing a revival of rights activism.
This has been a banner year, says the Rev. Al Sharpton, hailing a revival of rights activism. (By Jeff Gentner -- Associated Press)
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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

NEW YORK -- Even by his own frenetic standards, the Rev. Al Sharpton has had a busy 12 months.

Late last year was the police shooting in Queens of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man leaving a bachelor party, and Sharpton organized the protests. There was the spring controversy over racially insensitive remarks by shock jock Don Imus, with Sharpton leading the calls for Imus's firing.

Sharpton put together a march in Jena, La., in support of six black teenagers jailed in the beating of a white student, and he held a protest rally outside the Justice Department in Washington to demand more prosecution of hate crimes.

And now, he is being wooed by the leading Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom seek his endorsement. "I think this has been a banner year, to say the least," said Sharpton, smiling contentedly over coffee. "This year proved the real revival of civil rights activism."

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?

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.

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