Civil rights groups led by the Rev. Al Sharpton plan to announce an ambitious advocacy agenda Wednesday aimed at flexing their political muscle in advance of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Their top priority, Sharpton said in an interview, will be pressing the Republican-
controlled Senate to confirm attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, whose nomination process progressed and then stalled after President Obama put her name forward more than 140 days ago.
In addition, the groups plan a flurry of demonstrations and news conferences focused on two other goals — opposing state-
level religious objections bills, seen as discriminatory against gays and lesbians, and pressing Congress to advance reforms of the criminal justice system.
“We are already in the season of people announcing their run for president. We can’t wait until 2016 to set the agenda. We need to set that now,” Sharpton said Monday while visiting Washington, where he was attending meetings at the White House and with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
“What we care about as civil rights leaders is the advancement of justice policies,” Sharpton said, “and those are the policies that are going to be set in place, or undone, by the next president.”
The agenda will be formalized this week at the annual convention of the National Action Network, Sharpton’s civil rights group. The meeting is the first public convening of the nation’s top civil rights leaders since a spate of police violence sparked unrest in cities across the nation, starting with the shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last August.
Sharpton said that he plans personally to petition Senate Republicans to hold a floor vote on Lynch’s nomination. He also plans trips to three states where religious objections laws have either been passed or are being considered.
“We’re going to convene faith leaders and gay rights leaders,” Sharpton vowed. “We’ve got to stand together and not allow the Christian right to divide us in our mutual fight against discrimination. We cannot allow people to sanctify discrimination in the name of religion.”
Once a skeptic of the gay rights movement, Sharpton has in recent years emerged as one of its most vocal black supporters. These days, he argues that gay rights should be considered a civil rights matter. He said bringing gay and lesbian groups into the civil rights fold is crucial to bolstering the political power of those working on civil justice issues.
Such issues — gay rights and reforms in policing, criminal justice and prisons — have dominated the national discussion in recent months, opening the door for civil rights groups to claim a higher profile during the presidential campaign, some civil rights leaders say.
This week’s conference will help advance that cause, they say, and help focus efforts to define the issues to be highlighted in 2016.
“There is an interconnectedness of these issues,” said Melanie L. Campbell, president of the Black Women’s Roundtable, who called this a crucial time for civil rights groups. “The saying is true: We’re not a monolith. But when it comes to justice issues, there are a lot of places where we have the same goals in common.”
Campbell is one of several leaders of civil rights organizations — including the heads of the NAACP and the Urban League — who plan to participate in a panel intended to chart a course, and to funnel energy from national protests in favor of policing and criminal justice reforms toward political action and achieving tangible results.
“We need to be working collaboratively around how we apply elevated pressure on the candidates to talk about these issues,” Campbell said.
Sharpton has been a persistent and insistent voice on behalf of reforms in policing and the criminal justice system, and this week’s convention marks the latest shift in the evolution of his tactics. Although he is a lightning rod despised by many police groups, especially the New York Police Department, Sharpton is vowing to take a more considerate line.
“We demonstrate that we are serious when we say, ‘Let’s take the name-calling down,’ and when we’re willing to hear from everybody as long as they are serious in substance,” Sharpton said. “We don’t need a season more of screaming. We need some real policy.”
At this week’s convention, at least three potential 2016 presidential candidates, all dark horses, will speak: Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.); former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D); and Maryland’s Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and so far the only black person known to be considering a run for the GOP presidential nomination.
A decade ago, it would not have been surprising for Sharpton himself to consider a presidential run. In 2004, he mounted a short-lived campaign for the Democratic nomination. He laughed off the notion that he might pursue a similar strategy in 2016.
“I’m not interested in that,” Sharpton said. “I’ve been there and done that.”