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When Al Sharpton took the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
on Saturday, he was eloquent, cutting, and demanding. I know Al
Sharpton. He was also angry. This was Sharpton’s “Redeem the Dream”
March — the 37-year marking of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a
Dream” speech and an appeal to end racial profiling and police
brutality. One hundred thousand people came out for Sharpton and Martin
Luther King III, the convenors of the rally. But the country’s Black
political hierarchs — the Democratic elected officials — were absent,
almost to a one. The national press coverage was shockingly spare, a
virtual blackout. No wonder Sharpton was angry. He was marginalized. And
it was his marginalization that fueled the clarity of his stirring
speech.

Al Sharpton is at the center of the perverse political contradiction
black America faces. On the one hand, the contemporary black struggle is
tied to the Democratic Party, which propelled passage of the Voting
Rights and Civil Rights agenda Dr. King had popularized. But the
Democratic Party, beset by losses at the national level, slowed the
development of black progress by moving the party to the right and
placed us at the fringes of political power. Al Sharpton came of age as
a leader during the Democratic Party’s era of self-reinvention.

In practical terms, the Democrats are the arbiters of black political
legitimacy. Throughout his career, Sharpton has both sought and rejected
that imprimatur. On the one hand, he is a Democrat who runs for office
as a Democrat and campaigns for other Democrats including some who have
been a part of undoing black America’s political power. But Al Sharpton,
though he has paid his dues and been cleansed more than once by the
black establishment is still — in their eyes — a second-class Democrat
– one who will never truly be admitted to the club. Sharpton is the
black leader who Hillary Clinton and Al Gore will only meet with in
secret and under duress. Sharpton was scathing on this score in his
speech, recounting a biblical analogue in the story of how Nicodemus
would only meet with Jesus at midnight. He needed Jesus — the
Scriptures say — but Jesus was too controversial to be seen with in the
light of day.

Black America, which has shown undiminished loyalty to the Democratic
Party will always be second-class Democrats and can only be met with at
midnight. And it is Sharpton’s recognition of this circumstance — of
his own conflicted relationship to the Democratic Party — that gives
him his most powerful and persuasive voice.

Sharpton hammered hard at the racist double standard in his speech.
The businessman Donald Trump, he said, is described as “smart,” while
the businessman Don King is “slick.” The children of the Kennedys are
picking up the torch, but when Dr. King’s children pursue an
investigation into their father’s assassination, they are admonished to
give it up. And Ralph Nader, said Sharpton, is regarded as “influential”
while Sharpton himself is “controversial.” This last remark is a bitter
observation of how the American left, ostensibly strategic allies of
black interests, continues to punish him for being the wrong kind of
black leader. Sharpton has no left pedigree and leftists are notorious
snobs. Worse still, in spite of the differences and public battles Rev.
Sharpton and I have had, we are friends. I am the leftist he is closest
to, and the left has made no secret of its antipathy towards me.

Sharpton capped his speech — a brilliant dossier of Democratic Party
betrayals and recalcitrance — with an all out indictment of the
complicity of black leadership and the passivity of the black community,
both of whom have benefited from Dr. King’s legacy, but who do not give
back to those still left behind. Speaking of the cherished right to
vote, Sharpton cried, “This vote is soaked in the blood of our
ancestors.” He was hard-edged and angry. “We’re not going to give it
away cheap,” he said.

The Democrats will not accede to his demands against racial profiling
– an executive order to ban federal funds to any law enforcement agency
with a pattern of police brutality. They will marginalize him and the
hundred thousand marchers as they did on Saturday. The price for
momentary reentry will be his agreement to bring out the black vote and
to backburner his profound concern with pervasive racism. At the same
time, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton — anticipating a depressed turnout
among African-Americans — are busy shoring up support from conservative
white ethnic voters. The selection of Joseph Lieberman as Gore’s vice
presidential candidate is a crucial part of this plan. In New York, the
Democratic Party is ready to trade the black vote for the Jewish vote,
and that will heighten Rev. Sharpton’s conflict yet again.

Sharpton knows full well that redeeming the dream requires more than
a march. It requires making the decision that the Dream is ultimately
more important than the Democrats. And that political redemption for
black America lies in going independent.

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