April V. Taylor
There were several black leaders and celebrities who attended the funeral of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th. Among them was Al Sharpton, who also delivered Brown’s eulogy. Many young people in Ferguson have spoken out out about the fact that they do not consider Sharpton to be their leader, and a recent article by Salon.com questions whether or not Sharpton may be too political to be an effective spiritual leader to a younger generation in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. led black churches as a momentous force in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Brittany Cooper, from Salon.com, sums up Sharpton’s place in American racial politics in the following manner:
“Black churches are a central part of the 20th century story of American racial politics. Dr. King was the consummate preacher, flanked by peers like Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Joseph Lowery, and protégés like Rev. Jesse Jackson. Last century, black churches were the locus of a kind of narrative authority in black communities – the way black preachers, mostly male, told our story to us in light of the story of Jesus Christ gave us hope, inspired change and helped us to make sense of black suffering, to believe that God had a grander purpose in the sure and steady sacrifice of black bodies, namely the fashioning of a better, more just America.
It is within that context, that of the black church and its relationship to black politics, that we have come over the last three decades to know the person of Rev. Al Sharpton.
In his sermonic remarks at Michael’s funeral yesterday, Sharpton tried to assume the mantle of black America’s spiritual leader, the one with the moral and rhetorical force to move us toward thinking of Mike’s death as the beginning of a movement, rather than merely a moment.
Al Sharpton, however, does not have the ear of this generation, and it is not his leadership that any of us who will live on the planet for the next half-century or so really needs…This is not about Sharpton’s age, but rather about how he has positioned himself in relationship to black politics. My issue with him resides squarely within the limitations of his moral and political vision for who and how black people get to be within the American body politic.”
Cooper goes on to point out how Sharpton’s eulogy of Brown took “a page from the standard conservative black preacher playbook,” by placing a significant portion of blame on how blacks are treated on the black community. The notion that black communities can save themselves is an ideal that dates back to the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. In the 140 years since that time, the self-help mantra has been repeated over and over again without any leaders truly questioning the responsibility the rest of America and its systemic racism holds in the state of the black community.
Sharpton’s insistence that the turning point regarding justice for black victims of police brutality and murder lies first within black communities is “deeply dishonest,” according to Cooper. Cooper points out how this dishonesty is strongly tied to Sharpton’s policital affiliations with the Obama administration. She states, “The inconvenient truth is that the continued mechanizations of racism and its devastating and traumatizing impact on communities of color will be the undoing of our country. Sharpton stuck to safe truths, convenient ones, about the problem of militarized policing, particularly in black communities. Sharpton chose not to be a prophetic voice for the people of Ferguson but rather to do the work that the Obama administration sent him to do. That work entailed the placating of the people by ostensibly affirming their sense of injustice, while disaffirming their right to a kind of righteous rage in the face of such injustice. ”
It is this kind of “anemic-truth telling” that will cause black churches and preachers to be “irrelevant to 21st century political change,” because of their obligations to being figureheads of a movement and simultaneously being friends with those in political power. Cooper suggests that the young people who have stood up for themselves and their community in Ferguson deserve at least some credit for knowing what kind of leaders they do not want. As this new generation of young people refuses to accept a country that hands them a black president while also asking them to not fight passionately against the bodies of unarmed black youth lying in streets all over America, many of them are refusing to accept old leadership paradigms and coming to the realization that they must rely on themselves to lead this reignited age old fight for black justice and equality.