Is Al Sharpton Too Political To Be An Effective Leader?

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.



13 Comment

  1. I listened to his speech but took away a message to continue to mobilize but don't limit mobilization to simply protest but organize folks to register and vote and change the makeup of those who govern or change the minds of those in office. But, just don't vote and go home and wait for the next election but vote and remain engaged in the process of governing. Don't simply hire (vote for) persons you think will have the interest of the community in their work but pay attention to that work (easier done through community-based organizations). SCLC, SNCC, CORE and the NAACP (Council of Federated Organizations) fought hard for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has had a major impact on the conduct of racial politics in the South. That's wasn't enough because King recognized the structurally driven inequality facing black, Latino, Native American and poor white communities and set out on mobilizing the "Poor People's Campaign" that was substantively interrupted upon his assassination.

  2. Rev. Al Sharpton is doing Gods will not man. This man is in the right place at the right time.

  3. She’s right to some degree. Sharpton has become a lapdog and blocker for Obama. IMO, parts of his eulogy was inappropriate since the real focus should be on police brutality and misconduct.

  4. Sharpton reminds me of the pigs in the book, Animal Farm, Once they took charge, after complaining about their mistreatment by the farmer, they did the same things the farmer had done. "We are all created equal, but some are more equal than others." This is an excellent assessment and young folks should take heed and learn from the errors of the elders when it comes to leadership. Always remember: Leaders don't pick their followers. Rather, followers pick their leaders. And just as the people in 1st Samuel 8 cried out for a leader, despite being warned about what kind of leader they would get, they insisted and finally got the leader they deserved. The same is true today; we get the "leadership" we deserve–either by our activism or by our passivity. Thanks for the article, April.

  5. We have but one leader, Yahshua (aka Jesus) and he has provided ample advice and acted as a role model for all of us to follow so as to negotiate these "last days" successfully. We also need to understand the times that we are living in. These are not ordinary times. The planet is plagued with many problems that are beyond man's capability to fix. Just one example, the Fukishima nuclear disaster in Japan. Those nuclear power plants are damaged so badly they are leaking radioactive Cesium 235 into the Pacific Ocean. Anyone know how to clean up the Pacific Ocean before all marine life dies? We have a similar situation in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. Yahshua said that there would be a great tribulation unlike any before or since. In fact, unless God intervenes NO flesh would be saved. (Matthew 24:22) Ready for some divine intervention? Shalom.

  6. In our castle of forge leaders I have to say there pockets were filled while we remain hungry and many of us Passover so when have the retraced through the valley of those passed over. Wherever there be a Treyvon -Michael there are other who NAACP- Sharpton and Jesse skipped and the origination have not knocked on doors and called to address problems municipal and judicial so the water is stagnant until some dies then it raise it's head to speak and it is why we hear not when the call.

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