Whatever else might be said of Reverend Al Sharpton, when he throws a party, he does it in style. The 14th annual conference of his New York-based nonprofit National Action Network (NAN) last month in Washington, D.C. during April 11-14 was no exception. Once more, corporations and to a lesser extent unions paid most of the tab for a well-choreographed event that featured dozens of speakers and panelists eager to affirm the aggressive black identity politics of their host. The plenary address by Attorney General Eric Holder, followed by a panel on legal issues, amounted to a group manifesto for the arrest of George Zimmerman for the highly-publicized killing – evidence points toward self-defense – of a black Florida teen, Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, to the delight of virtually all attendees, was arrested that day on a state second-degree murder charge.
National Legal and Policy Center repeatedly during the past several years has analyzed the troubling legacy of Al Sharpton, most thoroughly in a 2009 Special Report, “Mainstreaming Demagoguery: Al Sharpton’s Rise to Respectability” (see pdf). Since the mid-Eighties “The Rev,” as he is known, has amassed a long track record of demagoguery under the guise of social justice and civil rights. Typically, he serves as an “adviser” to a black family one of whose members is a victim of a crime allegedly committed by a white or group of whites. He is assuming this role with Trayvon Martin’s parents. This is a major reason why the case has received so much nationwide publicity; the parents brought in Sharpton as their “adviser” precisely because of his ability to generate media coverage. Indeed, he and the couple shared the stage on day one of the conference.
Sharpton has a double standard when it comes to crime that crosses racial lines. In his mind, a white individual shouldn’t be able to enjoy a presumption of innocence if accused of committing a crime against a black. Even if the accused, by every reasonable appearance, has acted in self-defense (Bernhard Goetz), is falsely targeted in a hoax (police in the Tawana Brawley case), or commits an honest police error (the Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell cases), an accusation ought to suffice as guilt. But when a black is accused of a crime against a white, then Sharpton and his minions demand a presumption of innocence. They also go further in such situations, creating a menacing climate to make it virtually impossible to secure a conviction, even if evidence supports a guilty verdict (the Central Park pack attack). In both types of situations, Sharpton has displayed an unyielding goal of manipulating public opinion with morally-charged incitements. His campaigns even have inspired rioting and murder (Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Harlem’s Freddy’s Fashion Mart). If the George Zimmerman case goes to trial and the jury doesn’t return a guilty verdict, Sharpton, if only tacitly, may incite blacks across the country to go on a rampage in the name of “justice,” even though as of late he has been disingenuously playing the role of peacemaker.
Despite, and in some measure because of, his track record, Sharpton’s stock as a public figure has risen rapidly over the years – talk about “defining deviance down!” As a Democrat, he ran for U.S. senator from New York in 1992 and 1994, New York City mayor in 1997 (he very nearly forced a primary runoff in that one), and president of the United States in 2004. But it’s as a media figure in which he has taken central stage. For the last several years he has hosted a popular syndicated daily radio talk show out of his Harlem headquarters, and beginning last August, has served as six o’clock news anchorman on MSNBC-TV. His National Action Network conferences in recent years have featured such luminaries as Bill Cosby, Mariah Carey, Martin Luther King III, Magic Johnson, Judge Greg Mathis, various Obama cabinet secretaries, and last year, the ultimate guest, President Obama himself (Obama earlier had spoken at NAN’s 2007 conference while as a U.S. senator from Illinois). Sharpton also has reached across the aisle to build friendships with such figures on the Right as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, television host Bill O’Reilly and former Republican National Chairman Michael Steele. Major print media, including Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal, in 2010 ran accounts revealing how Al Sharpton in recent years supposedly has renounced extremism and histrionics in favor of pragmatism, common sense and empathy. The upshot of this successful image makeover is that Sharpton, now 57, almost without question has become the most influential black civil rights leader in America, even more so than his one-time mentor, Jesse Jackson.
Money, like brinksmanship and media coverage, is a key ingredient in Reverend Sharpton’s movement into the American mainstream. From experience as well as instinct, Sharpton knows that the people running corporations, labor unions, philanthropies and other formal organizations can be coaxed into making donations to National Action Network. All it takes is the right mix of intimidation and flattery. Like Jesse Jackson, he sees corporate officials in particular as fearful of boycotts, demonstrations and anything other activity that could bring bad publicity and thus undercut profits. No company wants to be stigmatized as “racist.” Donating to Sharpton amounts to a payoff – a civil rights tax, if one will. He’s even willing to accept public criticism from his donors so long as they keep NAN coffers filled. He noted the irony in an interview with the Washington Post during this April’s confab: “They bash me at Fox News. But they sponsor my conference.” His comment was accurate. Fox News’ parent company, The News Corporation, is listed in the program as a sponsor.
That brings us to the issue of the sponsors. According to National Action Network, sponsorship requires a minimum contribution of $5,000, though donations can run as high as $100,000. Corporations this time around included repeat donors such as American Honda, Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, Home Depot, McDonald’s and Walmart. Yet they also included newcomers such as Facebook and Mars Inc. Organized labor also made its presence known in the form of the National Education Association, the International Association of Machinists, the New York-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Locals 1199 and 32BJ, and the United Federation of Teachers, which is New York City’s American Federation of Teachers affiliate. The following is a list, in alphabetical order, of all 42 sponsors:
All the Way Foundation, Dennis & Karen Mehiel
American Honda Motor Company
Ariel Investments, LLC
Black Entertainment Television
Ford Motor Company
Human Rights Campaign
International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
Jackson Lewis LLP
National Education Association
The News Corporation
OraSure Technologies Inc.
Perennial Strategy Group
SEIU Local 32BJ
SEIU Local 1199
United Federation of Teachers
The people who run these organizations genuinely believe that by donating funds to National Action Network, they are serving their own interests and those of business generally. We at National Legal and Policy Center believe they are wrong. Contributing money to a Sharpton-controlled nonprofit group merely buys a company time to avoid a bad reputation and a potentially costly “discrimination” lawsuit. What’s more, it sends a signal to racial provocateurs like Sharpton that corporations everywhere are easy marks for shakedowns. Worst of all, it provides NAN with the money needed to carry on its never-ending war against “injustice” with a high degree of visibility and legitimacy.
National Action Network came into being in 1991 and has been holding annual conferences and accompanying “Keepers of the Dream” awards ceremonies since 1999 (Note: This year, the Keepers of the Dream banquet was held in New York City, separately from the conference, on April 18). Nobody is disparaging Sharpton’s right to hold these events. But what should be disparaged is the fact that major organizations, especially corporations answerable to shareholders, are paying for them. If NAN wants to hold conferences, dues-paying members and other individuals should cover all expenses.