The Rev. Al Sharpton's latest crusade
The Rev. Al Sharpton is late. But you wouldn't know it by looking at him. The preacher and political provocateur, wearing a pin-striped suit and flanked by a handful of aides, strolls into the packed gym at Voorhees College like he was right on time.Skip to next paragraph
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And when he starts to talk, the words just cascade. It's part sermon, part history lesson, part political theater. The message: If you're young and black, you've got more reason to vote than at any time in modern history.
"Today, blacks in South Carolina, 2003, are double unemployed compared to anybody else in the state," he intones, his gravelly voice deepening with intensity. "Today, it is four times more difficult for you to get a bank loan than people with the same education, same background, and same credit. Today, there are more young black men in jail than there are in college. As long as we don't vote, no one will respect us."
Then, Mr. Sharpton relaxes, turns conversational. "I understand you have to tell the truth to go to this college, is that right?" The crowd of about 500 agrees. "How many of you all are registered to vote?" Most hands go up. "Good. How many of you aren't?" A few hands rise. "Come on, tell the truth." More go up. "I want you all to come on down here and we're going to register you right now."
Sharpton is on a mission - as he has been since he started delivering sermons to his sister's dolls at age three. Sure, he wants to be president: "If Arnold Schwarzenegger can go from the terminator to the governor," he says, "I can be president and the Queen of England, too."
But he's got an ulterior motive in seeking the Democratic nomination, and like everything else controversial about him, he's unapologetic about it. He wants to rejuvenate the liberal wing of the party. He wants to register more blacks and young people than anyone before him. He wants to be the power-broker, the black man at the table when doors get closed and deals get cut. He wants to be to this decade what the Rev. Jesse Jackson was to the 1980s.
But to do so, he's had to moderate his image as a political flamethrower and tone down his sometimes incendiary rhetoric. It's a process he says began when he was stabbed by an angry white man while leading a protest in 1991 in Brooklyn. But some political observers contend that his move toward the mainstream has been hastened by his desire to step onto the national stage. Sharpton dismisses the analysis and simply focuses on his current goal.
"We have to energize a base of disenfranchised people, blacks, Latinos, progressive whites, and young people," he says over a breakfast of eggs and grits in Columbia, wearing a blue jogging suit with red trim. "While people are trying to play to the right, to the conservative Democrats, the real numbers to me are in the young people and the disenfranchised."
Sharpton has another goal, too, as he barnstorms from college to college around South Carolina - a key state where he must do well to have credibility because of its large percentage of African-American primary voters. Sharpton wants to wean young people from the rap/gangsta culture. He rails against attitude - "if you got attitude and they got power, that's fine with them."
He shuns the glorification of gangs and guns, and the brothers who denigrate their sisters no matter how much they've accomplished.
"Black culture has never been about how low you can go," he tells an energized crowd that responds with "Yeah," and "Uh huh" at Morris College, a black school in Sumter, S.C. "Black culture was about no matter how low you was, you reached higher than anyone."
For Sharpton, this mixing of cultural and political messages is key to energizing the African-American vote. He sees a generation that is too self-absorbed and politically apathetic.