Sharpton's focus on injustice provokes ire

March 04, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

THE REV. Al Sharpton sat in the hot seat on the set of NAACP President Kweisi Mfume's "Bottom Line" television show, cagily answering questions and emphasizing the "sharp" in his surname.

He'd arrived 45 minutes late on Wednesday for the 8 p.m. taping of a show that will run at 7 p.m. today on WBAL-TV, Channel 11. (The reverend clearly hasn't got that time thing licked.) Dressed in a dark-gray pinstripe suit with a blue tie, Sharpton did a quick interview before taking his seat on the set.

The reverend had stopped in Baltimore on his way to the nation's capital, where he would urge the Justice Department to press for federal charges against the four New York City police officers acquitted of killing West African immigrant Amadou Diallo. But this night, he fielded questions from Mfume and then the audience, most of whom were sympathetic.

Most, but not all.

Frank D. DeFilippo, a local writer, radio personality and political observer, questioned Sharpton about accusations from some New York newspaper columnists who blamed him for getting the Diallo shooting trial shifted from the Bronx to Albany.

"They wrote it was your `antics' -- their word, not mine -- that got the trial shifted," DeFilippo said. The writers were referring to the protests that Sharpton led after the shooting. DeFilippo's question was a thrust that Sharpton parried deftly.

"The police demonstrated, too," the reverend countered, wondering why folks would claim that his rallies forced the trial upstate and that officers' demonstrations were harmless.

Ross Tuttleman, a Johns Hopkins University student, clearly seemed unintimidated by Sharpton's presence. His question was just as challenging as DeFilippo's.

"Why would the verdict surprise you," Tuttleman asked, "with a jury system that acquitted O. J. Simpson?"

Sharpton was ready for that one, too.

"I'm glad you asked that," he said. "All the conservative columnists who want us to accept the verdict in this case didn't accept the jury's verdict in the O. J. case."

Sharpton was clearly in fine form. The next day, he was on CNN, taking calls from folks who were a lot more hostile than the "Bottom Line" audience.

"You're a racist," caller after caller charged.

"What have I said that was racist?" Sharpton challenged.

"You divide the races," was the common response.

"Every march I've ever led has been multiracial," the reverend rejoined. "How is that divisive?"

Is Sharpton a divisive racist, or simply a black man telling some whites things they don't particularly care to hear? Other blacks who have been accused of racism include Robert Abbott, who founded the (ITAL)Chicago Defender(UNITAL) in 1905, and A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Ironically, Randolph would be reviled as an Uncle Tom by black militants in the 1960s. But in the 1920s, both Abbott and Randolph were called racists for printing publications urging blacks to resist lynching and segregation. One of those making the accusation was one J. Edgar Hoover, himself no flaming liberal on the race question.

Racist or not, Sharpton -- along with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan -- clearly fulfills the need some white Americans have for somebody black to hate. Hence Sharpton and Farrakhan are akin to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who fulfills the need some black Americans have for somebody black to hate.

But Sharpton is definitely and unquestionably an activist, and Americans traditionally hate activists. Especially those who adhere to unpopular causes. If Americans were totally honest with themselves -- and that happens about once or twice a century -- we'd admit we absolutely despise folks who threaten the status quo. We hate them even when the status quo clearly needs altering.

Abolitionists were activists. They also were despised. Some were beaten. A few were lynched. Today, it'd be easier finding Jimmy Hoffa's body parts than finding an American who'd claim he's for slavery. Ditto for the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s. They put their lives on the line for equal rights at a time many Americans held them in disdain. But today, probably everyone who lived in that era would claim they were all for civil rights.

Sharpton has centered his activism on injustices -- real and perceived -- in the criminal justice system. He causes discomfort to those Americans who feel our system of justice is perfect. But any objective observer of American history knows the gears of our justice system are greased to sock it to the poor and powerless.

The Al Sharptons of the country know this. We should wish them Godspeed.

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