Sharpton speaks of forgotten fight

Activist delivers keynote speech at NAACP luncheon

Naacp 2000

July 10, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Some African-Americans have forgotten about the 1960s civil rights struggle, concentrating instead on luxury cars, suburban homes and good jobs, the Rev. Al Sharpton told hundreds yesterday, excoriating a lethargic black community at an NAACP luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Sharpton's 40-minute speech, at times resembling a sermon, came during the first major luncheon of the 91st annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which will run here through Thursday. It was often interrupted by applause, standing ovations and shouts of "Amen" and "Preach, brother."

Several people took pictures of Sharpton during and after his address, and also photographed director John Singleton, who earned Oscar nominations for his debut film, "Boyz N the Hood," and defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.

The celebrity watch had begun, and the convention was moving into full swing, but it was Sharpton's keynote address that stood out.

"The NAACP was not formed as a social club," Sharpton said. "It was not formed to sponsor debutante balls or evenings at tennis or golf matches. Some who have joined have forgotten what we came together for in the first place. There is a difference between socializing and social change. In fact, most of your socializing is because someone fought for social change."

Sharpton went so far as to identify what he calls a new disease plaguing some African-Americans: Negro amnesia.

"Where Negroes have forgot where they came from, how they got there, where they are ... and what it's going to take to stay where they are," he explained.

Sharpton's approach, what many call "stepping on toes," was what people needed, some observers said, to inject more energy into the civil rights movement, which some credit NAACP President Kweisi Mfume with reinvigorating in recent years.

"I think it's a speech that should be taped and sent to all branches," said Jeanetta Williams, a member of the NAACP's board of directors from Salt Lake City. "He did tell the truth. So many people right now have been complacent. Some people that climb that corporate ladder to the top think they got there by themselves."

Sharpton, known for his activism in high-profile cases involving African-Americans, talked briefly about Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant who was killed last year in a hail of 41 bullets by four white New York officers. They were all acquitted in his death. He also discussed police brutality, racial profiling and other problems facing African-Americans.

"Many of us try to act like the struggle is over," Sharpton said. "But we've got more black men in jail than in college, and there are still gaps in incomes between blacks and whites. Hollywood is still racist, TV is still racist, the advertising industry is still disproportionately white; there's still driving while black, shopping while black, going to the airport while black, going down the highway while black and breathing while black. The question is: Where is our response?"

`The agitator'

Mfume, in introducing Sharpton, compared him to washing machine agitators.

Mfume said his mother used to tell him their purpose was "to agitate and to agitate and to agitate until they got all the dirt out." Then he said: "I want to bring forward not the washing machine, but the agitator."

Sharpton, president and CEO of the New York-based National Action Network, leads marches throughout the country when he feels an injustice has occurred.

While in Baltimore earlier this year to tape a segment on "The Bottom Line," a WBAL-TV public affairs show for which Mfume serves as host, Sharpton talked about police shootings.

Sharpton was applauded yesterday when he said that President Clinton went into office "under Rodney King" but that this country still lacks a defined federal law on police brutality.

The president's luncheon, at which Sharpton spoke, was one of several NAACP events yesterday.

In the afternoon at the convention center, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum unveiled its newest addition, a likeness of Mfume. The museum on North Avenue in East Baltimore is known for its portrayals of people, a room devoted to slavery and a section that depicts lynchings.

Stamp unveiled

Also last night, as part of convention activities, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a new stamp to honor former NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins. The stamp, part of the Postal Service's Black Heritage Series, is due out next year.

Wilkins joined the NAACP in 1931 as assistant executive secretary. Under his leadership, the NAACP advocated for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Along with other civil rights leaders, he helped organize the August 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech.

In August, Sharpton and others will stage a commemorative march on Washington.

"We're going to redeem the dream," Sharpton said yesterday, ending his speech.

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