Roland Martin talks with Rev. Al Sharpton about civil rights organizations operating in their own space; having access to President Barack Obama and the president’s critics. Plus Rev. Sharpton discusses what advances should African-Americans have made during President Obama’s presidency.
MR. MARTIN: Let’s talk about the concept – and you and I have discussed this before – of “staying in your lane.”
REV. SHARPTON: Right.
MR. MARTIN: Even on that particular point, I’ve always contended that part of the problem is that you have folks who’re trying to do so much; organizations trying to do health, economics, education, HIV, prison. You decided several years ago that you couldn’t try to do all this sort of stuff and said, “Hey, let’s own this space.”
REV. SHARPTON: Right. I’ve said National Action Network is going to major in looking at criminal justice matters, education matters, and we’re going to deal with the question of gun violence in our community. We kind of stay there.
I support what Marc Morial – the Urban League does in terms of training and developing those kind[s] of programs in terms of job skills and all. I support the legal apparatus – the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Somebody else does something else. And I think if we all can specialize in our area – you go to a hospital. Everybody’s a doctor, but you have specialists. And I think that if we all do that, then I think that we all advance.
Going back to your point that I think you made so perfectly clear, that’s what they did in the ’60s. Adam Clayton Powell did Congress. Martin Luther King did mostly the South, and he did mass mobilization. Malcolm was in the North. So, whether they were even getting along or not, everybody had their lane.
I think that we’ve never had an all-purpose, everybody-does-everything. And I think that when we do, then we end up not making progress ’cause you can’t – no one organization can do it all, and no one organization ever did.
MR. MARTIN: Walking through the halls here, you see – you have several newspapers’ covers blown up, and a couple of those deal with your relationship with President Barack Obama. Talk about that relationship, how it has been the last four years. And is it a matter of you two emailing each other, calling back in forth? Just for our audience, just that relationship that you’ve really built up since the 2008 election.
REV. SHARPTON: Yeah. I supported President Obama when he was running, and to be honest, he felt that it was something he didn’t expect because I lived and led a[n] organization in the home state of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. So, I had more to lose.
All I ever said that I wanted from him was access. I’ve not asked for a patronage job for a friend of mine. I don’t get government money. Just access: “We want to talk to you about education. We want to deal with you about jobs. We want to be in the room when you’re dealing with agendas. I’m not going to always agree with you.”
I don’t agree with drones. I don’t agree with Guantanamo Bay, but I agree with a lot of what he’s doing ’cause that’s why I supported him. Anybody that supports a candidate is probably going to agree with them when they get in ’cause – duh – that’s why they supported ’em.
Now, you get people that think that means we get on the phone every day. That’s not true. We meet periodically, mostly when I request a meeting on specific issues that concern our community. That’s why we supported ’’im – so we could talk to ’im. What is interesting to me – and I’m glad you raise it – is, if you look through the history of our people in this country, Frederick Douglass had access to Abraham Lincoln and ended up getting appointed by Lincoln. Martin Luther King was attacked ’cause he had access to Kennedy. If you remember the famous speech by Malcolm X was that he met with Kennedy too much – and later, Johnson until they fell out on Vietnam. There[’ve] always been mass leaders that had access. Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was one I grew up under, not only had access to Bill Clinton. He ended up being an appointee of Bill Clinton as an envoy to Africa.
So, let me get this right. Lincoln can relate to a civil rights leader in Douglass. Kennedy can relate to King and –
MR. MARTIN: Booker T. Washington –
REV. SHARPTON: — Johnson.
MR. MARTIN: — as well.
REV. SHARPTON: Booker T. Washington as well. Bill Clinton can relate to Vernon Jordan and make an appointment to Jesse Jackson, but we get a black president, and none of us should have access to him? What kind of schizophrenia is that?
MR. MARTIN: Speaking on that, you talk about having a black president. We’ve seen different types of criticism. Some folks offer critiques that are specific to policy. Then you have other types of criticisms that seem to be more personal in nature. How do you handle your disagreements with the President on policy where – because you gave a[n] interview with “60 Minutes” where you said, “I made a decision not to publicly criticize the President”? Do you still maintain that position? And how do you make clear –
REV. SHARPTON: I’m glad you –
MR. MARTIN: — your opposition?
REV. SHARPTON: — mentioned that, ’cause if you look at the film, I never said that. Lesley Stahl said that I said that, and we told her – [unintelligible] – that’s not what I said. What I said – and you can watch the film – is that I’m not going to hold him to something he never committed [to], and that a lot of blacks are criticizing him for not keeping commitments he never made.
I never said I wouldn’t – if you read the profile of me in “Newsweek” magazine done around the same time, it says I disagree with him on certain things, and these are the things I disagree with.
Because I have access, a lot of things I disagree with I can tell him. So, I think that a lot of guys that just want to get some attention, say the ugliest thing they can ’cause they know that’ll get them some attention. A lot of people said things about him they never said about another president.
Bill Clinton – I marched to defend him when he was impeached, but I also disagreed publicly when he did the Omnibus Crime Bill, and he did the welfare reform bill. And you remember ’cause you were there when Martin Luther King, III, and I had the big march about racial profiling. We couldn’t get Bill Clinton to sign an executive order on racial profiling, but they call him a “black president.” They loved him.
So, what is the standard that we have on President Obama that we never put on any other president? I think we have to be honest about that.
MR. MARTIN: Now, you and I talked for the “Ebony” power issue, and one of the things that we talked about with this president is that, at the end of this term, that we should be able to look at specific areas –
REV. SHARPTON: Right.
MR. MARTIN: — and say, “Did we gain improvement in these areas?” And if we didn’t, we should be asking ourselves, “Well, what the heck was it all about?”
REV. SHARPTON: That’s right.
MR. MARTIN: And so do you still maintain that position? And –
REV. SHARPTON: Absolutely!
MR. MARTIN: — so when you look at black unemployment, when you look at education, when you look at incarceration rates – any of those different things –
REV. SHARPTON: When I look –
MR. MARTIN: — how –
REV. SHARPTON: — at – when I look at the areas of unemployment – I think that’s why we’ve got to concentrate on the private sector – I think that President Obama delivered for the country, but the specific black unemployment situation is a challenge in his second term.
Healthcare – he has delivered. I –
MR. MARTIN: Right.
REV. SHARPTON: — mean we have — no question we have the worst problems in healthcare and in terms of what came out of what they call “Obamacare” and preexisting conditions and all that – that’s a plus he’s done.
Education – still a major challenge. His defense is going to be, “Well, they cut education budgets, and I’ve had to fight the Republicans,” but we’ve not made movement there.
In areas of criminal justice – whether it was fighting for voting rights, whether it was dealing with the disparity in terms of crack cocaine sentencing and all that, black attorney general [for the] first time in the country – he made advances there, but we have not been able to reflect that [in] incarceration [rates].
So, I think that [at] the end of the first term, we had some pluses and some that did not move at all. That’s the challenge in the second term. And what I’m saying is, as someone who’s generally supportive of him, we’ve got areas that we made no progress, areas we made progress.
But I would still match that up against the “black president,” Bill Clinton, where I can’t tell you – I can tell you the areas we went backwards. In good times, we were still doubly unemployed to whites.
So, what I’m saying is when I see guys out there that love Bill Clinton, but hold Mr. Obama to a different standard, that’s where I say we can rumble all you wanna rumble, ’cause I’m not going to impose on him a different standard than I would impose on people that you just happen to like.
MR. MARTIN: [A] couple more questions. One that jumps out: how would you respond to somebody who says, “We shouldn’t ask anything of this president. We really shouldn’t just ask anything”?
And when I hear that, I mean I think about history. We’ve always made demands –
REV. SHARPTON: Right.
MR. MARTIN: — of anybody in the Oval Office, anybody in Congress. And so when you hear African-Americans say that, what would you tell them?
REV. SHARPTON: I would tell them that that is absurd. You don’t elect and support people and put them in office ’cause you don’t want anything; just want to be proud of them. Of course we should demand things! Of course we should want things! And everybody in this country, every constituency group does.
But what we should not do is expect them to tell us what we want, just because they happen to be black. We need to tell them! What we do in our National Action Network conferences, what we did when we called together – Marc Morial, Melanie Campbell, Ben Jealous and I – a Black Agenda conference and said, “We need to bring him the agenda” – he didn’t bring the gays their agenda. They brought him the agenda. He didn’t bring the women their agenda. They brought him the agenda.
We must bring, and continue to bring, our agenda to him. Otherwise, it was all for nothing.