Al Sharpton turned 60 last Friday. That’s a psychological landmark in any man’s life. But if the New York-based civil rights activist, preacher, politician and media star is feeling blue, he can console himself with the reported $1 million in pledges from corporate and other donors to his nonprofit National Action Network (NAN). The celebration kicked off on Wednesday with a NAN-sponsored two-day education summit at New York University. On October 1, Sharpton held a private confab at Manhattan’s Four Seasons restaurant. The crème of New York Democratic Party politics were in attendance, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Rep. Charles Rangel and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. From the world of black arts and entertainment, Aretha Franklin and Spike Lee were present. For someone defined by his public demagoguery, Sharpton doesn’t lack for friends.
National Legal and Policy Center long has been focused on Reverend Al Sharpton – and with good reason. Under the guise of promoting social justice and civil rights, for some 30 years he has been manufacturing public outrage, in his native New York and elsewhere in the U.S., against what he sees as attacks against blacks by racist whites and a white-dominated power structure. He routinely invents, embellishes or ignores facts in order to justify, if not foment, grievance and accompanying violence. Though he won’t admit as much, he operates with a double-standard: A black accused of a crime against a white deserves a presumption of innocence; a white accused of a crime against a black, even if clearly an act of self-defense (as in the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin incident), deserves a presumption of guilt. Back in 2009 I published a lengthy Special Report on Sharpton, titled “Mainstreaming Demagoguery: Al Sharpton’s Rise to Respectability,” explaining the activities and motivations of Sharpton, known by many as “the Rev.” Currently, I am in the finishing stages of expanding and updating this report into a full-fledged book. It should be out within a few months.
One of the central points of both the original and forthcoming work is that Sharpton, however undeservedly, enjoys tremendous institutional support. National Action Network simply would not be able to do the things it does without the money it receives from business, labor, clergy and other sources of support. Ford Motor Company, Home Depot, McDonald’s, the News Corporation and Walmart are just a few corporations which have made substantial donations to NAN coffers in recent years. In the world of labor the Service Employees International Union and American Federation of Teachers have been enthusiastic contributors. Ironically, the Harlem, N.Y.-based NAN, which now takes in about $5 million a year, is financially troubled. It doesn’t help that Sharpton, despite having a lucrative gig these past three years as an anchorman for MSNBC, avoids his creditors. He and his various for-profit entities in particular for years have owed the federal and New York State governments well over $1 million in combined back taxes and penalties. Supporters might see the need for a bailout. Last week he appears to have received one.
The brochure for the big event, titled “Commemorative Journal in Celebration of Rev. Al Sharpton’s 60th Birthday,” indicates the numerous for-profit, nonprofit and individual donors who are part of the Celebration Committee. In descending order of contribution levels, they are: “Activist,” “Author,” “Preacher,” “Brooklyn,” “Hair,” “Track Suit,” “Medallion,” “Contributor” and “Media Sponsor.” The following are the listed corporate and union donors:
Advent Capital Management LLC
AFSCME District Council 37
Alabama Power Foundation
American Federation of Government Employees
American Federation of Teachers
Calhoun Enterprises Inc.
Forest City Ratner Companies
GE Asset Management
Infrastructure Engineering Inc.
International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 237
Jackson Lewis PC
Loop Capital Management
MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc.
New York Amsterdam News
Perennial Strategy Group
Rush Communications/Russell Simmons
Service Employees International Union Local 1199
UniWorld Group Inc.
The Williams Group
The donors belonging to the highest dollar category (“Activist”) are as follows: AT&T, Forest City Ratner Companies, Macy’s, Perennial Strategy Group and Viacom/BET Networks. All told, Rev. Sharpton told the New York Daily News, corporate, union and other donors pledged a combined $1 million for this event, though the actual tally won’t be known for a while; fundraising had been outsourced to an event planner, and corporate checks “take 90 days” to cash. He expressed optimism that National Action Network’s financial troubles soon will be over. “We have no new liens,” he stated. “We’ll be operating in the black this year. The biggest debts have already (been) settled, and the party last night was the second biggest fundraiser.” The biggest NAN fundraisers typically are the annual conventions, which are held in April. And they’ve attracted some heavy hitters. President Obama, for example, spoke at the NAN confab in 2011 and again this year.
Perhaps even more telling than the financial donations were testimonial remarks by public figures published in the program. Part of the statement by multibillionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg read: “Al, you’re a truly unique American voice – a voice that has matured a great deal without mellowing one bit. And your best days are still ahead. Happy birthday, and all the best.” And Mick Jagger put it this way: “The work you have done throughout your lifetime is truly admirable. Congratulations on all that you have achieved. Wishing you a spectacular 60th birthday, and many more to come.” Say it ain’t so, Mick.
The 60th birthday event wasn’t all celebration. On October 1-2, NAN sponsored an Education Summit at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life. The event featured an array of educators, philanthropists, community activists, nonprofit group spokespersons, public officials, clergy, and teacher union officials offering perspectives on how to improve education and, in particular, reach out to disaffected black youths. Having attended the proceedings, I can attest to the sincerity of Sharpton’s emphasis on education. And a number of speakers did have constructive comments. At the same time, the overriding tone, even among a number of the “good” panelists, was moral finger-pointing at unnamed whites. Speakers, most of them black, routinely cited “institutional racism” as the prime cause of unequal educational outcomes. Particularly recurrent was the theme that the “school-to-prison” pipeline won’t be slowed without more government funding and social workers, and fewer student suspensions and armed cops. The animus toward the police was palpable – and misplaced. While it is true that police are not educators, and can never substitute for educators (something police themselves admit), the fact is that many black students are so unruly and violent as to make the presence of law enforcement a virtual necessity to protect innocent students and teachers. Suspensions are temporary, but fear of being assaulted is more pervasive. Sharpton often calls education “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” Unfortunately, his definition of “civil rights” ensures continued frustration in the search for answers.
Sharpton’s birthday bash was a success – at least on his terms. It generated extensive donations, accolades and media coverage. The event culminated with an inspirational star-studded gospel concert at the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. In his “Dear Friends” letter introducing the program brochure, he writes: “Now, as I begin my 60th year, you can rest assured that whether from the pulpit or from the streets, on the airwaves or on the page, I will continue my mission for equality. I hope you will join me in my dedication by pledging your continued support for the National Action Network.” Not to be too picky about this, but he’s actually beginning his 61st year. The Rev seems to be better at counting his money than his years.