President Barack Obama's former mentor at Harvard University, Charles Ogletree, took the time to explain how Obama works with Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been instrumental in connecting the Obama agenda to the African American community. According to Ogletree, Sharpton is a "lightning rod" for President Obama in the inner city, helping him to take important issues from the White House to the streets of America.
During the black leadership summit held by Sharpton this weekend, called "Measuring the Movement," the preacher and civil rights leader explained that Obama "has to work both for us and for others" and that if Obama had an agenda that linked directly to race "that would only organize the right against him."
Ogletree went further to describe the relationship between Sharpton and Obama:
"Al Sharpton has become the lightning rod in moving Obama's agenda forward," Ogletree told the Associated Press. "And he has access to both the streets and the suites to make sure that the people who are voiceless, faceless and powerless finally have some say."
During the convention, Ogletree acknowledged some of the disappointment felt within the African American community that the president has not done more for them. Sharpton is dealing with his share of critics as well. The cover of the Washington Post featured a picture of Sharpton with the title: "Activist Al Sharpton Takes on New Role as Administration Ally."
Rev. Sharpton doesn't seem to agree with this assessment:
"I've been as much in this White House as I was in George [W.] Bush's -- it's only when Bush invited me to the White House, it was him reaching out; when Obama invites me, all of a sudden, we're allies," said Sharpton.
I spoke with Ogletree briefly during the Black Leadership Forum held by Sharpton this weekend. I've always respected the outstanding work of Ogletree and consider him to be every bit as impactful as the late Johnny Cochran when it comes to representing the black legal community. When speaking with Melinda Hightower, president of the National Black Law Students Association, I was told just how instrumental Ogletree has been in the development of the organization. Given that there are fewer black students admitted to law school, Ogletree's work becomes that much more important.
Ogletree's assessment of Sharpton as a point of connection between the White House and the streets of black America appears to be accurate. While I don't consider Al Sharpton to be a direct ally of President Obama, the truth is that he has shown himself to be more likely to work with the president than against him. Any president, whether it is Obama or someone else, needs an individual like Sharpton to serve as a conductor of ideas to the black community.
Sharpton is also correct that any black agenda pursued directly by President Obama would create a long list of right-wing enemies who would undermine his time in the White House. Fortunately, the goal is to simply get results and the passing of important legislation, not to have the president ballyhoo the racial dimensions of his work in our government. While screaming about a black agenda from the roof of the White House might appease those who'd rather have Hillary Clinton or John McCain as president, the truth is that it is best for Obama to be a bit more pragmatic. We must also remember that challenging him, criticizing him and putting pressure on him is something that he WANTS us to do. Ogletree made a similar point during the panel discussion in which we were both participating this weekend.
The great expectation of Sharpton, or anyone else in his position, is that this power and access to the White House be used in an honest and forthright way, with the agenda of the community being forced to the top of the president's list of priorities. As I am sure Rev. Sharpton understands, there's a difference between working with someone and allowing someone to use you. From all indicators I've seen thus far, Sharpton's access to the president will have a net benefit for the African American community, and Sharpton has not presented himself as a flunky to President Obama. The larger questions, however, will be answered by the end of 2010, when we are able to see the final results on black unemployment, as well as other indicators of our quality of life. At some point, everyone involved in the process is going to be held fully accountable.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the new book, 'Black American Money.' To have Dr. Boyce's commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here.