The Rev. Al Sharpton is a “lightning rod” for President Barack Obama on inner city streets, Obama’s former Harvard mentor and friend said Saturday at a forum in Harlem.
But Sharpton, who led the event, told The Associated Press that America’s first black president “has to work both for us and for others,” and that if Obama were to push a race-based agenda, “that would only organize the right against him.”
Sharpton spoke on the last day of an annual conference organized by his National Action Network. Speakers included three members of Obama’s Cabinet and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, as well as Charles Ogletree, the president’s Harvard Law School professor, now a friend.
“Al Sharpton has become the lightning rod in moving Obama’s agenda forward,” Ogletree told the AP, describing Sharpton as a conduit between the disadvantaged and powerful leaders. “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.”
Sharpton clearly was at the center of this forum. Saturday, the front page of The Washington Post featured a photo of him with a headline that read: “Activist Al Sharpton takes on new role as administration ally.”
He chuckled at the notion.
“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,” Sharpton joked during a break, sitting in a pew on the altar that served as a high-tech stage.
Amid a heated national debate over whether black leaders should align themselves with the president, Sharpton has defended Obama against criticism from television host Tavis Smiley that “black folk are catching hell” and Obama should do more to help them.
Black Americans, Sharpton said, “need to solve our own problems.”
The four-day conference, focusing on a 12-month plan of action for black leadership, brought together prominent figures from dozens of fields, tackling topics as diverse as finding jobs for men leaving prison and federal subsidies for black farmers.