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Reverend Al Sharpton has been an ally of President Obama since 2009. Will he have a similar role for a possible Hillary Clinton campaign. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Al Sharpton HIllary Clinton

When prominent African Americans activists and intellectuals criticized President Obama on what they viewed as his slow-footed and passionless response to the shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Missouri, and the unrest that followed, the Rev. Al Sharpton was not among them.

In fact, Sharpton had a different question: What Hillary Clinton’s response to Ferguson?

So far, Clinton, on a book tour centered on foreign policy, hasn’t said anything about Ferguson, but Sharpton said that she, along with other possible 2016ers, should weigh in.

“I’m in the smoking-out business. That’s what King did with Kennedy,” he said. “That’s what civil rights leaders do. And I’m doing what I do.”

It was a clever political pivot that deflected attention from Obama and spawned additional segments on MSNBC, several articles and tweet after tweet, with Clinton characterized as MIA on race and police brutality, topics du jour among progressives and potential presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Sharpton and Clinton go way back, or rather, Sharpton and the Clintons go way back. And Sharpton’s move, and efforts to get Clinton on the record on Ferguson, now a catchall for race and civil rights, can in many ways be traced back to Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.

In 1992, Bill Clinton boldly chose the Rainbow Push convention, where rapper Sistah Souljah was on the schedule, to criticize both the singer and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. At the time, Sharpton was working for Jackson, as the director of the ministers division for the organization. The Souljah-Jackson slam was part of Bill Clinton’s effort to appeal to white blue collar voters, long suspicious of the civil rights movement.

In politics, memories and grievances don’t fade easily. And that context and juxtaposition — the Clintons on one side and some civil rights leaders like Jackson and Sharpton on the other–still hang over the Clinton-Sharpton relationship.

“I have a cordial relationship with her. When she was the senator here, she would come speak at National Action Network conferences. We got along well,” Sharpton said in a telephone interview. “But civility and cordiality have nothing do with position. There is going to me on the side of civil rights and others on the side of war.”

Sharpton says that he hasn’t heard from Hillary or Bill Clinton on Ferguson or much else, even as she seeks to firm up her support among African Americans in advance of a potential 2016 White House bid.

“I’ve run into them, but we haven’t had any in-depth talks,” he said. “But I’m sure we will.”

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The Clinton-Sharpton tango, playing out now on MSNBC against the backdrop of Ferguson and a potential Clinton 2016 bid, raises these questions: Is Sharpton’s power and relevance real or symbolic? And, more broadly what’s Clinton’s next move on Ferguson and on race more broadly?

First, Sharpton. Obama’s advisors clearly believe that having Sharpton as an ally is important, something they realized during the 2008 campaign, when they essentially struck a non-aggression pact with him. And given that his show is beamed into the homes of hundreds of thousands of African Americans, his voice does resonate with a segment of the population that that will be key to Clinton’s electoral fortunes.

But, is his footprint overstated, especially among the younger social media set, and the bloggers and intellectuals who write about race, culture and politics and also reach a broad audience?

Clinton could be facing a generation of social media savvy black voters and other media types who are tired of the idea of a designated “black leader,” possibly let down by Obama, and who are looking for a more up-front examination and response to racism.

Brittney Cooper, a prominent writer at Salon, wrote a piece called, “Al Sharpton does not have my ear. Why we need new black leadership now.”

Al Sharpton, however, does not have the ear of this generation, and it is not his leadership that any of us who will live on the planet for the next half-century or so really needs. To be clear, I do not believe in the slaying of elders. Black cultural traditions hold within them a serious reverence for the authority and wisdom of elder people.

This is not about Sharpton’s age, but rather about how he has positioned himself in relationship to black politics. My issue with him resides squarely within the limitations of his moral and political vision for who and how black people get to be within the American body politic.

If Ferguson revealed Sharpton’s continued prominence and limitations, it also revealed the paucity of black leadership more broadly. Obama’s election was predicted to usher in a new class of black leaders, but that simply has not happened. Hillary Clinton might not have said anything on Ferguson, but Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) response, centered around the treatment of protesters, didn’t break through either.

Obama left Sharpton’s “black leader” label intact and in some ways elevated it. Clinton could be facing a generation of social media savvy black voters and other media types who are tired of the idea of a designated “black leader,” possibly let down by Obama, and who are looking for a more up-front examination and response to racism.

Though Clinton has a strong record on race–one of her first speeches after she left the State Department was about voting rights–the 1992 Sistah Souljah moment shows that often, among centrist Democrats, black issues have been viewed as an expendable liability, even as black voters are crucial.

In his way, Obama has had subtle Sistah Souljah moments throughout his presidency around race, but black voters supported him as he walked that tightrope. Should Clinton run, she might have Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on one side and Sharpton on another, all while trying to stake out a middle road filled with blue-collar white voters, long since tired of Obama.

It’s a political trick-bag, with no easy answer, a daunting task for even the most savvy campaigner. If Clinton runs, Sharpton seems set to pitch a tent on her left, a quasi-campaign that she would have to contend with as racial dramas keep flaring up.

nia malika henderson

“We cannot have the party go back to the center,” Sharpton said. “And we can’t have Rand Paul talking about Ferguson and race and not Hillary Clinton, when she is the senator from the state where the [Eric Garner] chokehold case was. There is always been a battle in the Democratic party for which way the party is going. It’s an old fight. There will be flashpoints and she will have to deal with them.”

Nia-Malika Henderson
The Washington Post