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The Sharpton Generation


"I've been fightin' since I came out of the maternity ward, and I tell you Moynihan is not gonna be re-elected," Sharpton said, looking to the people in the balcony. "I watched my mother get on the subway every day to go scrub people's floors."

"Say it, Rev, say it," rose the cries from the audience.

"We know it's true, brother."

"In my mama's name," came the crescendo, "I will run for the United States Senate." With that, the crowd literally jumped out of the pews. "Sharp-Ton. Sharp-Ton. Sharp-Ton."

There was no denying the fact that it was great theater, but it was more than that as well. With all of the invective and the oratory about accountability and unity, the rally was really about who will rise out of the pack to lead New York's black community in the post-Dinkins era. Because there is no obvious successor, the battle has been drawn between the baby-boomer radicals—the defiant ones—and the older politicians who built careers on the more accommodating traditions of the civil-rights movement. It was, when you stripped away the theatrics, the trash talk, and the brassy attempts to play to the cheap seats, about an authentic crisis of leadership among black New Yorkers.

"The crisis is that the people the [black] community has shown support for of late," Sharpton says, "are not the ones that the political and business leaders of the city are most comfortable with. That's the crisis."

But it cuts much deeper and wider than that. With David Dinkins, Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson, Denny Farrell, and Charles Rangel all over 60 and either already retired or clearly in the twilight of their political careers, who will fill that void? Will it be filled by Eric Adams, the contentious 33-year-old transit cop who will probably challenge Major Owens for his congressional seat? Adams has already received the backing of the Nation of Islam, which has, till now, stayed out of New York politics. Better known for his strident, unaccommodating comments than for his leadership, Adams seems always on the brink of inciting controversy. During last fall's election, he criticized Herman Badillo for having a white, Jewish wife instead of a Latino one. "I'm not a mainstream leader. The children in my community are dying and need help," says Adams now, "and there's nothing that will stand in my way. So if I have to say things that make people uncomfortable to get their attention and to say that I'm angry, then I'll say them."

"I may never be mayor," says Sharpton, "but I do think I could be the Jesse Jackson of New York."

Will the void be filled by Adam Clayton Powell IV, the two-term city councilman who is considering a run against Charlie Rangel, the man who unseated his father, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., in a bitter battle more than twenty years ago? Rangel is now one of the most powerful members of Congress. Powell's good looks and soft voice mask a radical spirit. "Black people shouldn't criticize Farrakhan at all," he says flatly, even alarmingly. Powell, 31, rails against conditions in the black community but offers no specific plan to improve them. Young blood and a vague insistence on change are his solution to Harlem's suffering.

Will the void be filled by Basil Paterson's son David, 39, a thoughtful state senator who represents Harlem and the Upper West Side? Though he is widely regarded as a rising political star. Paterson is sometimes criticized for trying to be all things to all people. However, he is one of the few young leaders who are generally respected by both firebrands and moderates, blacks and whites.

And then there is the new, more statesmanlike Al Sharpton, who has even been encouraged in his run for the Senate nomination by David Dinkins. Though Sharpton, 39, is no longer the loose-cannon Don King of local social activism, questions remain about how sincere he is in his apparent new seriousness and prudence. At the Bethany rally, he told the crowd that lawyer Alton Maddox—who was suspended for ethics violations in the Tawana Brawley case—would be his campaign chairman and that there is no fight he would take on without him.

"Over the the next twelve months." says Dennis Walcott, the head of the New York Urban League, "what will emerge along with the results from the primaries is the course of New York's black community for the next several years."

It is because the stakes are so high that the rhetoric has gotten so ugly. "Toms." "Negroes." "Punks." "Cowards." These are insults that resonate loudly for most blacks, striking at the foundation of a leader's credibility. The outsiders hurling the epithets are in essence saying. "Here's a man who is not black enough.” Often it seems that any leader who breaks rank is vulnerable—even if he's only separating himself from the most dishonest or ghastly statements. At Bethany, Sharpton warned the crowd not to be fooled by "people who look like us and talk like us but don't act like us."


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