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The Sharpton Generation

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Four-term Queens congressman Floyd Flake—an incumbent who escapes the wrath of the new generation because of his community work—believes more neighborhood and church leaders need to get into politics. Flake himself, a minister who preaches to several thousand people every Sunday, was pushed to run for Congress by the residents of southeast Queens. "We need a new kind of activism," he says, "the kind of activism that creates resources and remedies, not agitation and confrontation."

In its starkest terms, the crisis stretches beyond who currently sits in City Hall and who will run for what political office. Like the battles taking place nationally—over integration, separatism, Afrocentrism, Farrakhan—it is also about philosophy and outlook. It is a fight over who will set the black political agenda and who will set the standards by which the leaders are judged. This kind of ideological infighting has gone on at the top tier of black leadership for decades.

"We can hark back to the somewhat mythical days of Martin Luther King," says Dinkins's deputy mayor Bill Lynch, who now works for billionaire Ronald Perelman. "I say mythical in the sense that before [his assassination in] Memphis, his popularity had, in fact, waned greatly. And before the march on Washington, there was Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph—you name 'em," says Lynch of the leaders fighting to control the black agenda. "And you even had the split within the civil-rights movement of the young Turks versus the old Turks. I think you see a lot of that same thing going on right now."

What's different, however, is that it is much harder to clearly frame the issues, which are no longer legalistic. And as long as the leadership vacuum exists at the top, those with the loudest voices—the provocateurs, the demagogues, the hatemongers—are the ones who will attract the most attention. The problem is compounded by local television's dangerous appetite for the most outrageous possible sound bite.

"It's like what I said about rappers," says the Reverend Calvin Butts, 44, of the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street, whose own potential to be the black leader was set back when he endorsed Ross Perot for president. "They've got to see who can come up with the filthiest line next to remain popular. Well, if I've got to outdemagogue the first demagogue in order to get the attention of my community, then I don't deserve that attention. We all have to be careful," he warns, "and I'm not speaking in racial terms—well, maybe I am to an extent—because given the kind of malaise, the despair that has spread across the country, it's fertile ground for those who can stir our emotions and get us to respond based on our fears and our anger."

"Black people shouldn't criticize Farrakhan at all," says Adam Clayton Powell IV, who may challenge Rep. Charles Rangel.

Though the Democratic primary is still almost six months away, Al Sharpton has already logged more miles, kissed more women, scarfed down more horrendous banquet food, sat in more church basements, spoken to more trade associations, preached more sermons, given more interviews, and had his hair done more times than any other candidate will manage to do during this or perhaps any campaign season. In truth, it's as if no one ever told him that the 1992 race was over. He has, to great effect, just kept running.

For the tireless street preacher, this marathon has produced startling results. Once, it was easy to dismiss him as a con man, an FBI informer, a publicity monger, a hustler, a clown, and a bilious racial blowhard. He is all of these. Sharpton seemed, as he strutted from one repugnant racial sideshow to the next, an opportunist without a moral center.

But he actually has, apart from his recent photo-op church baptism, been reborn. Just imagine someone telling you back in the late-eighties Tawana Brawley days that Sharpton would mount a serious, dignified, issue-oriented campaign for the United States Senate in 1992. And that he would conduct himself so admirably, by comparison with the mainstream contenders, that the governor of New York would actually call him the "classiest" candidate of the bunch. That he would get 167,000 votes statewide, 21 percent of the vote in the city; finish ahead of Liz Holtzman: and do it all while spending a measly $60,000.

His repackaging and repositioning have been swift and seamless. It is now simply taken for granted that he's the national director of the Rainbow Coalition's ministers' division. No one is astonished when he joins Nelson Mandela's entourage in New York or Jesse Jackson for a meeting with the editors of Time magazine. No summit gathering of powerful black leaders these days would dare leave Sharpton off the list. He is, despite everything, in the mainstream.


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