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Reverend President!?

The ladies drinking sweet iced tea under the cypress trees beside Lake Marion at the Edisto Fork United Methodist Church picnic in Orangeburg, South Carolina, say they don’t think all that much about Tawana Brawley. “The man believed a young girl, what is wrong with that?” says sister Ruth, from down the road in Bamberg. Down here, there were plenty of things to worry about besides Tawana Brawley.

As everyone, white and black, tells you, South Carolina was and is the “heart of the Confederacy.” It was off the coast on Sullivan’s Island—the black Ellis Island—that an estimated 50 percent of African slaves first arrived in America. The Civil War’s first shot was fired in Charleston harbor, at Fort Sumter. With many streets still named for Confederate generals, this state sent Strom Thurmond to the Senate for 48 years and would have sent him another 48 if he’d lived that long.

“It’s all race politics in South Carolina—all race, all the time,” says Kevin Gray, Sharpton’s thorny S.C. campaign coordinator. In the late sixties, Gray and his sister were the first blacks to attend his formerly all-white local elementary school. Decades later, when his own children entered elementary school in South Carolina, it was all black, or, as he says, “segregated again.” This was the sort of “progress” being made down here, says Gray, who once ran as a Green Party candidate for governor, burning a Confederate flag on the statehouse steps while wearing a bulletproof vest.

But race politics cuts both ways. South Carolina, where as much as 45 percent of the primary electorate will be black, is the Rev’s best shot in next year’s primaries. A big Sharpton showing could land him on the cover of Time (the grail when you’re Al). Then, so goes the scenario, the eventual Democratic nominee, mindful of the conventional wisdom that he has no chance without a clean sweep of the black vote (even Gore, the stiff, got 92 percent), will have no choice but to talk to the Rev.

Speculation on what Al wants in return for his support falls into two general camps. The cynical, anti-Rev position says he’ll want plenty of cash and a private campaign jet. The nice-Al version, as promoted by Sharpton himself, entails inclusion of his progressive issues in the Dem platform and a prime-time slot at the convention to deliver his big-tent message of uplift.

So it is this steamy summer morning in Orangeburg, inside the Reverend Hayes Gainey’s clapboard United Methodist Church. Sharpton sits beside the pulpit as Gainey, stout and genial, rises to announce the guest speaker. “Welcome this titan of right, this truth-seeker, this Gospel preacher, this world teacher, this grassroots man,” Gainey extols, offering an introduction Dick Gephardt will never hear.

“Raise up this man! This man of God, sent by God!”

Al begins slowly, humbly. But with 44 years of practice (his fourth-grade teachers forbade him from writing “Rev. Al Sharpton” on his papers), he is soon rolling, delivering what has become, more or less, his stump sermon, easily the most effective, even stirring, political oratory of the current season.

A couple of days earlier, asked by the lefty editors of The Nation how he felt about faith-based government programs, Al declared the separation of church and state inviolate, saying, “Let the church into it, there’s going to be proselytizing.” But this is a different crowd.

“Once, we had the KKK,” he declares. “Now we got the RRR, the rich, right-wing Republicans! Well, let me tell you something. It is time for the Christian right to meet the right Christians!” Then, employing one of his favorite rhetorical devices, the Socratic self-cross-examination, a one-man call-and-response, the Rev shouts, Question! They ask me, Sharpton! Why you running? You can’t win! . . . I say: Nine fools running, eight gonna lose . . . But you get a lot more out of losing with me than winning with anyone else.”

Then Al is talking about the 2000-election fiasco, one more issue other Democrats seem to have punted on. Sharpton, however, is not letting it go. “They say get over it,” he booms. “How can I get over it when it wasn’t so long ago people right here in this room weren’t even allowed to vote! . . . Our grandmothers and -fathers had to fight for the vote! So don’t tell me to take something which is soaked in the blood of the innocents and get over it!”

Hallelujahs erupt. Of all his issues of Republican inequity, this is the one that gets the most response. The election: stolen from all Americans but felt more acutely by blacks, who have always loved this country more than it has loved them. Finishing with a flourish, Al melds the story of David to his own. “If God could take a shepherd boy and make him the king of Israel,” he yells, before the piano starts up and he hurls his stumpy body into an obligatory 360-degree spin, “then God could take a boy from the housing project—from the Brooklyn ghetto!—and have him beat George Bush in 2004!”

It is hard to figure how well Sharpton’s doing. Most recent polls have him second in South Carolina, behind the fast-fading Joseph Lieberman. Nationally, he fluctuates between 3 and 6 percent, decidedly a “second tier” candidate for sure, but ahead of supposed pros like John Edwards and Bob Graham. Not that polls matter when it comes to his chances, says Sharpton. When he got 32 percent in the mayoral primary, the morning papers had him at 14 percent. “My voters are not plugged into the Internet like Dean’s. You call them on the phone and start asking a lot of questions, they hang up,” the Rev explains. But this could be moot, because, as many claim, Sharpton is not really running for president of America but rather for president of Black America—i.e., against Jesse Jackson.

Jesse got a combined 10 million primary votes in his ’84 and ’88 campaigns, trouncing Michael Dukakis in several states including Michigan, carrying New York City. Matching that seems out of reach for Sharpton, who went to work for Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket at age 12 and has long maintained a complicated relationship with the man he once called “Big Rev,” as opposed to his own “Li’l Rev.”

More recently, however, Li’l Rev Al, always on the short end of the substantialness stick, began hinting, none too discreetly, that Jackson’s time was done, likening his mentor to Muhammad Ali—“still the champ, except he can’t fight no more.” However, even if Al carries around a printout of the 2004 primary calendar with Jackson’s ’88 totals handwritten in the margin, he rejects the idea that his main goal is to “beat Jesse.”

“How come if it’s two black guys, they’ve got to always be against each other, trying to beat on each other? I’m building on what Jesse did.”

This generational angle is seconded by Bill Lynch, the semi-legendary political operative who worked for Jackson and now calls Sharpton “my present oar in the water.” Asked if Sharpton’s ability to make you laugh but not cry—as Jesse made people cry in his eighties convention speeches—constitutes a significant difference between the two men, Lynch agrees, offering the surprising conclusion that “this ends up in Al’s favor.” Sixties civil-rights-movement language retains moral power, Lynch says (and resonates with “Kumbaya”-singing white liberals), but young people “don’t want to hear that old stuff.” It doesn’t matter which Rev will get a bigger welcome in heaven, Lynch says. His job is to get votes. Al, at 48, shockingly the youngest candidate in the race, makes the best connection to the “hip-hop generation.” The 19–35 voter is the “wild card” in this election, Lynch says. No reason they won’t be for Al.