May 7, 2003


The Reverend Al Sharpton is running for president not to defeat George Bush, but rather to dethrone Jesse Jackson and emerge as the primary spokesman for America's "Black Nation" -- the job Jackson has arrogated to himself for the past two decades.

And Carol Moseley Braun, Illinois' former senator, is running for president, with Jackson's encouragement, in order to minimize Sharpton's support by splitting the black vote in next year's Democratic presidential primaries.

Sharpton is a Pentecostal preacher from Harlem whose abrasiveness, poor judgment and fixation on racial issues have made him a polarizing figure in New York City, much beloved by blacks, much detested by whites. By running for president, Sharpton emulates Jackson, whose campaigns in 1984 and 1988 gave him stature that he still enjoys. But while Sharpton wants to transform himself from an obnoxious "civil rights leader" into a national black spokesman, and while he wants to make the Democrats address his liberal agenda, including slavery reparations, his 2004 candidacy also has a generational and geographic impact on the country, the Democrats and blacks in general. Here's why:

Largely ignored by the mainstream media, and unknown to most white Americans, a fierce geographic rivalry exists between New York City, Atlanta and Chicago to be the "seat of power" of America's "Black Nation." Jackson traipses all over the country and the world, but he is from Chicago, and that irks his rivals.

The civil rights "movement" actually began in New York City's black Baptist churches in the 1940s, as tens of thousands of blacks emigrated northward from the South and settled in Harlem and in other urban areas nationwide. Churches were then the forum for racial complaint -- not the streets or public demonstrations. The focus was on local issues, and the election of black office holders, with Adam Clayton Powell using his pulpit to propel himself into Congress and become the nation's most visible black politician.

But the advent of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. rendered the pulpit largely irrelevant. King, then based in Chicago, took his "civil rights" campaign, which focused on "equal access" to both public accommodations and the voting booth, to the South in the early 1960s and set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. King's tactics included both huge public rallies and non-violent protests, which often resulted in arrests. By the time of his 1968 assassination, King was unquestionably America's premier black spokesman, and Atlanta was the hub of the civil rights movement. The Reverend Ralph Abernethy, at SCLC, carried the torch for the next decade.

Jackson, however, soon left Atlanta, returned to Chicago, and set up his Operation Breadbasket, which was superseded by his Operation PUSH. Jackson clearly understood that rhetoric about black economic and political empowerment got him noticed by the media and the politicians, while the few black leaders who still complained about a lack of "civil rights" got ignored. Jackson became a powerbroker in Chicago and Illinois politics, and then extended his tentacles and became a major player in national Democratic politics.

By the 1980s Jackson was the nation's premier black spokesman, and Chicago was the hub of his operation. Corporations quaked when Jackson threatened an economic boycott, and politicians quaked when Jackson threatened not to endorse them. Jackson's voice and pen were ubiquitous, with his opinions regularly rendered on television and in newspapers.

Jackson ran for president in 1984 and received solid black backing in the Democratic primaries. He got 20 percent of the vote in Alabama, 21 percent in Georgia, California and Illinois, 24 percent in New Jersey, 25 percent in North Carolina and Tennessee, and 26 percent in New York and Maryland. Jackson's share of the vote almost doubled the percentage of black voters in each of those states, since black voters comprise a large portion of the Democratic primary vote . Jackson was now a credible politician in his own right, and a worldwide figure.

Jackson ran again in 1988, with much the same result: His vote was between one-fourth and one-fifth in the South and in the urban Northern state primaries. It was obvious that Jackson would never be president, but it was equally obvious that he was the undisputed king of black America.

By the late 1990s, Jackson's luster had begun to dim. His son, Jesse Jackson Jr., was elected an Illinois congressman, so his Chicago political base remained strong, but Jackson's out-of-wedlock child with an aide, coming soon after he had trekked to the White House to pray with President Bill Clinton during the trying days of impeachment and Monica Lewinsky, made him seem hypocritical, if not ridiculous, and exposures of his financial empire and considerable wealth spurred doubts about whether he could be a spokesman for "the poor."

Since he had his personal problems, Jackson has unleashed a concerted media campaign to rehabilitate his image, offering his opinion on every issue from opposing Bush on Iraq and affirmative action to condemning the death penalty. But Jackson's views are tiresome and wholly predictable, and his political and personal credibility are at an all-time low.

There are nine announced Democratic candidates for president, and seven of them are white men. Why isn't there a more electable black contender than Sharpton or Moseley-Braun? Jackson has been "king" for over two decades, yet he has failed to groom a black candidate of presidential quality. Maybe he doesn't want to find somebody who will eclipse him. There is only one African American in the country who could conceivably be elected president, and that is Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican.

Why is it that Jackson can find virtually nothing praiseworthy to say about Powell? Because Powell has risen to his position because of his competence, not his race, and because his agenda (like the Bush Administration's) is for a color-free America, where all advance based on ability (although Powell does support some affirmative action). Jackson's agenda is his race. He retains his prominence by telling blacks that white racism is still epidemic, that black economic progress is anemic, that they are still "victims" of slavery and exploitation, and that the way for blacks to succeed is to get preferential treatment and more government handouts.

The blame-everything-on-whites approach has empowered Jackson, but not America's blacks. There is not a single black governor or U.S. senator, despite the fact that the black population of the United States is 36.1 million. In fact, there are now more Hispanics (37.6 million) in the country than blacks. Under Jackson's leadership, there are fewer blacks in Congress or serving as big-city mayors than there were 20 years ago.

Sharpton's agenda is wholly racial: no death penalty, higher welfare, lessened criminal sentences, more minority quotas, slavery reparations. Moseley Braun's issue stances are identical, but her agenda is focused on gender: She's the only woman in the race, and she packs great appeal to black women and liberal white women. Some of the early 2004 primary states have large black populations: South Carolina (29.5 percent black) on Feb. 3, Michigan (14.2 percent) on Feb. 7, Virginia (19.6 percent) and Tennessee (16.4 percent) on Feb. 10, and California (6.7 percent) and New York (15.9 percent) on March 2. Illinois, whose population is 15.1 percent black, has its primary on March 16.

A single black contender, against seven or more white candidates, could finish first or second in those primaries. Two black candidates, splitting the 20 to 25 percent black vote, will finish fourth or fifth, or lower. Even in New York, Sharpton will be well back in the pack.

The bottom line: To dethrone Jackson, Sharpton needs to finish third in at least four of the early primaries, ahead of some of the prominent white candidates. Then he would go into the Democratic convention as the "black spokesman," making Jackson irrelevant. Icons like Jackson don't last forever, but Jackson didn't get to where he is by not being astute.

My prediction: Moseley Braun's candidacy is exactly what Sharpton doesn't need. He'll get more black votes than she will, but the real winner will be Jackson and his Chicago branch. Jackson's reign over the "Black Nation" will be extended for another 4 years.