By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — Prominent — and controversial — civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton addressed a crowd of roughly 700 at Middlebury College’s Mead Chapel last Wednesday, urging students at the college to remain activists even in the wake of January’s political sea change.
“There are many that feel that because we’ve made a huge, historic, momentous occasion with the election of Barack Obama, that all of a sudden we no longer need activists,” Sharpton said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Pulling on an example from earlier in the day, he chided Democrats in Congress who had pared education funding from the federal economic stimulus package to appease opponents to the legislation — and reminded his audience that while politicians and activists can work hand in hand, their roles are fundamentally different.
“This is why it is necessary, even in these times, that you continue to have advocates and activists,” he said. “Even when you end up with those in power in agreement with you, it still takes in many cases a social movement and mobilization to create change.”
Trevor Lee, one of the Middlebury College students who helped arrange for Sharpton’s lecture at the college, said that a survey of students showed enthusiasm about political speakers, “especially ones who approached politics from the perspective of social justice,” Lee said.
Though the terms of Sharpton’s contract are confidential, Lee said that rumors that the school spent $40,000 on the lecture were unfounded.
Sharpton, a Baptist minister, has gained national notoriety over the last several decades for his work as an activist for civil rights and social justice. Sharpton hosts his own radio show and frequently appears on cable news channels MSNBC and Fox News.
He was also a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency in 2004 — though he told his audience at Middlebury College on Feb. 11 that he never had any illusions about winning the race, and entered the arena to raise issues like the war in Iraq.
It was the topic of this war that came to the forefront when Sharpton reminded his audience that activism often comes at the cost of popularity.
“We were on the most unpopular cause in America,” Sharpton recalled, looking back to the earliest protests against the war. “We were accused of … comforting terrorists. We were accused of being unpatriotic. We were told, ‘How dare you?’”
During the first marches in Washington, D.C., against the war, many activists felt alone and isolated, he said.
But Sharpton argued that the “change that America voted for” last November was made possible by the work of activists who were not afraid to raise their voices even when their beliefs were unpopular.
In this vein, Sharpton warned his Middlebury audience that he did not seek their approval. But Sharpton’s easy humor and witty asides nonetheless earned the man several appreciative chuckles from his audience, occasional outbursts of applause, and, at the end of his address, a standing ovation from the full-house audience at Mead Chapel.
The road ahead, he said, still requires that activists remain persistent and dedicated.
“There are issues that are still very pertinent that still need to be resolved,” Sharpton argued. Not all of those, he said, have to do with race — though he told the crowd in Mead Chapel that change can not just come at the highest level, as it did with the election of America’s first black president.
“The notion that all of our differences … all of a sudden, by some magic, disappeared the night of Nov. 4, 2008, is absurd,” said Sharpton. “We won the right to change. We did not win the change. … There is quite a difference between having the dream team on the court, and winning the game. You still have to score.”
He went on to point out that significant challenges still face children of color born in the United States.
“The end of the civil rights journey is to create equality from the bottom up, not just break through at the top,” Sharpton said.
Issues of race aside, Sharpton also said that he considers the right for gay and lesbian couples to marry, and issues of reproductive freedom and abortion, to be among the most pressing civil rights issues of the present.
Sharpton — and the students who stood up to question the speaker after his address — steered largely clear of the more controversial aspects of the activist’s resume, which include his involvement in the Tawana Brawley case.
Brawley, then 15, claimed in 1987 that she, a black girl, had been assaulted and raped by six white men, some of them police officers, in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. A grand jury determined that Brawley fabricated the story, and after accusing the county prosecutor of racism and involvement in the alleged crime, Sharpton was one of three found liable for making defamatory statements about the prosecutor.
Last Wednesday’s discussion instead hovered near topics of Sharpton’s fight against police brutality and racial profiling.
But when the final student to address a question to Sharpton asked if he had any regrets about the way he’d conducted rallies or protests in the past, Sharpton did allude to the lessons learned over a life spent in the public eye. There were times in his career, he said, where “style” got in the way of his mission.
“There’s always going to be those against you, always some who are for you, but there’s a big middle ground. You do a disservice to the cause by not trying to consciously appeal to them to see the cause,” Sharpton said.
“Sometimes we put our vanity in front of those issues. … When the ego becomes more important than the issue, than I think you do a disservice to the cause.”