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Sharpton’s celebrity is key to his cause

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Al Sharpton's recent decision to move to Chicago to highlight the city's violence-plagued communities demonstrates both the creativity and limits of contemporary black leadership.

The Rev. Sharpton's personal trajectory, marked by high-profile political setbacks and victories that have culminated in his improbable rise to national civil rights leadership, offers a unique vantage point to assess the troubled state of African-American leadership in the age of Obama.

The young Sharpton made his bones in New York City as the most vocal supporter during the Tawana Brawley case, in which a teenage black girl claimed to have been raped by six white men, allegations that were later proved to be unfounded. Nevertheless, Sharpton tapped into a deep well of political outrage among blacks in New York, which was plagued by police brutality, high unemployment and deteriorating neighborhoods. The Rev. Sharpton, in his capacity as a militant activist, became a part of the city's landscape in the 1980s and 1990s and helped lead bruising street demonstrations, the energy of which recalled that of the heyday of the civil rights and Black Power eras.

By the 21st century, the bloom seemed to be fading as Sharpton faced tax difficulties and allegations that his National Action Network had failed to file proper financial reports. However, by 2011 Sharpton had reinvented himself as the popular host of "Politics Nation" on MSNBC. The show, which runs weeknights, has turned Sharpton into perhaps the most well-known black leader in contemporary America. As host, the newly svelte Sharpton is intelligent, gregarious and insightful, with a biting sense of humor that has made him a favorite with progressives, especially African Americans.

In a very real sense, Al Sharpton and "Politics Nation" have become a virtual national headquarters for the contemporary civil rights movement and discussions of race, democracy and social and economic justice. Indeed, Sharpton's visibility easily surpasses that of outgoing NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, Urban League President Marc Morial or any member of the Congressional Black Caucus, with the lone exception of perhaps civil rights legend John Lewis.

Both the ubiquity and effectiveness of Sharpton's presence has blurred long-established lines between politics and popular culture, while also making the argument that in the 21st century, at least corporate power is necessary, even vital, in order to speak truth to power (Sharpton is employed by MSNBC, whose parent company is NBC Universal News Group, which is owned by Comcast). On this score Sharpton is in good company, joined by African-American progressive MSNBC talk show hosts such as Melissa Harris-Perry, Touré and Karen Finney, and contributors including Joy Reid, Michael Eric Dyson and James Peterson.

Yet the notoriety that comes with a successful talk show and radio show (which he plans to base in Chicago when he's there) has given some local leaders in Chicago pause. Sharpton's ability to galvanize attention to issues of gun violence in the city should be applauded, but threatens to overshadow the work of thousands of grassroots activists who will remain in the city long after he's gone.

His move to Chicago echoes the political activism of Martin Luther King, whose anti-poverty efforts in the Windy City in 1965-66 included residing in a housing project and working with gang members to end violence. King's fame and celebrity were a byproduct of full-time activism and not a television show, as were the legacies of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. This distinction is not to suggest that there is something wrong with the Rev. Sharpton hosting his own show, but rather quite the opposite. We need voices like Sharpton's speaking out against economic inequality and racial justice now more than ever.

Sharpton's fame speaks to a larger issue facing American society and, in very complex instances, the black community. Is celebrity the prerequisite to galvanizing citizens for political activism in the 21st century? And if the answer is yes, how is this impacting the very concept and face of black leadership in contemporary America?

Most black activists will never host their own television or radio shows but this does not diminish the impact of their organizing in local communities. The ability of a select group of civil rights activists, most notably Al Sharpton, to utilize the corporate media to highlight institutional racism represents a creative response to modern American politics. At the same time, however, it's important to remember that thousands of political activists across the country are doing the hard grassroots political work that would have made the young Sharpton very proud.

Civil rights leaders fortunate enough to have secured a national bully pulpit must cultivate a new generation of grassroots black activists who are doing the tough work of democracy in local neighborhoods, towns and cities, including Chicago. Black leadership's political credibility, one that in the 21st century has been definitively aided by the aura of celebrity, requires constructive engagement, mentoring and promoting the work of thousands of activists who toil in anonymity while providing the leverage, energy and bodies for the demonstrations and mobilization that make social movements possible.

(Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America" and "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama." His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.)

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