Eric Holder, right, faces criticism for his appearance last week at an annual convention held by the Rev. Al Sharpton's group.

Story highlights

NEW: Al Sharpton says he has grown as a fighter, much like Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson

Conservatives: Obama using Sharpton to fan racial flames, ensure black voter turnout

President's coziness with Sharpton ostracizes whites, Vanderbilt professor says

Syracuse scholar believes Obama relationship "cheapens" Sharpton's civil rights legacy

CNN  — 

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to speak at an annual convention of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s group, in which Trayvon Martin was a key issue, has been widely panned as a political ploy.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s also evidence that the tamer version of the civil rights leader that we’ve seen in recent years – the syndicated radio host, the MSNBC personality, the White House adviser – is enjoying broader legitimacy these days.

“It certainly is a sign of Sharpton’s very close relationship with the White House,” said Boyce Watkins, a political analyst and Syracuse University economist who often weighs in on race relations. “But to think there isn’t a political calculation involved would be a bit naïve.”

Sharpton said Holder’s appearance is merely a sign of the “growing respect” his National Action Network has earned since 1999 after Sharpton rallied in support of Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant who was killed when New York police fired 41 shots at the unarmed 23-year-old.

He further pointed out that Holder is hardly the first high-profile speaker to appear at his group’s rallies, which have hosted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Coretta Scott King and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others.

Holder opened his Wednesday speech with high praise for Sharpton, thanking him for being a partner and friend and for his “tireless efforts to speak out for the voiceless, to stand up for the powerless and to shine a light on the problems we must solve, and the promises we must fulfill.”

He went on to say that he could not discuss the Justice Department’s investigation into the 17-year-old Martin’s killing at the hands of neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, but that department officials were meeting with Martin’s family, local police and the Sanford, Florida, community, as is typical in these types of cases.

Holder promised a “thorough and independent review” and said, “If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action. And, at every step, the facts and the law will guide us forward.”

Conservative websites quickly blasted Holder and questioned how the attorney general could stand next to a man whose long history of civil disobedience and protest includes allegations of defamation and inciting deadly riots.

A checkered past

In a column on The American Spectator website, titled “Holder is a disgrace … and a very bad man,” senior editor Quin Hillyer wrote, “Even I, with my low opinion of Thug-in-General Eric Holder, can’t believe he would lavish praise on scofflaw, tax evader, and murderous inciter to violence Al Sharpton in the way Holder did.”

Tawana Brawley holds hands with Sharpton and her attorney outside the New York Supreme Court in 1990.

A columnist added of Holder, “Why should he be introduced by Al Sharpton, the man who once incited a race riot in Crown Heights ending in the murder of an Orthodox Jew, the man who pushed the trumped-up Tawana Brawley case, the man who forwarded the false Duke lacrosse rape case, and the man who is currently stirring up trouble in Sanford?”

“He’s doing it because that’s his job: to pander to extremists like Sharpton. That’s why we’ve heard nothing from the DOJ about the New Black Panthers’ bounty – or even their voter intimidation back in 2008.”

Sharpton said he didn’t step into the Crown Heights fray until the day after Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed to death, though the reverend has apologized in the past for using racially charged language during the 1991 uprising. Sharpton’s involvement in the Duke case was limited to commentary, but he stood behind the lacrosse players’ accuser when she was later discredited. The accused students were vindicated.

Of the 1987 Brawley case, in which Sharpton championed a 15-year-old Wappingers Falls, New York, girl before her claim that six white law enforcement officers raped her was discredited, he conceded he was found liable for defamation. He noted, however, that there was no conspiracy to slander anyone. Two attorneys approached him with Brawley’s story, and he believed it, much like prosecutors do every day, but no one asks them to apologize when they lose a case, he said.

“What are people asking me to apologize for? For believing her? Should I apologize for Diallo, too, because a jury didn’t believe that?” he asked. “Advocates can’t apologize for standing up for something they believe.”

He expressed relief that he didn’t have to deal with the personal accusations that other high-profile leaders face.

“The only thing they can go back to is Brawley … and I think that’s pretty flimsy,” he said. “At least my attacks are political, and at least (my critics) have to go back a quarter of a century.”

The last reference in the quote refers to the Justice Department’s decision to scale back an inquiry into allegations that two members of the New Black Panthers, one wielding a nightstick, had intimidated voters in Philadelphia in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president. The Justice Department won an injunction against the nightstick-wielding member, and Holder testified later that race played no role in how his department handled the case.

Several conservatives alleged that Holder was again pandering to the New Black Panthers – which the Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed a hate group – when the Justice Department took no action for a dead-or-alive $10,000 bounty placed on Zimmerman (the Justice Department doesn’t tend to comment when it opens investigations, so it’s uncertain whether the department is investigating the bounty). wasn’t the only media outlet to claim the Holder appearance was an orchestrated moment in Obama’s re-election campaign.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh flatly stated Wednesday, “There is no question that the White House wants this kind of chaos and unrest in the culture. They, for some reason, have determined that it is helpful for Obama’s re-election because they believe that they can tie all of this to the existence of Republicans and conservatives, that the racial problems exist because of never-ending racism of the right, never-ending racism of Republicans.”

Largely omitted from the conservative commentary were the attorney general’s remarks calling for temperance in the case, “for safety and civil rights for all.” He also said ordinary people were calling “not just for answers and justice, but also for civility and unity, and for a national discourse that is productive, respectful, and worthy of our both forebears and our children.”

Sharpton said he was not surprised by the criticism from the right but questioned why the same pundits didn’t lambaste President George W. Bush for inviting him to the White House. Or how about when Gingrich or conservative talk-show hosts Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity appeared at his events? There was also a host of other Cabinet members present at last week’s convention that got no mention in any of the critics’ posts.

“They’re very selective on who they want to attack,” Sharpton said.

Critical acclaim

Watkins, the Syracuse scholar, said Obama and Sharpton have a symbiotic relationship in terms of lending each other credibility, and though there are times when it appears to be “political quid pro quo between the Obama administration and Al Sharpton,” Watkins stands resoundingly behind the fiery civil rights leader when it comes to the Martin case.

“I think anyone who speaks on behalf of the Trayvon Martin family is on the side of good,” he said. “Most rational people don’t believe George Zimmerman should’ve been able to kill this young man and escape arrest.”

After weeks of protest and outcry, Zimmerman was arrested last week and charged with second-degree murder, 45 days after Martin’s death.

When the NAACP chapter in Seminole County distanced itself from Sharpton’s calls for peaceful civil disobedience and economic sanctions in Sanford, an Orlando suburb of about 54,000, Watkins wrote that Sharpton was “right on point” and couched the local NAACP reaction as “catering and sucking up to Southern racist traditions.”

He continued: ” ‘I wannabe-a-good-negro-itis’ is a disease that is especially prevalent in the South, with an epidemic so pervasive that we should call the Center for Disease Control.”

Sharpton was disappointed that the local NAACP chapter would make such a remark publicly without consulting him privately, he said. Despite a steady chorus of claims to the contrary, Sharpton said he didn’t get involved in the Martin case to stoke racial tensions and he’s never called Zimmerman a racist.

When the Martin family attorney first contacted him, he wasn’t familiar with the shooting, but after learning police initially claimed there was no probable cause to arrest Zimmerman, he felt it was a “clear case of selective policing.” After learning more about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, he decided the National Action Network needed to stay involved because it fell under the group’s social change agenda.

The chapter president of the Seminole County NAACP, Turner Clayton Jr., did not return a voicemail and e-mail seeking comment.

Though Watkins has been critical of Sharpton in the past, he said he believes the National Action Network founder is rightly using his clout in this case to bring attention to an atrocious situation.

The Brawley case has nothing to do with the Martin shooting. It’s unfair to even raise the 25-year-old incident, Watkins said.

“I think there are people who will always be critical when one black man stands next to another black man in the name of social justice,” Watkins said.

Race vs. injustice

Carol Swain, a race relations expert and Vanderbilt University law and political science professor, said she believes Sharpton and his supporters have manufactured the racial divide over the Martin case. She wasn’t surprised to see Holder at the National Action Network convention, she said.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week indicated that 44% of all adults felt Martin’s killing was unjustified and 51% didn’t know enough to form an opinion. Broken down along racial lines, the divide was stark: Only 38% of white respondents called it unjustified, as opposed to 80% of blacks surveyed.

“Americans were not polarized on the basis of race” when the story first broke, Swain said.

The case was getting plenty of media coverage, and many people felt Zimmerman had misused the Stand Your Ground law and the country was united in its call for more information and an indictment, she said.

President Barack Obama greets Sharpton at a National Action Network anniversary function last year.

“It did not have to become an issue of race. It seemed to be an issue of injustice,” she said.

Yet when Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson entered the fray – with their “1960s approach to our social and political problems” – black and white America diverged, Swain said.

The Obama administration was all too happy to let it become a racial matter because “Democrats see political gain in keeping blacks riled up,” she said, questioning the presence of voter registration booths at some of the rallies in honor of Martin.

The administration is “fanning the flames of racism” to galvanize the black electorate in hopes of a turnout similar to that in 2008, Swain said. Democrats are using Martin as a “diversionary tactic” to distract from the president’s failings on unemployment, illegal immigration, HIV/AIDS education and the incidence of unwed mothers – all of which Swain said have a disproportionate effect on black communities.

It’s a delicate moment in American race relations, and the country needs a “uniter in chief, and it’s not coming from the president and it’s not coming from the president’s men,” she said.

Standing alongside Sharpton – as Holder did last week and Obama did last year – ostracizes white people, Swain said, comparing Obama’s 2011 National Action Network speech to a past president appearing alongside white nationalist David Duke.

Obama administration officials have appeared at National Action Network events in the past, and this year’s convention hosted several Cabinet members besides Holder, including Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who holds Cabinet rank.

“It’s my understanding that Al Sharpton has had an open door to the White House. He’s always had a legitimate status with President Obama, but not the rest of us,” she said. “When the attorney general stands with a character like that, it legitimizes them inappropriately.”

The trajectory of Sharpton’s political career is not unlike that of civil rights activists before him, the reverend said. Jackson started out as a “rabble-rouser” before he became a two-time presidential candidate and presidential envoy under Bill Clinton, Sharpton said. Andrew Young was a key figure in the Rev. Martin Luther King’s movement before adding the titles of U.S. congressman, U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor to his resume.

“(President) Jimmy Carter can appoint Andrew Young to a job, Bill Clinton can appoint Jesse Jackson to a job, and Al Sharpton can’t meet with the president?” he said. “They worked for the administration. I don’t work for the administration. I have access to it.”

Sharpton fighting “dirty wars”?

Watkins disagrees with Swain’s assertion that access to Obama makes Sharpton more legitimate, only because he believes Sharpton has become part of the establishment that is so often accused of keeping black people down.

Sharpton has done commercials for pay-day loans, which have been criticized for targeting low-income communities with high-interest rates and aggressive collection means. He’s been a syndicated radio show host. He got his own MSNBC show in August. And now, he has been selected as one of Obama’s “attack dogs,” Watkins said.

Sharpton says he's a more experienced fighter than he was in the 1980s and 1990s.

When influential black commentators such as Cornel West or Tavis Smiley blast the president, it’s not Obama who responds, Watkins said. It’s Sharpton “fighting their dirty wars,” he said.

Sharpton told “60 Minutes” last year that he is a “refined agitator” and said he won’t criticize Obama because “to minimize who he is, I think, is an insult to the achievement of having him there.”

Simply put, Sharpton told CNN, he is a changed man and he has become more discerning. He also is “a lot more hard on my staff about investigating and looking into things more deeply,” and he’s gotten better about picking and prioritizing his battles.

A good example was the rape case involving former International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of sexually assaulting a Guinean hotel maid in New York before prosecutors dropped the charges.

At the time, many asked why Sharpton didn’t get involved. Though he sympathized with the alleged victim and advised her attorneys privately, he said he never stepped to the forefront because he didn’t see how the case fit his group’s social mission. He was criticized for his inaction much like he is criticized when he does get involved. It’s a textbook case of damned if you do or damned if you don’t, he said.

“If I don’t get involved, what’s going on? If I do get involved, why did I get involved?” he said, chuckling.

According to Watkins, you can’t say that Sharpton hasn’t earned his stripes, that he hasn’t dedicated himself to the civil rights struggle for decades, that he isn’t uniquely positioned to speak up and bring visibility to cases like Martin’s, but there is an element of speaking truth to power that doesn’t jibe with being in the president’s pocket.

“This cozy relationship between the Obama administration and Al Sharpton is one that minimizes his credibility as a civil rights leader,” Watkins said. “It cheapens his legacy.”

The criticism isn’t fair, Sharpton contends, because he’s done a good job balancing his roles. His MSNBC show and Obama access didn’t stop him from leading a jobs march last year, or from speaking out against the execution of Troy Davis, or from re-enacting the pivotal 1965 Selma to Montgomery march on the 47th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Nor did it have any effect on him advocating for Martin, which he called the “civil rights case of our time.” Sharpton just does things differently than he used to in his younger, more fiery days, he said, again invoking those civil rights leaders who marched before him.

“I grew up under the generation ahead of me – Andrew Young and Jesse – who went through that same growth period,” he said.