Holder appearance a sign of Sharpton's growing clout?

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
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."
A Breitbart.com 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?"
Tawana Brawley holds hands with Sharpton and her attorney outside the New York Supreme Court in 1990.
"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 Breitbart.com 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 aga