Contributing Editor

CHICAGO ( — The debate about whether President Obama is doing enough for African Americans and the poor should focus on the issues, not on personalities, members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) agreed during a forum at their annual convention last week.

The June 24 forum featured two prominent leaders who have been the face of the public debate, where the issues have sometimes been clouded by the passion each has brought to the discussion, at least once erupting into an on-air shouting match.

And although the Rev. Al Sharpton and Dr. Cornel West are longtime friends who continue to work on issues together and have privately discussed their disagreements, NNPA members were concerned that the personalities of the two were overshadowing the issues that needed to be addressed.


It was a concern that Sharpton addressed immediately.

“I want to get (something) out of the way early,” said Sharpton, leader of the National Action Network. “Folks have been saying that Cornel West and I are going to have a ‘showdown’ today.” If you’re looking for a circus, “there’s a Chicago Zoo,” he said.

Sharpton and West sat at a table with Martin Luther King III, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, and wife Rev. Marcia Dyson, Dr. Maulana Karenga, and the Rev. Ben Chavis. The two embraced as they talked about their 30 years of activism together.

During a point-counterpoint discussion coated with laughter, the men talked about an “inside, outside” strategy that can elevate issues of concern to African Americans and the poor without the distractions that media outlets and gossip bloggers can manipulate.

West, a professor at Princeton University, encouraged Sharpton to use his access to the White House to raise critical issues of African-American unemployment, the homeless, inadequate health care and the needs of America’s children. Sharpton reminded West that he’s been at the forefront of those issues and challenged the Black Press to maintain its position as an advocate for justice.

The controversy erupted after a television panel discussion about the black agenda featuring Sharpton, West and several others. That show ended with raised voices about the president’s focus, or lack thereof, on African-American issues.

“The mainstream media has played up a lot of strife and exploited Rev. Sharpton and Prof. West and used their disagreement for their own purposes,” said outgoing NNPA chairman Danny Bakewell. “We wanted to have a discussion in an environment where we would print (a firsthand account) from our own perspective.”

NNPA members overwhelmingly expressed support for President Obama, even as they listed issues of concern to African Americans and their objection to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Many were hopeful of a second term for the president, who they believe would push more forcefully against the ruling elite as a lame duck.

However, if African Americans are debating who is right — Sharpton or West — and taking sides, then it doesn’t help Black America raise issues now where the president or Congress will be responsive, NNPA members said.

“The question is not is President Obama doing enough,” said Dr. Karenga, a Los Angeles-based cultural activist who established the Kwanzaa holiday. “The question becomes, is what (Obama) doing contributing to confronting and solving these issues?”

No person is immune from criticism, he said. Since Whites have constructed an oppressive system where they dominate in wealth, power and status, African Americans must focus on changing the system, not on personalities, he said.

Panel moderator George Curry, a syndicated columnist and former editor of the NNPA news website, approached each leader and proposed they have a discussion, not a debate, where members of the Black Press can witness and carry the message. Both immediately agreed, Curry said.

During the discussion, Sharpton and West stuck to their positions about the need to support and be critical of the administration. They also agreed there has always been more than one road to reach goals that Black America desires.

Sharpton cited the “creative tension” stimulated by historic and public disagreements between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, and even how white progressives have feared when blacks sought to form their own agenda.

West noted that President Obama is surrounded by advisers who have no concern for the poor and working class. He reemphasized that he speaks what he believes in an effort to steer President Obama in a correct direction, just as Sharpton speaks in a “prophetic voice” that condemns what is wrong.

“How do we keep alive the black prophetic tradition that has autonomy and independence where we can agree to disagree even when we radically call each other into question?” West asked.

“We are in a war with oligarchs and plutocrats who are greedy and generate policies that produce neglect, mass unemployment, mass incarceration and police surveillance.”

Glenda Gill, executive director of the Automotive Project of Rainbow PUSH, felt there would be positive outcomes from the discussion.

“We need to bring the voices of all our people into one room and create a strategy and a plan,” she said.

“The plan holds all the pieces. Everybody has a role. As long as the plan is being followed, it’s a winnable strategy.”

Related news:

Dialogue, disagreements and President Obama  (FCN, 07-07-2011)