As Eric Holder prepares to leave as attorney general, there is a fierce debate over his six-year tenure. Many conservative senators who voted to confirm him in 2009 now regret it. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, now zings Holder’s “lack of respect for Congress, the American taxpayer, and the laws on the books.” Even some of his supporters agree he’s been confrontational and polarizing. Juan Williams of Fox News rails against anti-Holder “scandalmongers” but then admits “the Justice Department has devolved into the heart of Washington darkness, the absolute pit of modern political polarization in my lifetime.”
One reason for that polarization is that, thanks to direct support from Holder and President Obama himself, the Reverend Al Sharpton has now become the nation’s leading African-American civil-rights leader. Last month, Politico proclaimed Sharpton “the national black leader Obama leans on most.”
“There’s a trust factor with The Rev from the Oval Office on down,” a White House official told Politico. The White House had early on concluded it didn’t have much use for Jesse Jackson, a former top Obama adviser told Politico’s Glenn Thrush: “We needed to have someone to deal with in the African-American community, and Sharpton was the next best thing, so, yeah, we sort of helped build him up.” Egad, the equivalent of unleashing Typhoid Mary in a kitchen.
Today, Sharpton is at the center of presidential announcements and frequently texts or e-mails with Holder and top Justice officials. He vacationed this year at the Martha’s Vineyard condo of uber-presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, just up the road from where Obama himself was staying. Last month, he attended the funeral of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., with the White House’s blessing. “Michael Brown’s blood is crying for justice,” Sharpton told attendees. “Those police that are wrong need to be dealt with.”
Even Jackson, a sometime rival of Sharpton’s, is in awe: “He’s the man who’s the liaison to the White House; he’s the one who’s talking to the Justice Department.” Sharpton himself responded to Holder’s resignation announcement by crowing he is “engaged in immediate conversations with the White House on deliberations over a successor.”
Eric Holder was instrumental in papering over Sharpton’s fiery record of polarization and racial incitement. In 2012, he opened Sharpton’s National Action Network convention in New York by praising him “for your partnership, your friendship, and your 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.”
Holder lavished his praise on Sharpton at the same time “The Rev” was leading rallies in Florida against George Zimmerman, the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case. Sharpton called for civil disobedience and an “occupation” of Sanford if an arrest wasn’t made. After Zimmerman’s acquittal, Sharpton called the verdict “an atrocity.”
Far from becoming the “refined agitator” his apologists now claim him to be, the 59-year-old Sharpton is merely an older rabble-rouser using slightly new tricks. At heart, he hasn’t changed. Al Sharpton has never apologized to Steven Pagones, the assistant district attorney he falsely accused of raping Tawana Brawley, a black teenager, in 1987. The “dastardly deed” Sharpton accused Pagones of was found by a grand jury to be a complete fabrication. In 1998, Sharpton was found liable for seven defamatory statements he’d made against Pagones and ordered to pay $66,000.
Earlier in the 1990s, Sharpton had become famous exacerbating racial tensions in New York’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Speaking at the funeral of a boy who had been run over by a Hasidic-Jewish driver, Sharpton railed against Jewish “diamond merchants” who did business with apartheid South Africa. Four days of subsequent rioting by mostly black Crown Heights residents ended with the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, a visiting Jewish student from Australia.
Sharpton didn’t learn from that incident. In 1995, he denounced the owners of Freddy’s Fashion Mart in Harlem as “bloodsuckers” and “white interlopers” over a rent dispute the business had with tenants. A short time later, a man entered Freddy’s and told all the black people present to leave. Once they did, the man firebombed the building, killing seven people — including a black security guard. Sharpton insisted that he bore no responsibility for the incident, saying it was only a tenant/landlord dispute that had escalated out of control.
Last April, after reviewing his entire career, both past and present, Michael Goodwin, a New York Post columnist who has praised Sharpton at times, ruefully concluded: “For the majority, he remains a pariah, an object of mistrust and hostility. He hasn’t been forgiven for the past, but neither has he sought forgiveness.”
Sharpton certainly still seeks the limelight wherever it happens to shine. Take Louisiana, where Sharpton was quickly on the ground in 2007, leading 15,000 protesters in shutting down the town of Jena.
Nooses had been hung at the local Jena high school after an argument between black and white students. Weeks later, six black teens were arrested for their role in the beating of a white classmate named Justin Barker, who ended up in the emergency room. Sharpton demanded the “Jena Six” be freed.
In the end, the Jena Six didn’t turn out to be the story of oppression Sharpton had trumpeted. Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time, was the only one of the Jena Six to be tried. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a second-degree battery charge and received an 18-month sentence. The other five pleaded no contest to simple battery, accepting a plea deal that gave them seven days’ probation, a $500 fine, and court costs. A lawsuit against the Jena Six was settled with the defendants paying their victim, Barker, an undisclosed sum of money. In subsequent years, three of the Jena Six have been arrested on charges ranging from causing bodily injury to simple battery.
As visible as Al Sharpton was at Jena, he was nowhere to be seen in Louisiana in 2013, when the Obama Justice Department sued the state to stop it from distributing scholarships to kids seeking to escape failing schools. Despite Sharpton’s professed support for charter programs that allow students to attend non-traditional public schools, he was silent on Justice’s outrageous lawsuit.
State education superintendent John White wasn’t; he noted that the program had been declared constitutional by Louisiana’s supreme court and that any participating schools were banned from getting any of the scholarship vouchers if they practiced segregation or discrimination.
A survey last year by the Louisiana Federation for Children and the Black Alliance for Educational Options found that nearly 93 percent of parents were happy with their child’s scholarship school. But Sharpton was deaf to pleas that he intercede with the Obama administration to stop echoing George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “standing in the schoolhouse door” defiance — but this time preventing kids from leaving failing schools rather than entering those they were legally entitled to attend.
Many principled liberals are privately appalled that President Obama and Eric Holder have exalted the status of Al Sharpton, and they fear that any new attorney general will also be in thrall to him. Some have even gone public. Liberal journalist Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News wrote last year: “We’ve gone from Martin Luther King to the Reverend Al Sharpton, and . . . it’s very dispiriting.”
Indeed, in King’s famous 1963 speech at the Washington Mall, he told of his “dream” that his four children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
That dream remains as noble as ever, but it won’t be advanced by the Reverend Sharpton and his “I have a scheme” method of activism. One of the saddest legacies of the Obama-Holder years will be that while they claimed MLK’s mantle as their own, they left the country more racially polarized than before and cynically worked overtime to give credibility to the Al Sharptons of the world.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO. Hans von Spakovsky is a former Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration. They are co-authors of Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department.