The Rev. Al Sharpton assailed the Bush administration.
Civil rights activist and former presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton delivered harsh criticisms of the Bush administration, offered contemporary interpretations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s political stances, and urged his listeners to create a life of meaning instead of comfort in a talk at Baker Hall Thursday night.
Sharpton’s 45-minute talk, which capped a week-long series of Lehigh events honoring the slain civil rights leader, attracted an overflow crowd of more than 1,050.
Wearing a three-piece suit and sporting his trademark bouffant, Sharpton strode onto the stage several minutes late and apologized for the delay.
“We were trying to find Bethlehem and we were looking for the star in the East,” he quipped, “so we got a little lost.”
”I know what the word ‘imminent’ means.”
An overflow crowd packed Baker Hall at Zoellner Arts Center to hear Sharpton.
But he quickly dispensed with small talk and launched into a passionate tongue-lashing of the policies of the Bush administration, which Sharpton accused of leading the country into an unjust war and dismantling decades of progressive legislation.
“If Martin Luther King were alive today, he would be engaged in a struggle for human rights and world peace,” Sharpton said. “First and foremost, he would be opposed to the war in Iraq. In his dying days, he fought against the war in Vietnam because he would not make a butchery of his conscience.”
Sharpton said that King would be concerned about the war in Iraq for the same reasons.
“In the aftermath of 9-11,” he said, “we were told we had to go to Iraq because of imminent danger, because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Now I didn’t go to Lehigh, but I know what the word ‘imminent’ means. It means ‘right now.’ Now we hear that we have to be there to spread democracy.”
Sharpton accused the Bush administration of pulling a “bait-and-switch.” As an example, Sharpton said it was as if he told everyone in the audience to leave Baker Hall because of imminent danger. And once outside, when people asked him, “Where’s the danger?”, he told them: “Don’t worry about it—you needed fresh air anyhow.
“Maybe fresh air is good for you, but that’s not how I got you out there,” Sharpton said.
He also faulted the Bush administration for directing the focus of efforts away from Osama Bin Laden to the pursuit of Saddam Hussein.
“Five years after 9-11, and we still have Osama bin Laden out there, making three or four videotapes a year,” he said. “Bin Laden puts more tapes out than Mary J. Blige.”
”An obligation and a mandate”
Sharpton exhorted the crowd to get involved in government.
Sharpton said he believes King would have been equally outraged about the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.
“He certainly would have raised questions about what kind of government would sit on its hands and watch citizens drown in New Orleans, and then play the blame game when they get caught,” said Sharpton, who says he was protesting Bush in Crawford, Texas, at the time and followed the widely broadcast coverage of the hurricane aftermath.
“I know people in academia need to know how I knew Bush had to see the coverage on his own TV,” he said. “And the reason I know it was on the TV in
his house is because it was on the TV outside
After days of wall-to-wall television coverage, Sharpton recalled, “We finally see movement in the house. But does he go to New Orleans? No. He flies west to get a guitar from some hootenanny squad that gives him an award.”
This is the man, Sharpton said, “that could see weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that weren’t there, but couldn’t see the horror in New Orleans that was there.”
He faulted the administration for failing to fortify the levees along the Gulf Coast because it “took our taxpayer dollars and sent it to Iraq, it gave tax cuts to the wealthy, and gave no-bid contracts to Haliburton.”
The acts of the Bush White House have gone largely unopposed, he said, “because the right wing is in total control.” That creates an even greater need for citizens to become involved in their government, he said.
“Martin Luther King changed America, and he never had a fax machine,” Sharpton said. “He never had a cell phone. He never had e-mail lists, or a technologically sophisticated way to organize people.”
Americans who are concerned about the direction of the country “have an obligation and a mandate to spend part of their time on earth dealing with the world they live in,” he said.
“The excuse shouldn’t be that you don’t have time. If generations before us can win the fights they did, with all the struggles and hardships they faced, then our generation can certainly fight to hold onto what they accomplished. Their lives weren’t measured by what they had. Their lives were measured by what they believed in.”
As a preacher, Sharpton said, the hardest thing in the world is to offer a eulogy for someone whose life is irrelevant.
“Because if all you do in your life is for yourself,” he said, “it won’t matter to anyone but you. You need to act in a way that makes things better around you. If you do that, people will be glad you came this way.”
Following his talk, Sharpton fielded a series of audience questions, which touched on topics that included gun violence, capital punishment, political organizing, and education.
Earlier university events honoring King’s legacy included an interfaith prayer breakfast and a faculty roundtable discussion of King's pivotal 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech.
Participating in that event were Jeff Fleisher, visiting professor in Africana Studies and anthropology and director of the Joint Multicultural program; William Scott, professor and director of the Africana Studies program; Lloyd Steffen, University Chaplain and professor and department chair of religion studies; Kashi Johnson, associate professor of theatre; Heather Johnson, the Frank R. Hook Assistant Professor of Sociology; Seth Moglen, associate professor of English; and John Pettegrew, associate professor of history and director of the American Studies program.
The events were sponsored by the MLK Celebration Planning Committee, the Visiting Lecture Series Committee, the Chaplain's Office, Africana Studies, Multicultural Affairs, and the Joint Multicultural Program.
Photos by Theo Anderson