How Saturday's March on Washington may have cemented Al Sharpton's blend of cable news anchoring and activism
WASHINGTON D.C. -- At first, I wasn’t sure if the Rev. Jesse Jackson had even seen me.
Trailing behind the other civil rights reverend capable of galvanizing a media crowd – MSNBC’s anchor/activist Al Sharpton – Jackson threaded his way through a surging crowd Saturday at the 50th annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington like a man fighting a riptide in the sea.
Security guards stood in front of Sharpton, parting the adoring but insistent crowd for the pair, as the MSNBC anchor shook hands and acknowledged his fans but moved as if addressing no specific person, passing by the closed monument to Martin Luther King Jr. where he had led throngs from a daylong rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
But when I told Jackson I was there for CNN -- gathering material for my stint guest hosting the channel’s media analysis show Reliable Sources at 11 a.m. Sunday -- he stopped and shared his feelings on the massive rally we all had just seen.
“This is not only a day of commemoration but for moving forward,” he said, immediately surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers trying to take pictures and shout their own positions at him. “The disparity over voting rights laws and stand your ground laws remains and we have to move forward. Unless we move now, next year they may vote us right out of ballot box entirely.”
The scene may have been a slightly staged one – showing that old rivalries between Jackson and Sharpton were buried. But it also proved the ascendancy of Sharpton’s brand, placing him center stage at a massive rally which drew thousands to the National Mall, even as Jackson struggles with seeing his son convicted of wire and mail fraud, sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison.
The atmosphere at the rally was mostly festive and conscientious; a party with a purpose, to crib a favorite phrase from famed radio DJ Tom Joyner, who was also among the VIPs near the rally’s stage. Though attendees seemed mostly African American, a multitude of different people filled out the crowd, some holding signs for immirant’s rights, others protesting avbortion, still others selling the right to take a photo – with you own camera or smartphone of course – next to a commemorative poster they created.
It’s hard to imagine that, 50 years ago, the March on Washington would have featured vendors selling pre-made commemorative t-shirts or buttons. But five decades later, the frenzy of capitalism stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the spirit of activism, as streetside merchants offered a dozen ways to commemorate rallygoers' presence at the commemoration.
Still, the sight of so many different activists in one spot – union workers walking alongside NAACP volunteers passing by anti-abortion activists – made some observers giddy with emotion.
“It was amazing to see so many progressive movement gathered together in one place, bouncing off each other,” said MSNBC anchor Toure, who spent the day gathering reaction across the mall for the newschannel’s coverage, which aired continuously throughout the day. “I can’t even really process what it all means right now.”
MSNBC broadcast from a huge stage erected just to the side and in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where the rally featured speeches from civil rights veterans and notable politicians such as Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis, Newark mayor-turned-Senate candidate Cory Booker, Martin Luther King III and Sharpton himself.
Bond, who attended the first march in 1963, told the crowd "we could not have imagined we'd be here 50 years later with a black president and a black attorney general, but that's a measure of how far we have come…But still, we march."
The rally’s success was another coup for Sharpton, whose National Action Network organized the event with the NAACP and Martin Luther King III. From his twin perches as head of the network and one of MSNBC’s top anchors, Sharpton has become the nation’s most visible and impactful civil rights activist, capable of leveraging a tremendous amount of publicity at once.
Any concern that Sharpton might be unfairly blurring lines between fair minded pundit and committed activist seemed long gone Saturday night, as the crowd surged toward another rendezvous with history.
"I'm here to say that we are still alive and still free and still fighting," said Tim Lee Smith, an activist from Atlanta who claimed to have attended the first march in 1963 with members ofthe NAACP from Columbia S.C. "The tea baggers are trying to prepare to take away our right to vote. But I'm proof that we have survived and thrived since then. And we'll keep on fighting."
I’ll be guest hosting CNN’s Reliable Sources at 11 a.m. Sunday. Tweet me at @Deggans or #Reliable.