Has The Rev. Al Got A Brand New Bag?

Al Sharpton, President.

Of the United States.

Say what?

Not likely, of course. But if the political planets of race pandering, populism and pragmatism should align, he certainly could be a media magnet in the presidential primaries of 2004 — as well as a Democratic Party player with convention clout. And if reparations for slavery becomes a plank — not a contentious splinter — in the Democratic Party platform in 2004, you know Sharpton has been heard from — and listened to.

Now 47, Sharpton has been gradually morphing beyond typecasting as flamboyant, New York civil rights activist and preacher-agitator-opportunist. When Jesse Jackson, now 60, was found to have fathered much more than Operation PUSH and the Rainbow Coalition, Sharpton donned the de facto mantle of pre-eminent spokesperson for black America.

The Brooklyn native is also president and founder of the National Action Network, whose mission is to “combat racial and civil rights violations.” NAN affords him a coast-to-coast bully pulpit. It’s also an effective vehicle to become better known for pushing a “progressive agenda” than supporting, say, Tawana Brawley.

All of this — and more — was on display recently at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where Sharpton gave the keynote address for the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations.

At a press briefing beforehand, it was clear that the Sharpton image had been modified –although not overhauled. Gone was a lot of weight, thanks to his Vieques diet. Still there: the hairstyle made famous by rock legend James Brown, whom Sharpton once managed.

“You don’t act or dress at 47 the way you did at 27,” explained Sharpton. “I have two teenaged daughters. I wouldn’t want to dress like their peers.” Unless, of course, their peers were pressed out in charcoal gray, pinstriped suits.

His “maturity and the maturity of the issues” have changed, noted Sharpton. “As you grow, you learn. You learn not to get in the way of your own message.”

Was that, say, the Tawana Brawley lesson?

Sharpton officially remains remorseless on the notorious, racially incendiary case of the discredited “rape” victim. “That happened 15 years ago,” testily noted Sharpton. “I believed in someone.” His critics, added Sharpton, “should have things a lot more recent to raise than that.”

Meanwhile, Sharpton has raised his rhetoric beyond the civil rights’ boilerplate of police brutality, affirmative action and minority incarceration rates to include empowerment, disenfranchisement, economic justice, fair labor practices and public housing issues.

He’s also added some overseas travel and a foreign policy credo.

In the last year he has visited Israel and Sudan plus the protest-arrest in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

“We need sane policies around the world,” stated Sharpton. “We need an assessment of our relationships. We have policies that exclude parts of the world. We cannot support dictators and tyrants around the world because they do business with this country.”

He characterizes the bombing in Afghanistan as a “cowboy approach that won’t solve the problem.” Here at home he sees an Administration too willing “to silence dissent.”There’s no need to “suspend civil rights and civil liberties to fight terrorism,” asserted Sharpton. “A lot of folks want quiet — not peace. Let’s preserve what’s best in America.”

And that includes more than lip service to the civil rights movement, underscored Sharpton.

“Don’t act like the problem is over,” he lectured his largely young, black audience of approximately 1,000. “Sticking your head in the sand only exposes your behind to the world.”

Sounding not unlike the vintage Jackson of a generation ago, he chucked the victim card when directly addressing his impressionable listeners. He minced no words in delivering a message of self help and individual responsibility.

King, he opined, “likely would be disappointed with this generation. The first African American generation to give less to the next generation — raising children that are going backward. As if making babies was more important than raising babies.”

He exhorted his audience not to “surrender to decadence

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