The Black Political Tradition: Al Sharpton’s candidacy has roots in the Reconstruction era

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In 1972, Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American to run for president. A U.S. representative from Brooklyn, N.Y., she received 9 percent of the vote at the Democratic Party’s national convention. Four years earlier, in 1968, comedian and activist Dick Gregory was a write-in presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party. After Richard Nixon’s nomination victory, many of the third parties collapsed and were removed from the ballot. This ended Gregory’s bid for the White House.

More recently, there have been the presidential quests of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. At the end of the Democratic primaries in 1984, Jackson was defeated by Walter Mondale. He did a little better in 1988, winning the primaries in both Michigan and South Carolina, and finished a strong second behind Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

For the Rev. Al Sharpton to imitate these two relative successes seems highly unlikely, though he may do exceptionally well in the South Carolina primary this month (February). If he stays in the race until the New York primaries, he may also do very well there, but this date is long after Iowa, New Hampshire and other state primaries where he will be lucky to achieve a single-digit percentage. But as Sharpton has said on several occasions, he won’t be the only loser. “Seven other candidates are going to lose too,” he recently told the press.

What he hopes to gain from a campaign that has thus far been run on a shoestring budget is an opportunity to address issues ignored by the other candidates, such as racial profiling, police brutality, affirmative action and reparations. Sharpton’s aspiration to lead the nation has its origins in his civil rights activism, in which he has often evoked the names of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as his heroes.

In 1992, Sharpton finished third in the Democratic presidential primary with 161,000 votes, or 14.5 percent of the total vote. Two years later, in a race against incumbent Sen. Daniel Moynihan, he received 176,000 votes, or 26 percent of the votes cast. He finished second in the Democratic mayoral primary in 1997, gaining 32 percent of the vote, and nearly forced a runoff against Elizabeth Holtzman.

Even so, there are no electoral victories on his resume, nor should he expect one at the end of this presidential nomination bid. That he’s in the race at all is rather miraculous, given his background and meager resources, particularly when compared to those of the other candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.  His candidacy can be compared with those of Black Reconstruction hopefuls, fresh from the trials of slavery, who sought office. It was quite remarkable that Blanche Bruce, John Mercer Langston, Hiram Revels, John Lynch, Robert Brown Elliott, P.B.S. Pinchback and others were able to win elections, overcoming the violent racism rampant at the end of the Civil War.

There would not be a wave of electoral victories equal to these until the 1960s, revealing the paucity of Black elected officials from the beginning of the twentieth century to the dawn of the civil rights movement. It was such congressmen as Powell, Charles Diggs and William Dawson who filled the gap and ultimately set the pace for the surge of Black elected officials in the mid-1960s, including several significant mayoral triumphs.

In this regard, Sharpton is part of a glorious political tradition that can trace its lineage to Reconstruction, when Jim Crowism and segregation were formidable obstacles to surmount. To be sure, if it were a mere matter of talent and commitment to civil and human rights—if race were not a dominant factor in American life—Sharpton wouldn’t be a long shot but a sure shot.  Rather than a “tailender,” as the media has marked him, he would be a solid contender.