It’s one thing for businessman and reality TV show host Donald Trump to tell whoever might want to believe him that President Barack Obama is not a natural-born American citizen because he’s into showmanship and bombasity, but it’s very concerning when mainstream media continually present the story as a credible issue, says outspoken activist Rev. Al Sharpton.
In an attempt to silence Trump and other “birther” conspiracy theorists, Obama took the extraordinary step last week of releasing his birth certificate that shows he was born in Hawaii and not in Kenya, which is his father’s birthplace.
“For all of the so-called serious minded media to continue to run with this story is to give it credibility because as long as you hear something, you begin to think it means something,” Sharpton said in his keynote address last Friday at the York University Black Students Alliance’s annual conference. “To have the audacity to question that he could be elected president of the United States or even come close and it was not known that he had a birth certificate showing he was born in this country doesn’t make sense.”
Trump, who is considering a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, further teed off on Obama last week, suggesting – without presenting proof – that America’s first Black president was a poor student who did not deserve to be admitted to the Ivy League universities he attended.
Obama graduated from Columbia University in New York in 1983 with a degree in political science after transferring from Occidental College in California. He went on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1991 and was the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review.
Sharpton said Trump’s implication smacked of racial overtones because it suggests Obama entered the Ivy League universities because of affirmative action.
“The assumption is that if he’s a bad student and he got in those schools, they did him a favour by letting him come in,” said Sharpton, who started preaching at age four and was ordained and licensed as a Pentecostal minister when he was 10 years old. “The subtle message was that no matter what you achieve, you still must prove you are qualified to be considered equal to the rest of us.
“So you could graduate from the best schools and become president of the United States and still not be a citizen. The whole fight for civil rights was around citizenship… Americans took a bow, and rightly so, around the world when President Obama was elected to see how far we have come and then we see this “birther” movement and the kind of attention it got. It shows how far we may not have come yet because it’s obvious there are some very hard feelings based on who we are rather than what we are. This is the world you are entering.”
In his powerful address, Sharpton again took aim at the hip-hop community and the negative messages a few of the artiste’s lyrics portray, adding that the culture that exists today is antithetical to the progress of people seeking leadership and meaningful power in society.
“Anytime you define yourself downwards, it’s hard to mobilize yourself upwards,” said Sharpton, who four years ago led a march to protest the derogatory lyrics in some hip hop songs. “If you study any movement, the culture reflects the spirit of that movement.”
He said the songs sung during the Civil Rights Movement reflected hope and those done during the Black Power era were songs of cultural self-affirmation.
“When you look at the culture today, it’s full of inferiority,” he said. “So it’s hard to tell young people that grow up defining themselves in negative terms to think positively.”
Sharpton cautioned those hip hop artists who have defended using derogatory terms, saying they have freedom of speech.
“I say no, you don’t,” he added. “The record company will not let you put out anything other than what would degrade yourself and you call that freedom of speech…If we study the great artists and cultural icons like Paul Robeson and Bob Marley, they raised our sights above where we are to inspire us to greatness.”
Sharpton, who ran for the U.S. presidency in 2004 as a Democrat, urged the students to define their goals, think about where they want to go and make sure their life has meaning.
He said one of the reasons he turns down requests to preach at funerals is because most people have done nothing to talk about.
“The hardest job in the world is to preach a funeral sermon of an irrelevant person,” the Baptist Minister said. “Most folks have done nothing that we can talk about because what they did was for them…You can live comfortably, but put a fraction of your life aside for a cause bigger than you and not for the good of the cause.”
Sharpton preached the funeral sermons for good friend James Brown – who he said taught him more than anyone in the Civil Rights Movement about how to stand up and not compromise – and Michael Jackson.
“As I was coming out of the cemetery after Michael was entombed in a mausoleum, a very well known artiste came up to me and said my eulogy touched him,” said Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network which was established 20 years ago to increase voter registration, support small community businesses and help the poor. “I said thank you and he then asked me if I could do his eulogy when he passed away. I told him you got to give me something to work with…You may not save the world, but you can be part of making the world better than your generation.”
A college dropout, Sharpton was stabbed while leading a protest march in Bensonhurst in January 1991. He unsuccessfully sought Democratic nominations for the U.S. senate in 1994 and mayor three years later.