Sharpton Resounds in the ‘Amen’ Corner
In S.C., preacher reaches blacks
Kirsten Scharnberg, Chicgo Tribune, Feb. 2
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — As Rev. Al Sharpton preached from the pulpit of Carpentersville Baptist church here on Sunday, a woman in the chorus suddenly jumped to her feet and began to dance, as though she heard beautiful music in the long-shot presidential candidate’s words.
Sharpton’s sermon soon reached a frenzied pitch. He screamed that “a lot of black folk forget where they come from.” He yelled that “the struggle is not over.” He shouted to the congregation, “You may not be responsible for being down, but you’re responsible for getting up.”
“We have gone from property to president,” Sharpton told his enraptured audience. “No one would have ever thought back in the days when we were stood up and sold as chattel that one of us would one day be running for the presidency.”
Fifty-five minutes after Sharpton had begun, everyone in the jam-packed African-American church had followed the lead of that first woman to rise from her seat. They, too, were dancing and clapping, and Sharpton was no longer speaking his message — he was singing it, accompanied by a woman on the piano and a man on the drums.
On Tuesday, when South Carolina holds its closely watched Democratic presidential primary, up to half of the people who turn out at the polls are expected to be African-American. The answer to one key question, therefore, could prove pivotal: Will black voters respond as positively to Sharpton at the polls as they do in the pews?
Black voters constitute such a powerful constituency in South Carolina that virtually every candidate has, to some degree, courted the black vote in recent weeks. On Sunday, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina attended a predominantly black church and stayed to shake hands with parishioners afterward. And Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts continued to run statewide ads in which Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of South Carolina’s most prominent black politicians, enthusiastically endorses him for president.
But no candidate elicits the kind of visceral response that Sharpton routinely gets from potential voters. They hug him; they ask for his autograph; they scream “Amen!” after almost every point he makes.
None of that guarantees they will vote for him in the privacy of the election booth. Black Democrats, like virtually every other group of Democratic voters polled throughout the country, are asking themselves who is most electable against President Bush, and many of them seem to be leaning toward voting with that in mind.
“Most of the professional black politicians are clearly not supporting Sharpton,” said Merle Black, who studies Southern politics at Emory University. “He is not going to have the effect that Jesse Jackson had when he campaigned back in the 1980s.”
But, true to form, Sharpton is fighting for every last vote he can get. At Carpentersville Baptist on Sunday he railed against those who have suggested he should get out of the race because he could take as much as 15 percent of the South Carolina vote away from more viable candidates like Kerry and Edwards.
“There are seven people running,” he heatedly told the congregation. “And I’ll tell y’all a secret. Six of them won’t win. … Don’t waste your vote trying to guess who will win. Use your vote to help win who ought to win.”
For Sharpton, who didn’t actively compete in the opening states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the South Carolina primary is his biggest moment of the 2004 presidential race.
He said Sunday that even if he isn’t the nominee he hopes to get to the Democratic National Convention in Boston with enough delegates to give him the leverage to influence the party’s platform. And with that influence, he wants to see the party take a firmer stand in favor of affirmative action and push for the full removal of troops from Iraq.
Before Sharpton left the church on Sunday, Rev. Herman Bing asked his congregation to pray for the presidential candidate and to donate to him. The donation baskets, which already had been filled once for the standard church donation, went around again. Parishioners opened their wallets, and the sound of coins dropping into plastic buckets mingled with the background gospel music.
Later, Sharpton speculated that the members of little churches such as Carpentersville Baptist would help him become the party’s nominee.
“The other candidates wish they had [these churches],” he quipped. “That’s why they’re all running around to them and clapping off-beat.”
A church member who heard Sharpton say that laughed and summed up her response in one word: “Amen.”