The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has been so heavily politicized that it would have been unreasonable to expect Brown's funeral to be free of politics — especially when it featured a eulogy by the Rev. Al Sharpton. And indeed, the Brown service, held Monday at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, was intensely political. But not in the way some observers expected.
It's probably safe to say most white viewers thought Sharpton would deliver a rabble-rousing condemnation of the police, the government, and the American system, concluding that they all combined to end a promising 18-year-old life. On that, Sharpton came through; the first half of his speech and his summation were essentially restatements of much of the anti-cop rhetoric surrounding the Brown shooting.
But the middle part of Sharpton's speech was something altogether different, and it fit uneasily into a debate that has been going on about the larger meaning of Ferguson.
After a demand for broad reforms in American policing, Sharpton changed course to address his black listeners directly. "We've got to be straight up in our community, too," he said. "We have to be outraged at a 9-year-old girl killed in Chicago. We have got to be outraged by our disrespect for each other, our disregard for each other, our killing and shooting and running around gun-toting each other, so that they're justified in trying to come at us because some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low you can go."
"Blackness has never been about being a gangster or a thug," Sharpton continued. "Blackness was, no matter how low we was pushed down, we rose up anyhow."
Sharpton went on to describe blacks working to overcome discrimination, to build black colleges, to establish black churches, to succeed in life. "We never surrendered," Sharpton said. "We never gave up. And now we get to the 21st century, we get to where we've got some positions of power. And you decide it ain't black no more to be successful. Now, you want to be a n----- and call your woman a 'ho.' You've lost where you're coming from."
The cameras cut to director Spike Lee, on his feet applauding enthusiastically. So were Martin Luther King III, radio host Tom Joyner, and, judging by video coverage, pretty much everyone else in the church. They kept applauding when Sharpton accused some blacks of having "ghetto pity parties." And they applauded more when Sharpton finally declared: "We've got to clean up our community so we can clean up the United States of America!"
Outside the church, Sharpton's words struck a discordant note, to say the least. "I found the middle part of the eulogy profoundly disturbing," said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton. "I was enraged."
The problem, as some critics see it, is that Sharpton took the occasion of Brown's funeral, which was the result of a controversial police shooting, to focus on social pathologies found in some parts of the black world. Indeed, part of Sharpton's eulogy would have been perfectly appropriate had Brown been a victim of gang violence. Said Glaude: "I just don't see the relationship between the discourse of black personal responsibility and the set of actions that resulted in Michael Brown's death."
Sharpton's message, and Glaude's reaction, are part of a larger debate about Ferguson. When Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote a column arguing that, in addition to anger over Brown's death, "we should be just as outraged" by black-on-black crime, some commentators hit back hard, arguing such concerns were irrelevant to the Brown case. Robinson's position amounted to the "transmutation of black protest into moral hectoring of black people," wrote the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Now it is Sharpton — to many whites, the ultimate race hustler — who has delivered some serious moral hectoring of black people. Why?
There could be a generational factor at work. Sharpton, who is 59, spoke in ways that 72-year-old Jesse Jackson (who was in the audience and whom Sharpton called "a role model and teacher") did years ago. The same for 77-year-old Bill Cosby. Critics such as Glaude and Coates come from a younger generation.
Then there is the fact that Sharpton now has his own program on MSNBC. And finally, there's a sense that Sharpton has tried to present a more evenhanded Reverend Al since he grew close to the Obama White House. "This is part of the schtick now," said Glaude. "It's a kind of balance between critique and self-critique."
Whatever the reason, Sharpton's performance took the Ferguson debate, already raging, to another level.