As the nation celebrated the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday, and prepared for the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, Reverend Al Sharpton, President of the National Action Network, brought together an unlikely coalition of national figures to call for a new movement to improve the lives of children. The event was held at Cardoza High School in northwest Washington, DC and attracted a large audience of young people, adults, and community leaders.
Spurred by a challenge to focus on education by musician and social activist James Mtume, co-host of “The Open Line” on New York’s 98.7 KISS-FM, Sharpton has been calling for a bipartisan movement to improve public education. Consistent with President-elect Barack Obama’s call for a new spirit of bipartisanship Rev. Sharpton, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, assembled leadership from all political spectrums on the day the nation honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After calling education the “civil rights issue of the 21st Century,” Rev. Sharpton went on to urge the crowd to move beyond their differences and focus on the challenging of educating children. The civil rights leader spoke passionately about the need to reinforce personal responsibility in the Black community and the important role that parents must play in the education of children; pointing specifically to the need to parents to be fully engaged with their children’s education. Rev. Sharpton also challenged Black fathers to fulfill their parental responsibilities and commit to the welfare of their children.
With James Mtume at his side, Rev. Sharpton introduced hip-hop artist and producer Wyclef Jean, who told the audience of his impoverished childhood and with each description of a challenge he faced in his life, he ended the sentence with “no excuses.” The artist who was introduced to the world as part of the group “The Fugees,” and who has since become a humanitarian aiding several causes, ended his remarks by referencing the election of Barack Obama as the challenge to young people to not let excuses block their path to success.
While the introduction of Wyclef Jean elicited thunderous applause from the audience, and squeals from the young people in the auditorium, the next surprise guest Rev. Sharpton brought to the stage caught everyone by surprise. After talking about the need for bipartisanship and his effort to reach out to Republicans, Sharpton called Senator John McCain to the stage. The Republican Senator walked across the stage, smiling as the audience leapt to its feet in applause. McCain thanked Rev. Sharpton for his efforts to bridge the ideological divide on education and pledged his support. Acknowledging the warm reception he received from the audience, McCain joked that he might need to call for a recount. He also spoke of his gratitude toward President-elect Obama for the event that Mr. Obama is sponsoring in Senator McCain’s honor tonight.
Much like John McCain, the presence of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a moderate-conservative Republican, was another visible sign of the effort Rev. Sharpton made to make the case for a different approach to improving public education. Gingrich noted that e had extended an invitation to Rev. Sharpton to attend the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minneapolis last summer and found common ground with him on the issue of education. The former Speaker of the House who led the Republican takeover in Congress 1994 told the audience that politics and ideology must be set aside for the sake of the nation’s children. It was a powerful statement in light of the obvious philosophical differences on some issues between Gingrich and Rev. Sharpton; and the belief, among both men, that the issues facing children in the United States surpassed partisan and ideological differences.
The day was marked by a number of speakers, each echoing the theme of “putting children first.” Among the speakers were Newark, New Jersey Mayor Corey Booker, District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty, Jordan Coleman, the voice of “Tyrone” of the Nickelodeon show “Backyardigans,” Secretary of Education Designee Arne Duncan, and New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.