Ogletree Defends West’s Political Involvement

A spokesperson for Cornel R. West ’74 defended the Fletcher University professor’s involvement in the Rev. Al Sharpton’s presidential exploratory committee this week, following the recent conflict between University President Lawrence H. Summers and West that was reportedly sparked in part by Summers’ criticism of West’s role in the campaign.

Summers enraged members of the Afro-American Studies department by meeting with West and reportedly criticizing the professor for his outside activities, including working on the committee of Sharpton, who is considering running for the Democratic nomination in 2004. Although he refused to comment on the content of his meeting with West, Summers denied chastising any professor for the use of his time away from Harvard.

Since news of the conflict broke over the University’s winter break, West, who was recruited in late summer to lead Sharpton’s committee, has given no indication he will stop working on the committee.

This week, West’s spokesperson, Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree Jr., said West will continue to support Sharpton, based on his belief that conventional politicians, including Democrats, are out of touch with American issues and the American people.

“Sharpton will raise issues about criminal justice, immigration, and corporate greed that traditional politicians will not raise,” Ogletree said.

Ogletree called Sharpton an “articulate voice,” a leader who will not be afraid to bring controversial issues to the forefront.

Indeed, Sharpton is anything but shy, and may certainly target issues that mainstream politicians have avoided.

But Sharpton’s reputation for taking bold and perhaps unconventional action has led to heavy criticism in the past.

During the Crown Heights riot of 1991, Sharpton went to Israel to track down the Hasidic Jewish man responsible for killing a black child in an accidental car crash. The Israel trip and several alleged anti-Semitic comments strained his relationship with the Jewish community.

“This is another tragedy that has happened in this community as a result of the racism spewed by so-called black leaders from outside the community,” Rabbi Shmuel Butman, a spokesperson for the Crown Heights Jewish community, told Newsday.

More recently, Sharpton served a 90-day federal prison sentence for trespassing onto a Navy bombing range to protest the Navy’s frequent bombing drills on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. He was released in August, at which time he seriously considered running for the presidency, saying, “I am prepared to do nationally what I have done locally, which is to help those who need help.”

While imprisonment generally tends to tarnish a political figure’s image, Ogletree said Sharpton’s Vieques sentence does not detract from his candidacy.

“Dr. [Martin Luther] King was in jail,” Ogletree said.

Moreover, Ogletree discounted the importance of West’s involvement with a controversial figure.

“All candidates are controversial,” Ogletree said. “West has supported Bill Bradley and [Ralph] Nader in the past. So he is no stranger to supporting candidates considered outside the mainstream.”

Alan J. Stone, the University’s vice president for government, community and public affairs, said professors are free to support whichever political candidates they like.

“Any academic at Harvard enjoys all the political freedom of any American citizen,” Stone said.

Kennedy School lecturer Marty Linsky, who led Acting Gov. Jane M. Swift’s search for a 2002 running mate, would not comment on West’s Sharpton role, but said his own outside political work contributes to his work in academia.

Moreover, in general terms, Linsky said he is in favor of political involvement among Americans.

“In a democratic setting, it is the responsibility of everybody to be involved in politics,” Linsky said.

Ogletree said Sharpton’s possible campaign is still in its early stages, and that West will continue working on Sharpton’s committee despite the prostate cancer surgery he is scheduled to have at the end of the month.

—Material from the Associated Press was used in the compilation of this article.

—Staff writer Robert M. Annis can be reached at annis@harvard.edu.