NEW YORK — The Rev. Al Sharpton marked the 20th anniversary of his Harlem-based organization by teaming with President Barack Obama and top White House officials to tackle issues troubling black Americans — from youth violence and school dropout rates to foreclosures.
The president appeared Wednesday evening at the annual conference of the black pastor's National Action Network. He spoke about closing gaps in education and employment rates between different groups.
The first session at Manhattan's Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers offered a powerhouse lineup, starting with David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Obama's re-election campaign, followed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
Clearly, Obama, the nation's first black president, is looking to the powerful pastor to help shore up black votes. But Sharpton noted that Axelrod "is not a political operative" before introducing the White House policy-makers.
Holder addressed one of the biggest challenges on Sharpton's urban streets: how to stop gun-fueled violence.
"I am proud that addressing youth violence is a top priority for this administration — and for today's Justice Department," said Holder, the country's first black attorney general.
While growing up in Queens, one of New York's five boroughs, "I witnessed the consequences of violence on the streets of this city," he said, adding that it "can have devastating, long-term effects — increasing odds for depression, substance abuse and violent behavior into adulthood."
Holder said he's working with small, grass-roots groups in minority communities across the nation to alleviate teen violence.
The conference, in a glitzy ballroom, reflected the transformation of Sharpton's image over the decades, from "a loud rabble-rouser," as supporter Eric Stephens called him, to a national player whose gathering drew Washington's heavy hitters.
"He understood that you can get things done in a more peaceful way, and he's gained more support and respect that way," said Stephens, a 49-year-old National Action Network member who works as a business consultant from Rockland County, north of the city.
As a result, Stephens noted, high-profile politicians such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and federal officials have been working with Sharpton on issues including education, housing and crime.
Duncan, the secretary of education, told the audience that he has traveled around the country with Sharpton to neighborhoods with the highest school dropout rates.
Stephens said Sharpton has "put away his contentious, loud, boastful way" and "the president is listening."
Obama and Sharpton first met at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, when Obama was a senator from Illinois and Sharpton ran for president. But it was only in recent years that Obama has turned to the civil rights leader, who now refrains from making the kind of incendiary racial comments that once put him in tabloid headlines.
On Wednesday, the still colorful activist also had the ear of another native New Yorker — Donovan, the HUD secretary.
"I want to thank you, Reverend Sharpton, for the moral voice that you bring on behalf of the most vulnerable Americans," Donovan said.
Donovan's department has created programs to help the poorest homeowners facing foreclosure — including those in the Jamaica section of Queens, where he said 60 percent of mortgages were subprime a half-dozen years ago, decimating the real-estate market there.
"If you want to see the devastation for yourself, walk outside the hotel, get on the E (subway) train and go to Jamaica, Queens," he said, adding that it was once "one of the strongest middle-class African-American neighborhoods that we had in this country."
On Wednesday morning in Harlem, Donovan joined Bloomberg and the city's schools chancellor, Cathie Black, to break ground on a new charter school and community center. The $100 million development is funded by a $60 million federal Department of Education matching grant and a combined $26 million from Google and Goldman Sachs.
After Obama's appearance, the National Action Network planned to give its Keeper of the Dream awards — in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. — to former Los Angeles Lakers basketball great Magic Johnson, entertainer LaToya Jackson, retired Cleveland Browns football star Jim Brown and other black luminaries.
The four-day National Action Network conference ends Saturday.