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NEW YORK — The Rev. Al Sharpton is a “lightning rod” for President Barack Obama on inner city streets, Obama’s former Harvard mentor and friend said Saturday at a forum in Harlem.

But Sharpton, who led the event, told The Associated Press that America’s first black president “has to work both for us and for others,” and that if Obama were to push a race-based agenda, “that would only organize the right against him.”

Sharpton spoke on the last day of an annual conference organized by his National Action Network. Speakers included three members of Obama’s Cabinet and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, as well as Charles Ogletree, the president’s Harvard Law School professor, now a friend.

“Al Sharpton has become the lightning rod in moving Obama’s agenda forward,” Ogletree told the AP, describing Sharpton as a conduit between the disadvantaged and powerful leaders. “And he has access to both the streets and the suites, to make sure that the people who are voiceless, faceless and powerless finally have some say.”

Standing at the back of a balcony overlooking Harlem’s ornate First Corinthian Baptist Church, the 57-year-old lawyer said that some black Americans may be disappointed the president they helped elect isn’t doing more for them.

“And President Obama expected to do a lot more,” said Ogletree, referring to the challenges Obama faces in two wars and the struggling economy. Still, he predicted, the new health care law would affect uninsured black Americans more than any other segment of the population.

But clearly, Sharpton was at the center of this forum. Saturday, the front page of The Washington Post featured a photo of him with a headline that read: “Activist Al Sharpton takes on new role as administration ally.”

Sharpton chuckled at the notion.

“I’ve been as much in this White House as I was in George (W.) Bush’s – it’s only when Bush invited me to the White House, it was him reaching out; when Obama invites me, all of a sudden, we’re allies,” Sharpton joked during a break, sitting in a pew on the altar that served as a high-tech stage.
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Amid a heated national debate over whether black leaders should align themselves with the president, Sharpton has defended Obama against criticism from television host Tavis Smiley that “black folk are catching hell” and Obama should do more to help them.

Black Americans, Sharpton said, “need to solve our own problems.”

Sharpton told the AP that he is working to expand his Harlem-based organization to 100 cities from the current 42, with about 200,000 members, “and to really deliver against unemployment that is disproportionate in the black community, and for health care and education reform.”

The four-day conference, focusing on a 12-month plan of action for black leadership, brought together prominent figures from dozens of fields, tackling topics as diverse as finding jobs for men leaving prison and federal subsidies for black farmers.

Sharpton’s “12-month action plan” to better life for black Americans measures its success by individual goal-setting – “every day, every week, every month,” said Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia.

Nutter has a big goal: to reach and teach a half million adults in his city who are considered “low-literate,” which means they can read, technically, but have difficulty understanding a newspaper article or even a utility bill.

“It is impossible for parents to help their children if they can’t read,” said Nutter, who leads the largest American city with a black mayor. “It is almost impossible to lift yourself out of poverty if you can’t function at a high enough level.”

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