He Has a Dream
Years before John Ashcroft uttered the phrase "racial profiling," Sharpton was marching and agitating around that issue. Indeed, it was his 1999 meeting with Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton that helped to lay the groundwork for a presidential executive order directing federal law enforcement agencies to collect data on the race, gender and ethnic characteristics of citizens they question and arrest. "In the 1960s, they successfully made public accommodations a national issue," Sharpton boasts. "We've made racial profiling a national issue."
"Sharpton has tried to remake himself, and as far as blacks are concerned, he has largely succeeded in that goal," says Manning Marable of Columbia University. "Five or six years ago, prior to the Million Man March, Sharpton was essentially a very powerful, but basically local, figure. That's no longer true. He's a national figure now--in part because of the leadership vacuum that emerged in the black freedom movement in the 1990s."
The right has responded to Sharpton's new visibility with fresh bursts of outrage and contempt, seizing any chance to use the Reverend as a racial wedge. Last March, Florida Representative Joe Scarborough condemned Sharpton on the House floor, while the Republican National Committee assembled a "backgrounder" titled Al Sharpton: A Chronology of Hate. But depictions of Sharpton as a hatemonger--or a buffoon--obscure his true intention. Like his childhood hero, Adam Clayton Powell, Sharpton has always aspired to be a power broker, a big shot. Having accomplished that, his objective now is to succeed Jesse Jackson as the leader of what he calls the "nonviolent, progressive, social justice movement" in America. It's a lofty vision but also a logical one, given his colossal ambition and Jackson's recent travails.
Indeed, the Al Sharpton of 2001 closely resembles the tireless Jesse Jackson of the 1970s and 1980s: Sharpton works fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, straddling the worlds of diplomacy, business and activism. In November, after a meeting with P.J. Patterson, Prime Minister of Jamaica, he flew to Cuba, where he conferred with Fidel Castro about the US trade embargo. Last year, from a suite on the forty-second floor of the Empire State Building, he launched a campaign to defend black-owned media companies against "corporate racism." Finally, it was Sharpton--not Jackson, bogged down by his personal and political crisis--who appeared in Washington on January 20 to vigorously protest the "selection" of George W. Bush. "He's where Jesse was twenty years ago," says longtime activist Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "He's the heir apparent."
Al Sharpton has always seen himself as destined for greatness. Born in 1954, he started preaching at the age of 4, and by age 10 was touring with Mahalia Jackson as the "Wonderboy" preacher. His earliest years were spent in Hollis, Queens. His father owned a few buildings; the son refers to him now as "a slumlord." In 1964 Sharpton preached in front of 10,000 people at the World's Fair in New York. But, at the same time, his family was disintegrating. Alfred Sharpton Sr. had begun an affair with his wife's daughter from a previous marriage. A child was born, and the father abandoned the family. There was no money to pay the bills, so for six months Sharpton and his mother lived in the house without light or gas. It was the beginning of a downward spiral that would take them from middle-class tranquillity in Queens to the public housing projects of Brooklyn.
But it is an incident involving his father, before the family rupture, that Sharpton cites as a catalyst for his early political awakening. The family embarked on frequent visits to Florida to visit relatives, and on one of those trips, Alfred Sharpton Sr.--proud and industrious in New York--stopped in North Carolina to get some hamburgers, but was informed that the restaurant "didn't serve niggers." His young son would always remember the shock and astonishment of that traumatic moment: "He stood there and took that," Sharpton recalled many years later. "I couldn't believe that. He went and got back into the car."
As a boy preacher, Sharpton became enamored of Adam Clayton Powell, whose grandeur and flamboyance mesmerized him. Once he even trekked to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Powell's church. In his out-of-print autobiography, Go and Tell Pharaoh (1996), Sharpton wrote of his delight in Powell's reaction on seeing him: "'Here's the wonderboy preacher from my good friend F.D. Washington's church, Alfred Sharpton!' I was in heaven. I said, 'You know me?' And he said, 'Of course. I listen to Bishop Washington's broadcast when I'm in town. Everybody knows you.'"