He Has a Dream
Following King's assassination, Sharpton joined Operation Breadbasket, an offshoot of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference that used economic threats and boycotts to combat racial discrimination in hiring. In early 1969 Sharpton, age 14, was appointed youth director of Breadbasket's New York chapter by Jesse Jackson, who was the organization's national director. In 1972 Jackson took Sharpton to the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, a historic gathering of 8,000 liberals and radicals. In 1975 Sharpton dropped out of Brooklyn College, much to the dismay of Jackson, who mocked him: "Here come the boy wonder, ain't gonna be nothing but a Harlem fanatic."
On the subject of Jesse Jackson, whom he calls his "surrogate father," Sharpton is effusive. "Jesse," Sharpton relates with a low chortle, "is known for saying that if me and his three sons were in a room, and one of us passed gas, he'd know which one. That's how well he knows me." We're sitting in his Harlem office, underneath a large portrait of Dr. King that hangs over his desk. When the Reverend is in a garrulous mood, as he is today, he likes to bounce around the room in his shirt sleeves, alternating between his desk chair and the arm of a nearby sofa, where he'll remain perched for a while, legs spread, discoursing on matters large and small. His affection for Jackson is clear, but he is not unaware of his mentor's missteps. "Jesse had a couple of years to learn from Dr. King," Sharpton explains. "He joined King in 1966 in Chicago. I've had the benefit of thirty years of learning from Jesse's mistakes."
Jackson was not his only father figure: While still in his teens, Sharpton established a close bond with James Brown, with whom he would eventually cut a record titled God Has Smiled on Me. If Jackson embodied the spirit of Selma, James Brown imparted a very different sensibility. Early in their relationship, the singer advised the young man: "Reverend, you gotta go for the hog"--i.e., the dough. Sharpton quickly became Brown's business manager, agent and confidant. One recent morning, cruising down Manhattan's FDR Drive, Sharpton ruminated on Jesse Jackson's recent affair with an aide: "I got that impulse out of my system when I was on the road with James all those years." (In fact, he's happily married today to Kathy Jordan Sharpton, whom he met when she was a backup singer for Brown.)
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Sharpton collaborated with boxing promoter Don King and immersed himself in the worlds of black politics and entertainment, while preaching in churches all over the Northeast. In 1985, after Bernhard Goetz shot four black teenagers on a New York subway, Sharpton staged a noisy demonstration in front of Goetz's 14th Street apartment building, kicking off a series of sit-ins and protests. His incendiary rhetoric and flamboyant persona made him irresistible to the press, but many whites began to view him with suspicion. To close observers, he was a riddle: a peculiar synthesis of courage and opportunism, a mind-bending hybrid of Jesse Jackson, James Brown and Don King--with elements of Marcus Garvey, Father Divine and George Wallace thrown in.
On November 28, 1987, in Wappingers Falls, New York, a 15-year-old girl, Tawana Brawley, was discovered in a plastic bag, her body smeared with racist graffiti and dog feces. She claimed that she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a group of white men, and Sharpton, along with two associates, Alton Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason, vigorously took up her cause--a decision that would have disastrous consequences for him personally and politically.
For many white Americans, the Brawley affair is Sharpton's Chappaquiddick. Without question, it brought out the worst in him. In the early months of the case, Maddox reportedly quipped that his job was to worry about the legal aspects, while Sharpton's business was "riling up the masses." The Reverend rose to the task: Sharpton likened Glenda Brawley, Tawana's mother, to Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer; he insisted that the Irish Republican Army was linked to the attack on Brawley; he claimed to possess a medical report demonstrating that five different sperm samples were taken from her vagina. But a seven-month investigation by a New York State grand jury concluded that Tawana had fabricated her account of rape and abduction, and in 1998 a jury ordered Sharpton to pay $65,000 to Steven Pagones, a former Dutchess County prosecutor whom Sharpton had blamed for attacking the black teenager. Just recently, several of Sharpton's friends, including former Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton, Essence publisher Ed Lewis and attorney Johnnie Cochran, banded together to help pay his debt to Pagones, which, with interest and penalties, amounted to $87,000.
He remains unrepentent. "I did what I believed," he affirms, "and I'll take the lumps." For years, friends and allies have urged him to issue a statement of contrition. "They are asking me to grovel," he told the Village Voice in 1998. "They want black children to say they forced a black man coming out of the hard-core ghetto to his knees." He knows a statement would raise his standing in the polls and heal some old racial wounds, but the man who saw his father humiliated in the Jim Crow South refuses to bow to white opinion. "Once you begin bending," he says, "it's 'did you bend today?' or 'I missed the apology, say it again.' Once you start compromising, you lose respect for yourself."