On the corner of 125th Street and Madison Avenue in Harlem, surrounded by soul-food joints, doughnut shops and thrift stores, sits a shabby three-story building. Scotch-taped to the front door is a black-and-white photograph of the Rev. Al Sharpton, smiling. At 9:30 on a bright January morning, the tiny vestibule is jammed with people waiting to climb the rickety stairwell to the second-floor headquarters of Sharpton’s National Action Network–dubbed the “House of Justice” by Jesse Jackson at an elaborate ceremony in 1996, when Sharpton moved his office here from Brooklyn. Sharpton’s weekly rally on Saturday morning, which is broadcast live on the radio and shown on cable TV in Manhattan, normally attracts an audience of two or three hundred. But the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is forty-eight hours away, and the overflow crowd is buzzing with anticipation.
A speaker is warming up the audience with community announcements and breathing exercises. The room seats over 400 people. Photographs of Sharpton are everywhere, along with portraits of King, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Jesse Jackson and James Brown.
The organist takes his seat. “Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice announces, “the Negro national anthem.” The crowd rises to its feet, fists in the air, for a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” More announcements follow. Then Sharpton himself strides into the hall, to a burst of applause, and takes a seat on the stage. He waits there patiently, scanning the room with his eyes. The crowd is already cheering.
“And now,” the announcer excitedly proclaims, “let me bring to you the soul reacher, the liberation seeker, the people’s preacher, the president of the National Action Network, the honorable Reverend Al Sharpton!”
Sharpton rises, grasps the podium and, with all the strength he can muster, shouts: “No justice!”
“No peace!” the crowd roars.
As always, his sermon begins slowly, with self-deprecating jokes and gentle admonitions. Then he turns to politics. “The inauguration of George Bush is an affront on the voting rights of the citizens of this country,” he proclaims. “It is an insult to the memory of Martin Luther King!”
“Yes, it is,” the crowd murmurs.
For a month, Sharpton has been planning a “shadow inauguration” in Washington, DC, which will occur the following Saturday. “I was on some show this week,” Sharpton announces, “and people said, ‘Why don’t you just let it go? Why don’t y’all just get over it?’ Get over what? Get over Dr. King dying? Get over Medgar Evers dying? Get over Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner dying? Get over those four girls in Birmingham dying? We are never gonna get over it, and we are never gonna let you forget it!”
“That’s right, Rev,” the audience mutters.
Suddenly, with an explosive outburst, he vents his ire on the crowd. “Many of you sitting here today have compromised your dreams! You have lost your fervor to achieve something!” Mumbling in the crowd. “Imagine how King felt, back of the bus. But he dreamed–in the South in 1955!–that we’d run cities, that we’d be heads of government. He had an ability to dream beyond his circumstances!” In a voice tinged with contempt, Sharpton taunts his audience: “You sittin’ up here with degrees and credit cards and have no ambition and no goals! Think how hard it was for them to come through mountains and valleys, and you’re too cheap and lowdown and full of self-hate to have a dream and hold on and achieve it!” He mimics, “‘Reverend Sharpton, you don’t know my background, I been to jail.‘ Well, you out now!”
The crowd squeals with delight as he presses on: “Don’t sell out! Don’t back down! Don’t give up! Just hold on! I don’t care what mistakes you made in life!” Sweat is pouring down his face, and out comes a pressed white handkerchief. In a soft voice, he whispers: “Martin, if you can hear me today, you won.” He pauses and then continues: “What do you mean he won? He got killed before he was 40, but he won. What do you mean he won? They scandalized his name. Yeah, he won. What do you mean he won? He left his wife and children young, but he won.”
Sharpton is in full flight now. After forty years of preaching he has an exquisite sense of timing: He rocks back and forth on his heels, swaying to the rhythm of his own words. “What do you mean he won? Because on Monday, in the Mississippi Delta, where they used to lynch us, where they cut our daddy’s genitals, where they raped our sisters and our mamas, in the Mississippi Delta, the Post Office will be closed, the schools will be closed, the federal buildings will be closed, to honor a black man from Atlanta, Georgia, who kept on dreaming! You won, Martin!”
Massive applause. He’s shouting, but his voice retains its force and control. “Martin! Those who swore you were a communist, those who swore you were a womanizer got the day off, ’cause it’s your birthday! Don’t nobody celebrate George Wallace day! Don’t nobody celebrate Lester Maddox day! Ain’t nobody celebratin’ Strom Thurmond’s day! But the rich and the poor and the powerful and the powerless and the failures and the unknowns got to stop Monday! Won’t be business as usual. It’ll be a holiday ’cause one black man believed in his dreams!”
There’s pandemonium in the room. The noise from the crowd is drowning out the sound system, but Sharpton’s voice keeps booming through the hall. “Because of Dr. King, I’ll never give up! I’ll never stop dreaming!” His pace accelerates. “Some of you been hurt, some of you been wounded, some of you got broken hearts, but hold on anyhow! God will make a way! Hold on anyhow! We gonna make it through George Bush! We gonna make it through John Ashcroft! We gonna make it to the promised land! Don’t stop dreaming! Don’t stop dreaming!”
The first chords of “Amen” emanate from the keyboard, and Sharpton breaks into song. The crowd handles the chorus, while he interjects the verses: “Happy birthday, Martin/Thanks for the dream/never stop fighting…”
Sharpton, 46, has not stopped fighting. In recent years, the man who was once beaten down by a firestorm of criticism has transformed himself into a political kingmaker and a celebrity icon. He still lives in the shadow of his past, but his stamina and resilience have brought him to a new level of recognition and even acceptance. For the first time in his long career, he has a solid infrastructure behind him. In 1991 the New York Times reported that the National Action Network, with three staffers and an office in Brooklyn, had $16.43 in its bank account. Today, NAN has a budget of $1.5 million; three New York offices, including one in the Empire State Building; twelve staffers; new chapters in Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis and Houston; and 4,000 dues-paying members on its New York rolls.
The more significant transformation, however, is in Sharpton himself. While the press analyzes his hairstyle, wardrobe and waistline, he has positioned himself as a national spokesman for African-Americans. Last August Sharpton, along with Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King III, convened the massive “Redeem the Dream” demonstration against police brutality and racial profiling in Washington, DC, which attracted 80,000 people. That was not his first public appearance with the King family: A few months earlier, from the podium of Sharpton’s annual black-tie fundraising dinner in Manhattan, Coretta Scott King hailed him as “a voice for the oppressed, a leader who has protested injustice with a passionate and unrelenting commitment to nonviolent action in the spirit and tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Sharpton’s indefatigable work on police brutality and racial profiling have done much to bolster his reputation. When Amadou Diallo was gunned down by New York City policemen in February 1999, Sharpton spearheaded a thirteen-day protest movement that resulted in over 1,100 choreographed arrests. “What progressives talked about, we did,” he said recently. “There has not been a better example of multiracial progressive civil disobedience since the 1960s than the Diallo movement.”
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.'”
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.”
The Brawley affair was not his only major stumble. For a long time, many black leftists in New York viewed him as an agent provocateur because of his ties to the FBI. In early 1988 New York Newsday published an explosive three-part series titled “The Minister and the Feds,” which reported that since 1983 Sharpton had supplied law enforcement agencies with information about Don King, mafiosi and black leaders. The full story has not yet been told, but parts of it are relayed in Jack Newfield’s book, Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King (1995). In the early 1980s, through his work in the entertainment business, Sharpton attended a series of meetings with a member of the Colombo crime family as well as an undercover FBI agent. FBI videotapes reportedly showed Sharpton boasting about access to members of the mob in one vague conversation about a potential drug deal.
After being confronted with these tapes by FBI agents, Sharpton, in Newfield’s account, agreed to secretly record several conversations with Don King, none of which ended up being of prosecutorial value. According to Newsday, he also allowed law enforcement officials to install a tapped telephone in his home, and he conveyed information about prominent black activists to the bureau. In 1991 the New York Times reported that Sharpton provided information that led to the conviction of Daniel Pagano of the Genovese crime family on federal racketeering charges.
“The whole thing was probably a double con,” Newfield concludes. “[The FBI] conned Sharpton into thinking his videotaped conversation was sufficient evidence to indict him for a drug conspiracy, which was not the case. And Sharpton never really tried to incriminate King.”
For his part, Sharpton confirms some aspects of Newfield’s account while disputing others. Did he ever work as an FBI informant? “I certainly tried to get [the FBI] to get drug dealers,” Sharpton said recently. “Informant? No. Was I trying to cooperate on cases against drug dealers? Yeah, just like I cooperated on recent cases involving police brutality.” He continues, “If I was conned, then I would have had to deliver something. If I didn’t deliver something, then what evidence do you have that I was conned?” Looking back on the allegations, he considers them “an attempt to destabilize the movement at that time.”
Many questions linger about Sharpton’s relationship with the FBI. Still, for his admirers, whatever took place has little bearing on Sharpton’s role as a civil rights leader today. White New York, by and large, has not forgiven him for the Tawana Brawley affair; what is striking is the extent to which black New York has forgiven him for the FBI capers.
Even Don King does not appear to hold the incident against his old friend. In 1987 Sharpton persuaded King to give $100,000 to Randall Robinson’s think tank, TransAfrica Forum. In 1998, after James Byrd was dragged to death in Texas, Sharpton convinced King to donate $100,000 to Byrd’s family. When Abner Louima was brutally assaulted in 1997 by several New York City cops, King, responding to Sharpton’s pleas, appeared in Louima’s hospital room with a $5,000 check. King doesn’t neglect Sharpton’s own needs, either: The boxing impresario contributes $150,000 annually to the National Action Network.
NAN’s headquarters are usually bustling. On any given day, one is likely to find, in the spacious hall, community forums on topics ranging from the politics of vaccination to Haitian history to the future of public education. For many Harlem residents, the House of Justice is a name that rings true: NAN operates a full-time crisis unit, whose members take scores of calls, day and night, from citizens abused by police, evicted by landlords and mistreated by Con Edison. The crisis unit enables Sharpton to keep his ear to the ground–nearly all his police brutality cases begin with calls to his office by victims’ families–and it has endeared him to many who feel they have no other place to turn. Like PUSH in the 1970s, NAN sponsors committees on such issues as prisoners’ rights, public schools and child welfare–none of which are huge, but all of which do good and valuable work–as well as a sports club, a drama club and a choir. Sharpton is especially proud of the “leadership classes” he offers to young staffers, colleagues and activists.
The organization has an annual budget of $1.5 million. Two fundraising dinners each year bring in $300,000. Membership dues and the Saturday morning rallies, which are modeled on Jackson’s PUSH rallies in Chicago, add to the total. After he concludes his fiery sermons, Sharpton’s demeanor will rapidly shift, from invincibility to vulnerability, and he will blurt out: “This movement doesn’t run on sweat alone. I need ten of you to give one hundred dollars right now!” (If the room is crowded, he’ll ask fifteen people to step forward.) In that manner, NAN rakes in $1,500-$3,000 every Saturday. Sharpton also has a growing network of black business supporters. They range from Earl Graves Sr., CEO and chairman of Black Enterprise magazine, who gives $100,000 to NAN each year, to Frank Mercado-Valdez, founder of the African Heritage Network, who, according to Rep. Charles Rangel, has a criminal past.
Sharpton’s growing ties to the black business community are evident at NAN’s office in the Empire State Building, where his Madison Avenue Initiative is headquartered. MAI, which aims to direct advertising revenue to the black press, originated in May 1999, when Sharpton received a leaked memo about marketing to minorities from the Katz Radio Group, an advertising sales firm, counseling clients to seek “prospects not suspects.” Sharpton swung into action: He alerted the press to the memo, and formed an organization to combat what he saw as a “blackout” from national advertisers. After meeting with black and Hispanic radio-station owners, Sharpton announced that “we had stations that were No. 1 or No. 2 in a market, but No. 10 or 11 in revenue,” and he cited industry data showing that of the $160 billion that is spent marketing to consumers each year, only $870 million went to black-owned media.
More than 100 black and Latino media companies and advertising agencies–including Inner City Broadcasting, Ebony magazine and Black Entertainment Television–have rallied to the MAI, as have the industry trade associations. According to MAI, the campaign has already achieved positive results, among them that Colgate-Palmolive increased its black and Hispanic advertising budget by 22 percent, and the Federated Department Stores (which includes Macy’s) did so by 25 percent; PepsiCo increased its minority advertising budget by 13 percent, and even installed Sharpton on its Ethnic Advisory Council.
With MAI, Sharpton has quite consciously sidestepped some of Jackson’s mistakes. In recent months the New York Post and The New Republic (along with a conservative watchdog group, The National Legal and Policy Center) have accused Jackson of endorsing the GTE/Bell Atlantic mega-merger in exchange for a $1 million contribution from those firms. MAI, says Sharpton, is carefully structured to avoid the appearance of any quid pro quo: The organization takes a flat fee from its members and refuses corporate–as well as foundation–contributions. “We do not get money from the white corporations that we challenge,” Sharpton insists. “That’s the real problem Jackson and them were getting into…. How do you fight organizations that you are funded by?” Still, for Sharpton, there are perks built into MAI’s structure: If the black media nationwide–radio, TV, print–increase their revenue as a result of MAI’s efforts, those media outlets have every reason to dedicate ample coverage to the organization’s primary mover and shaker: the Rev. Al Sharpton.
But Sharpton is not content to patrol the corporate suites on behalf of black interests. What he really wants is to lead the entire progressive movement, as Jackson tried to do in the 1980s. “The Democratic Party betrayed us in Florida by not raising the voting rights matter,” Sharpton said recently. “There’s going to have to be a showdown between the Democratic Leadership Council and the progressive forces.” In a fundamental way, Sharpton wants to be Jesse Jackson, but he also wants to be Dr. King. The trappings of his ambition are visible: Not long ago, he received an honorary doctorate from an obscure Louisiana bible college, so he now calls himself the “Reverend Doctor Al Sharpton.” One of his favorite locutions is “those of us in the King tradition…” Posters for the “Redeem the Dream” march contained stark images of three men: Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Luther King III and…Al Sharpton.
Sharpton sees himself as the last of a dying breed: the militant civil rights leader in the Powell-King-Jackson tradition. “The reason hip-hop artists relate to me is that their fans relate to me,” Sharpton avers. “In many ways, I’m the only activist they know.” Not long ago, Sharpton dined with former Black Panther Dhoruba bin Wahad at a Chinese restaurant near Columbia University. Sharpton recalls: “The older, seasoned black left–like Dhoruba and them–are not that visible now. You have to be in the movement to know who they are. The kids from Columbia coming over and shaking my hand didn’t know who Dhoruba was.” In the leadership classes he offers to young activists and professionals–the curriculum includes seven classes–Sharpton claims he has a lot of explaining to do: “I have to actually teach them the history of Jesse Jackson, because a lot of them don’t know Jesse from 1969-88.”
Sharpton himself is an avid student not only of the civil rights movement but of black politics in general. Manning Marable recalls that when he arrived at Columbia in 1993, Sharpton phoned and requested an appointment with him. “He sat down and showed me one of the books I had written for Verso–Black American Politics, which was published back in 1988–and he had underlined passages in it. He had thought through and really wrestled with my critique of the failures of Afro-American leadership.”
In fact, Marable views Sharpton’s rise as inextricably linked to those very failures.
“The Rainbow is now just a shell. Jackson, for whatever reason, is responsible for destroying his own organization. Go back to 1989-90. He dismantled his own group, much to everyone’s amazement, including Sharpton’s. So Al stepped forward locally, as Farrakhan did nationally.” For a while, Farrakhan served the needs of a young generation searching for charismatic leadership. But, Marable says, “the Nation of Islam had no understanding of how to build a broad-based coalition, or operate in a way that was not hierarchical and authoritarian. By late 1996, everything had fallen apart, even though NOI brought, arguably, a million folks to DC. By ’97 and ’98, the vacuum becomes very apparent at the national level, and that is what Al seeks to fill.”
Sharpton as the inheritor of the Rainbow? It’s a heady notion, especially given the fact that the Reverend remains anathema to many white liberals, despite his insurgent state and citywide political campaigns in 1992, 1994 and 1997. But other liberals and progressives, especially in the wake of the Diallo movement, seem willing to give him another chance. Sharpton’s “shadow inauguration” on January 20 drew a multiracial crowd of a thousand people. In full preacher mode, Sharpton is probably the most electrifying speaker in the country, and his speech not only addressed police brutality and racial profiling but also abortion rights, environmental justice and gay liberation. (He didn’t mention universal healthcare, which formed part of his 1994 Senate campaign platform.)
Progressives who have collaborated with Sharpton in New York voice a wide range of opinions. Andrew Stettner, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, worked with Sharpton on police brutality issues, beginning with the Diallo protests, at which 125 JFREJ members were arrested. In August 1999, when a young Orthodox Jew was shot by police in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Stettner recalls that Sharpton called him to inquire if NAN and JFREJ might team up on the case. “If you want to get involved in civil rights issues–as JFREJ did–he’s one of the few people you can work with who can bring major press attention to a cause. The white liberal community ought to take a closer look at him.” Bertha Lewis, co-chair of the Working Families Party and executive director at ACORN in Brooklyn, thinks many progressives need to be set straight when it comes to Sharpton: “Black folk have said over and over and over again, and I’ve heard them say this directly to him: ‘Keep on doing what you are doing.’ I don’t believe people really want him to run for office; they want him to be who he is and what he is: someone who sticks it to the Establishment, calls a spade a spade and functions as an agitator.” Still, Lewis would like to see him redirect his focus to grassroots issues: “I have no problem with the leadership classes. [But] how do you teach somebody to be a leader until you’ve taught them to be an organizer? How are you going to lead anything if you haven’t built anything?” Progressive labor leaders, likewise, tend to view Sharpton as someone who can incite emotion and bring attention to specific acts of injustice. They don’t see him as a leader capable of building or sustaining a mass-based organization or protest movement.
The most telling assessments of Sharpton’s weaknesses, however, come from those closest to him. NAN insiders agree that if Sharpton defers to anyone, it’s the chairman of NAN, Wyatt Tee Walker, senior pastor of Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church and Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief of staff from 1960 to 1964. Sharpton confers with Walker nearly every day. “He was Dr. King’s right-hand man!” Sharpton says breathlessly. “He was the architect of Birmingham!”
Walker, 72, is a volatile, elusive individual who shuns the press, but he consented to a brief interview about Sharpton. “Not everybody in the black community loves Sharpton, but more do than don’t, and that is because he is fundamentally a grassroots leader,” says Walker. “He has an attraction and a command and a respect from ordinary folks because his background is so very ordinary. Despite that, he has gone to extraordinary heights.” Walker continues: “He’s a very serious young man, very talented, with an extraordinary IQ. He has a real grasp of the great issues that hover around race and human rights, and he’s reasonably well read. He is very religious.”
But Walker does not hide his differences with the Reverend: “He and Jesse Jackson were developed in an era when, unconsciously or subconsciously, buried deep in their psyches is the idea that leadership has to do with exposure. And neither one of them has been able to shake it. I have warned Mr. Sharpton against doing anything to get attention, even if it’s a good cause. I think there are times when he needs to retreat from media attention–because the same media that will give you exposure is the same media that will eat you alive later on. There’s a difference between having a psychological need for the media, and using the media creatively for the purposes of struggle.” How does Sharpton respond to such criticism? “Well,” Walker says with a long sigh, “he’ll absorb it for a while. It’s an unconscious and deep-seated psychological thing.”
Jackson, too, has taken issue with his young protégé. In public, Jackson is full of praise for Sharpton, and will mention him in the same breath as Dr. King. But in his private moments, he is rather more conflicted. At the end of Marshall Frady’s superb biography, Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson (1996), we see Jackson ruminating about “a young black activist with a promise apparently not unlike his own as a youth.” Frady now confirms that the activist was the Rev. Al Sharpton, and the conversation took place in the back of a car in 1992. What Jackson said was this:
His image of authority and respect are ministers as social leaders like Adam Clayton Powell, Dr. King, like myself–he wants that flair and command. But you got to have some meat beneath that gravy, that flair and command is just the part that people see, and it can become dangerous in itself. Of all the gifts that a prodigy can have, the most dangerous are the most powerful gifts. The gifts of tongue–you can talk your way out of anything, or into anything and then back out of it, because the gift has that kind of power.
Those gifts have enabled Sharpton to travel a long way. His leadership role in the black community is secure; his challenge now is to expand his constituency beyond that base. He must, in effect, choose between the contrasting political visions of his heroes, Adam Clayton Powell and Jesse Jackson; it’s a choice, ultimately, between a black politics and a multiracial politics.
To a considerable extent, Sharpton has already reached Powell-like heights as the kingmaker of black New York. It’s a role he inherited by default: Because many white voters in New York depise him, Sharpton cannot win a mayoral or gubernatorial race. He can, however, mobilize large numbers of black voters on behalf of the candidate of his choice. So on January 15, all four candidates in the 2001 New York City mayor’s race dutifully appeared at the House of Justice, where Sharpton and hundreds of Harlem residents grilled them for hours on topics ranging from housing to the homeless. Sharpton is also a major player in New York’s 2002 gubernatorial contest. On February 18, he endorsed former State Comptroller Carl McCall, who is vying with former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination. Sharpton issued his endorsement at a dinner sponsored by black and Latino lawmakers in Albany, and his remarks were a thinly veiled threat to Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, who were in the room. Sharpton intimated that an attempt by them to remain neutral in the race would be interpreted by some voters as “political racial profiling.” (McCall is African-American.)
Marable and others think that Sharpton might be ready for a Jackson-like role, but they question his nearly exclusive focus on race. “Sharpton’s calling card is state violence against black folks,” says Marable. “That’s the core issue around which he mobilizes. What he has to do is focus on the fact that state violence is actually a larger manifestation of a structure of unequal power and privilege that cuts through American society. Race, as powerful as it is, is ultimately secondary to a fundamental contradiction–that of inequality and the incomplete character of democracy.”
But to replace Jesse Jackson requires a unique vision and sensibility. At his best, Jackson imparted moral authority; like Dr. King, he aspired to “redeem the soul of America.” Frady, in his book, reminds us that Jackson, in the 1970s and 1980s, mediated strikes by airline workers, marched with coal miners in Kentucky, rescued hostages in Iraq, stood up for the Palestinians and comforted earthquake victims in Armenia. “What he had in mind,” Frady writes, “was nothing less than trying to recreate the popular consciousness, and thereby conscience, of the country–all aimed toward shaping a transracial, transclass, egalitarian common American neighborhood fulfilling the old Peaceable Kingdom dream of the movement.” During Jackson’s 1988 campaign, Frady followed him to Iowa, where he received an ecstatic reception in the little country town of Greenfield. At one point Jackson wandered into a place called Toad’s Cafe, a small eatery of minimal decor. “The proprietor,” Frady writes, “came barreling out of the kitchen in a baggy apron and, arms akimbo, bawled to Jackson, ‘Where were you this morning? I was gonna fix your grits for you.’ Jackson said, ‘Got tied up. Next time, next time.'”
These days Sharpton can get his grits in much of the urban Northeast; he has earned it through devotion to the most beleaguered members of his community. But when he is feted in places like Toad’s Cafe, Main Street USA, we’ll know he has arrived. When he is called on to intercede in labor disputes; when he helps defuse a hostage crisis overseas; when he embraces unpopular causes like justice for the Palestinians; when he transmutes black rage into a broader, multiracial blueprint for social change–then it will be clear that he has truly become Jackson’s heir.
But first Sharpton must shed the weight of his tangled history. Certainly, that will be difficult: A public reckoning on the Brawley case could alienate some of his most ardent black supporters, who admire him for his willingness to defy the white establishment. Likewise, for some of his most vociferous critics, nothing he could say now on the Brawley matter will ever convince them he is anything but a charlatan. Between those extremes, however, are countless potential supporters who would welcome a principled attempt by Sharpton to confront his past. In the absence of such a reckoning, he will remain a formidable political force but a largely black phenomenon. With it, however, his future takes on new possibilities. If he meets the challenge, perhaps one day it will be said: You won, Sharpton, you won.