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The Contenders: Al Sharpton…A Skeptical Look At His Claim To Fame

The Contenders: Al Sharpton

Outspoken Activist Takes National Stage

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer

June 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. 

Fifth in a series

Alfred Sharpton strides through Reagan National Airport. Hair swept back in a trademark James Brown pompadour, a cell phone attached to his ear, he instructs an aide to cancel a private meeting with New York's mayor. On call-interrupt, he talks South Carolina primary strategy. And he keeps up a patter with those hustling to keep pace.


An airport janitor wags his mop.

"Whaddup," Sharpton answers in low monotone.

He wheels down the corridor and boards the US Airways shuttle to New York. A New York Times editor seated on the aisle says hello. A Midwestern House member nods at him. A white woman half rises and pumps his hand excitedly and trills: "I had Katie Couric on the way down and now Rev. Al. This is so great!"

The street activist known as "The Rev" is a candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. And as he settles back into his seat, he talks of running a race that relies on this celebrity, and the media attention that trails him, to energize the voiceless -- the black and Latino voters of the South and the urban North -- in a Democratic Party that he says has become too cautious and centrist. "I thought that Clinton was a good president, but he was part of the crowd that moved the party to the right and did that horrendous welfare reform," Sharpton says. "So I say, yeah, we have to pull our party back."

Sharpton has marched with Louis Farrakhan and Jesse L. Jackson. He has dined with Barbra Streisand, Fidel Castro and Edward I. Koch -- he and the former mayor cemented their friendship while judging pastrami sandwiches on the Food Channel. He has read Gandhi and the Roman Catholic philosopher Ivan Illich, cracked jokes with Al Gore and signed autographs for white, bearded-and-tattooed NASCAR groupies at the Columbia, S.C., airport.

Some would describe this urbane and nattily attired man as the New Sharpton. His is the archetypal journey, in this narrative, from urban prophet reviled by white society to national political figure, traveling as Jackson did toward political redemption and establishment applause.

"One night I just looked up, and he had attained stature," says New York state Sen. David A. Paterson (D), who hails from a prominent Harlem political family. "He champions those who have no one. He can sound ridiculous, but he's not."

But media sightings of the New Sharpton have been stock footage in New York since the early 1990s and as often end up being discarded when he does or says something outrageous. Insiders talk of him as a hustler who found the back door to the presidential stage. "Of course he's a demagogue -- I know because I had him arrested," Koch says, adding that he likes Sharpton, works on political causes with him and attends his birthday parties.

The same Sharpton can bring thousands to their feet in pure rapture in one South Carolina church after another. He may not expect to win, necessarily, but he just might pull hundreds of thousands of black voters to the voting booth, take a southern primary or three, and cause some heartburn. "If I lose, I ain't going to be the only one," he says. "There will be [seven] others. And when I stand up, others can't be ignored."

Several of his fellow presidential candidates privately acknowledge their fear that Sharpton's appeal to blacks and Latinos, pivotal constituencies in Democratic primaries, will require that they court him as the campaign progresses. In the meantime, his wit and willingness to speak candidly could leave them sounding like an accountants' convention.

At the South Carolina debate in May, the moderator asked Sharpton about Bush's tax cut. "It's like Jim Jones giving you Kool-Aid," Sharpton replied instantly. "It tastes good, but it will kill you."

His campaign is short on traditional policy papers, although he has put forward a populist plank calling for three constitutional amendments, guaranteeing the right to vote -- which, he notes, is not mentioned in the Constitution -- and a right to health care and education. He has not affixed a price tag to these proposals.

Sharpton is a very nonlinear candidate. His suits, he said in a court deposition exploring his tangled finances, are purchased by . . . someone else. He owns a handsome house in Brooklyn -- sort of. He testified in the same hearing that he prefers to enter by the back door because his nonprofit, the National Action Network, pays the freight on his living room and dining room, which he considers his offices. He has defamed and been indicted, worn an FBI wire, been arrested in various causes by sundry cops, done 90 days in prison for trespassing to protest the Navy's practice bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and denounced people -- some powerful and some not -- in terms that are insulting, if not worse.

He has gone on in years past about "cocktail sip Negroes," the "diamond merchants," the Orthodox Jews of Crown Heights, and "white interlopers" in Harlem. Sometimes, he apologizes. "I've grown; we all have," he acknowledges. "I'm not as brash. There are ways I look at life now that I would not have when I was a younger man from the ghetto."

Many have claimed to divine Sharpton's transformative moment. He is smart, quick and rhetorically agile, and he's got more street moves than any dozen pols. He long ago dropped the jogging suit and the bronze medallion. He lost weight, trimmed the hair, and his mustache is flecked with gray. He now embraces old enemies -- even the white man who stabbed him in the chest while he marched through Bensonhurst in 1991 -- and directs a groundbreaking national campaign against police brutality. Few doubt he could lay a strong claim to a New York congressional seat if he so desired.

And yet. . . . He slaps at former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani by saying "Bozo the Clown" could have united the city after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He refuses to apologize for slandering a hapless prosecutor in the Tawana Brawley case. And in 2001, he told reporters -- on the eve of a mayoral election against a billionaire Republican -- that "I'm going to the Wailing Wall to promise God that I will not support [Democrat] Mark Green for mayor."

"The best part of his Christianity and his intelligence are at war with his inability to transcend himself," says Jim Sleeper, a Yale University lecturer who for two decades has written of Sharpton and the politics of race in New York. "I always feel like something in his past is grabbing him by the scruff of his neck and pulling him back."

Few have taken the Rev's mercurial measure longer than Bill Lynch. A black and bearded eminence grise, he was campaign manager for New York's first black mayor, David N. Dinkins. A bit warily, Lynch has agreed to advise Sharpton.

As Lynch sees it, the Democratic Party is dominated by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and its make-no-waves views. The African American voiceless need a populist champion. He hopes he has found his man. "Sharpton can't be perceived as just an African American radical who just wants to throw rocks," he says. "He has to keep his activist base but reach out to more moderate folks. Can he do it? That's the $64,000 question."

The Prophetic Voice

By the age of 3, Sharpton would walk home from the Pentecostal church in Queens, line up his sister's dolls on the bed, drape on his mother's nightgown as raiments, and preach of God's tender mercy.

"It was just a natural compulsion; I can't explain it," Sharpton says. "In fifth grade, I used to sign my papers 'Reverend Alfred Sharpton.' My homeroom teacher thought I was crazy."

He was ordained at 10. His mother brought him to Bethany Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a grand temple of political activism. "His mother saw his burning political passion, and she knew this was not the Pentecostal tradition," recalls the Rev. William A. Jones Jr., who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and became Sharpton's lifelong pastor. "I immediately put him to work for Operation Breadbasket organizing protests against companies inequitable to African Americans.

"It sounds so heady, but it wasn't -- he matured much quicker than kids of comparable age."

Sharpton's childhood might be seen as a search for father figures. His own father deserted his mother and the family when Sharpton was a teenager -- they ended up moving into public housing. He was a chubby kid, disinterested in sports, and many weekends he rode around Harlem with Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He picketed white-owned supermarkets, demanding franchises for black businessmen such as radio magnate Percy E. Sutton, who remains a Sharpton supporter. And he listened as the Rev. Jones lectured him on the necessity of developing a prophetic voice.

"My classmates in high school had a hard time reconciling that their parents would hear me preaching in church on Sunday," Sharpton says. "I never missed 'normal' high school life, because I didn't know what that was."

Jones suggested that the 12-year-old Sharpton travel to Chicago to meet with Jesse Jackson, who was in his mid-twenties and running the national office of Operation Breadbasket. Sharpton found in Jackson a mentor, a man possessed of an earthy, urban style he would emulate. Their families still spend Christmas together, and the men are friends and rivals in equal measure.

"Jesse was almost brutal. He'd tell me: 'The grammar was wrong; you're being a showoff. You need more substance.' " Sharpton laughs, rueful. "But he was right. He'd started off young, too, and he knew that if you just go by the roar of the crowd, you never grow."

It's a lesson, some friends say, that Sharpton has only half-learned. "The cadence gets going sometimes, and it comes out bad," a friend and political adviser says. "It all sounds good, but sometimes you wince at what comes out when he's rolling."

James Brown was another of Sharpton's father figures. In the early 1970s, a disc jockey introduced Sharpton to Brown. The Godfather of Soul took a liking to the teenage Rev and invited him on "Soul Train." A few weeks later, they went on the road.

For the next few years, Sharpton was the kid who would pick up the money box at night's end. It was a rough world. He met a lot of men who had no clear means of income and knew them well enough that he was persuaded to wear an FBI wire. "People complain I dealt with unsavory characters," Sharpton says. "Well, what you want me to say? 'Excuse me, you a mobster?' I remember the most notorious guy sponsored the B'nai Brith dinner every year. This was our life."

He met his wife on tour -- she was a James Brown backup singer from Niagara, N.Y. They've been together more than two decades and have two teenage daughters. He still talks to James Brown three times each month. "James is my father," he says. "It's that simple."

It's a whirl in his telling, an itinerant preacher activist riding life's rapids. By the mid-1980s, he began searching out one racially charged case and another: Bernhard Goetz, the white subway shooter; the killing of black youths in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst; the Crown Heights riots.

You grow up fast in this life -- or never fully grow at all. Jones, the Bethany pastor, much admires his protégé's willingness to speak a rough truth, but worries, too. "The greatest drawback to operating in a freelance manner is that you lack a spiritual home base and the space to dream," he says. "When you're a street preacher, you always live with the fear that you'll call a meeting to get a crowd, and the crowd won't show up."

Tawana Brawley

Tawana Brawley: In Sharpton's journey through political activism, no two words represent a more formidable wall between him and political respectability. In his telling, he saw a black teenager in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who had been abducted, wrapped in a burlap sack, sexually abused, smeared with feces and had suffered racial epithets written on her body.

Sharpton describes himself as the ambulance who finds racial injustice and sounds an alarm. He drove to her town and unleashed a storm of charges. He likened the state attorney general to Adolf Hitler and, without evidence or eyewitnesses, repeatedly identified a young assistant district attorney, Steven Pagones, as a participant in Brawley's abduction and rape.

A grand jury later found that Brawley's charges were phony and that Sharpton's were baseless. Pagones successfully sued Sharpton in 1998, and was awarded $65,000. Sharpton's benefactors -- including Percy Sutton and lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. -- paid it off. Today, Sharpton explains away his attacks on Pagones as rhetorical excess. "You telling me that Pagones never investigated people who were not guilty?" Sharpton asks. "Does that mean he had malice?"

For many, not least for white voters, Sharpton's refusal to apologize is irresponsibility squared. But Paterson, the state senator, argues that if Sharpton is to gain entry into black homes and speak for the dispossessed, he cannot betray confidences. "Had Sharpton said: 'Y'know, I think this kid is lying,' he'd never have recovered with his base," Paterson says. "He must assure people that he won't turn on them. Otherwise, who would talk to him again?"

Perhaps, although critics called it racial politics with a most brutal undercarriage. In the months after Sharpton's attacks, Pagones suffered stomach and back ailments. He is now divorced and has left the legal profession. "Reverend Sharpton not only failed to see the truth, he closed his eyes to the truth," Pagones said. "He ruined my life."

The Race

To follow Sharpton as he hurtles across South Carolina, from Columbia to Spartanburg to Orangeburg and Santee, is to see a man who dreams of turning heads on a national stage. Forty percent of the Democratic electorate here is black. His is a pell-mell, seat-of-the-pants campaign, with few policy papers and a staff that often has no particular idea where he is going or what he is going to do. Other candidates create a formidable campaign apparatus, but Sharpton seems content to be his own best tactician and spokesman.

Everywhere he meets blacks who shake his hand, ask for an autograph, talk of cousins and aunts and uncles up North who admire him. At breakfast at 6 a.m., the waiter says he earned his GED in a program run by Sharpton. In Orangeburg, his campaign manager was a buddy of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Sharpton believes these voters may yet raise him to unexpected heights. "As I see it," he says in Orangeburg, "it's the children of the Rainbow against the children of the Democratic Leadership Council."

On a Sunday morning in early June, he steps to the pulpit at Edisto Fork African Methodist Episcopal Church. He sees a sea of farmers and factory workers and deputy sheriffs and car dealers and hamburger flippers. He speaks of his life and theirs, of pain and doubting God and making so many mistakes. Of being mocked when he is down.

He builds slowly, a thundercloud gathering, until he's sweating, hurling words into the void. Seemingly done, he turns away, does a 180-degree spin, and shouts once more of singing the Lord's song. And the church hops and echoes and rocks with his praise.

A Skeptical Look At Al Sharpton's Claim To Fame

The Best Of Al Sharpton: The Bravest Thing He Ever Did

By William Saletan and Ben Jacobs

August 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved. 


Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates' biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his best. Here's the one told by supporters of Al Sharpton–and what they leave out.

The story: "On May 23, 2001, I was sentenced to ninety days in prison. … I was arrested for trespassing in Vieques, where I went to protest our naval activities there. I went on the advice of leaders in the Puerto Rican community who explained the damage [nearby Navy practice] bombings were doing to the land and people of Vieques. After hearing about it, I knew there was no way I could remain silent and do nothing. These same leaders stood with me during our protests following the brutalization of Abner Louima by New York City police officers. They were arrested right alongside me during our protests against the killing of Amadou Diallo. After hearing about the injustices in Vieques, I was compelled to stand with them. My move also strengthened a black/Latino coalition that went beyond politics and resonated on a street level." (Sharpton, Al on America, 2002, Page xiii)

Reality check: Most of the health concerns that inspired the Vieques protests were overblown. Contrary to statements by protesters, there was no statistical evidence that residents of Vieques had abnormal rates of cancer or infant mortality.

But verifying these claims was never Sharpton's principal concern, as his account shows. His concern was to "stand with" Puerto Rican leaders. Why? The New York mayoral election was approaching, and joining the Vieques protests was an easy way to mend fences with the Puerto Rican community, which Sharpton had alienated by playing hardball with Fernando Ferrer, a mayoral candidate of Puerto Rican descent. By getting arrested and going to prison, Sharpton got a constant stream of favorable publicity from Spanish language media outlets in New York.

On the other hand, Sharpton's imprisonment did increase public pressure against the bombing range, and President Bush ordered it to be shut down by May 2003.

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