Stepping to the pulpit at Greater Grace Church – minutes from where a suburban St. Louis police officer shot and killed an unarmed Black 18-year-old – the Rev. Al Sharpton wielded the fiery words that have marked his long, often notorious career.
“These parents are not going to cry alone,” he preached to the crowd that packed the pews last Sunday in Ferguson, Missouri. “We have had enough!” But when Sharpton sat down days later with New York’s mayor to discuss the response to a Staten Island man’s death in a police officer’s chokehold, he recalibrated his rhetoric. “We don’t have to agree on everything, but we don’t have to be disagreeable,” Sharpton said, facing the city’s police commissioner.
Plenty has been said in recent years about Sharpton’s “reinvention,” as he shed nearly 170 pounds, traded warmup outfits for tailored suits, took to the camera for a daily cable television show, and built relationships with the White House and New York’s city hall. But to allies and critics who have watched him parachute into racially charged crises for more than three decades, recent weeks are just testament to Sharpton’s unflagging ability to seize the moment, regardless of setbacks and no matter how the opening presents itself.
“He always seems to be in the right places and seems to be able to absorb and overcome some devastating blows,” said the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, 84, who has known Sharpton since he was a boy preacher at Brooklyn’s Washington Temple and has marched alongside him time and again. “I don’t see that he’s changed. The core of Rev. Sharpton is the same … the root is the same, the substance is the same.”
Sharpton returned to Ferguson on Monday to speak at the funeral for Michael Brown, following a weekend protest march in New York, cementing his place at the intersection of advocacy and controversy.
He first commanded national attention in 1987 as the medallioned 305-pound spitfire demanding justice for an upstate New York teen, Tawana Brawley, in the uproar surrounding what turned out to be a made-up rape.
He was widely derided for his incendiary rhetoric, but his doggedness earned credibility with some blacks as the voice of the street, says David Bositis, an analyst specializing in African-American politics who counseled Sharpton before his 2004 run for president. The activist’s change in tone since then is no accident, he said.
“He knows what it’s like when you’re judged outside,” Bositis said. “I think … in his own way, this is a calculation about being effective, being influential.”
Now 59, Sharpton was raised by his mother after his father left home when he was in grade school. By age 4, he was delivering “eloquently precocious” sermons in Brooklyn churches, Daughtry said. When he was just 15, local activists pointed him out to Jesse Jackson, who named Sharpton youth director of Operation Breadbasket, the New York branch of an effort to improve economics in black neighborhoods.
Still in his teens, Sharpton went on the road with soul idol James Brown, whose role as surrogate father inspired his prominent perm, since tamed. In 1984, Sharpton led protests demanding the prosecution of Bernhard Goetz, a white man who opened fire on four black teens in the New York subway.
In crisis after crisis, Sharpton begged controversy. In 1995, he lambasted the Jewish owner of a store in Harlem, labeling him a “White interloper.” Soon after, a protester set fire to the store, killing eight people.
At the 1991 funeral for a Black boy struck and killed by the car of an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section, Sharpton railed against the neighborhood’s “diamond merchants.”
“There was an anti-Semitic tide running through that neighborhood and he fueled it,” said Wayne Barrett, a former investigative reporter for New York’s Village Voice who covered the aftermath.
In recent years, Sharpton has acknowledged “mistakes.” Critics say he can’t undo the damage. But many African-Americans, agreeing with the core of Sharpton’s insistent message, have looked past the errors, said Mary Frances Berry, a scholar of Black American history and politics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“What he did was to keep on moving,” she said.
The setbacks, though, went beyond rhetorical missteps. In the 1990s, Sharpton was acquitted of tax fraud and stealing from one of his charities. He later pleaded guilty to failing to file a state tax return. In 2008, he filed long overdue returns that showed he owed nearly $1.5 million in taxes, and negotiated a repayment plan with the government. This spring, he faced tough questions after reports he served as an FBI informant in the 1980s.
Undeterred, Sharpton has moved to fill the void left by Jackson, who has been far less visible in recent years.
“Who on the national scene was going to play that role?” Berry said. “If Al Sharpton didn’t exist we’d have to invent him, where he’s invented himself several times.”
Like Jackson, Sharpton has a knack for showing up, whether to demand justice for Sean Bell, a Black man shot to death by New York police in 2006 just hours before his wedding, or to protest “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
More than just sticking around, though, supporters say Sharpton has matured.
He is “no longer the jumpsuit-wearing, obese, long-locks guy, up and down the streets and in the hallways screaming,” Daughtry said. “If you’re going to be a man of the world you’ve got to be able to relate to all these kinds of people.”
After combative relationships with a series of New York mayors, Sharpton and Michael Bloomberg shook hands before cameras during Bloomberg’s first days in office in 2002. He speaks regularly with new Mayor Bill DeBlasio, although the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island has led to tense moments between the men, as Sharpton has questioned the tactics of Police Commissioner William Bratton. And he has cultivated a relationship with President Barack Obama, who spoke to Sharpton’s National Action Network earlier this year.
Sharpton has also benefited from changes in cable news, which now routinely fills airtime with commentators with clearly political agendas. He has his own show and is a frequent guest on others’ on MSNBC.
“He is this kind of modern American construct,” said Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson, an expert on television and popular culture. “He’s in the middle of the story and then he comes back … and he talks about the story.”
That’s likely to be the case again this week, when Sharpton returns to the airwaves following Brown’s funeral.
It’s proof, those who know Sharpton say, of his dexterity at manufacturing opportunity from adversity. Barrett recalls about 20 years ago, when he invited Sharpton to the bachelor party for a fellow reporter who had dug hard into the activist’s checkered past.
“He shows up in a white suit, I’ll never forget the day,” Barrett recalls. “And I’m telling you that’s because to him, yesterday’s enemy is today’s ally … To The Rev, every day is a new day, and I can make myself anybody I want to make myself into and tomorrow only people like Barrett will remember.”