Fire & brimstone: in his latest book Al on America, the controversial Reverend Sharpton delivers a racism, what he thinks the political agenda should be and why he has a shot at being the next president.
The introduction to his new book, Al on America, does just that, but today it's a different story "Well, I have not decided," he begins. Since I've seen portions of the manuscript for the book, which is scheduled for October release, I have my doubts. Still, whether he runs or not, he says, "Either way, it will be a major policy book on the issues that I think America ought to be dealing with in 2003 and 2004."
It doesn't take long to recognize two qualities in Al Sharpton that most savvy politicians possess: first, the ability to answer a question without really answering it. Indeed, few public figures are more adept at using the media to draw attention to their cause, even when such media attention is unexpected. Secondly, Sharpton has a unique talent for turning a phrase--a true indicator of a politician skilled in both local and national campaigns. More than anyone perhaps, Sharpton is a master of the sound bite.
The Reverend Sharpton, as the hip-hop generation says, "keeps it moving." One week after we spoke, Michael Jackson was at the National Action Network (NAN) to kick off a campaign for fairness in the music industry. The next week found Sharpton in Inglewood, California, where he addressed the videotaped assault of teenager Donovan Jackson by local police, and there were likely several cross-country trips in between--an itinerary that has become de rigueur for the civil rights leader. The following week found the reverend responding to HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel airing of a 1983 FBI videotape in which he is seen talking to a Mafia-turned-undercover-FBI informant posing as a cocaine dealer about laundering drug money. While the HBO piece acknowledged that no indictments were handed down nor did any drug "sting" take place, such negative publicity, whether contrived or real, reflects badly on Sharpton.
Ironically, all these incidents give rise to Al on America, in which Sharpton discusses how he would address a host of national issues that face those seeking public office in the coming years. While the book covers subjects for which he's well-known--police brutality, racial profiling--it goes beyond his years as an activist, beyond the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo cases and other crusades that have come to epitomize Al Sharpton. Of course, whether that makes for good reading depends on whom you ask.
It is understood at the NAN offices that once Rev. Sharpton begins a conversation about politics, it can go on endlessly. This interview was no exception. Since his announcement of a presidential run wasn't forthcoming, I asked what factors might weigh in his decision whether to run. "I am inclined to do it," he says of a possible run, "but I would not do it unless several pieces are in place. One, that we have a winnable strategy, that we have successfully built a national infrastructure, and that we can raise the necessary money," says Sharpton. "I will say that I am more convinced now than I was several months ago that it [his political plans] will come in November. But it has not been cemented to the point of me making a final decision." The reply is a classic example of Sharpton-speak: responding to a question without giving a definite answer. "Having said that," he continues, "I am determined to affect the national debate in 2004."
Al on America certainly has the potential to do just that, given Sharpton's effort to address the usual campaign issues, as well as other concerns that aren't often raised during presidential campaigns. Indeed, given his visibility, the book is bound to do well regardless of whether he runs. But, Sharpton insists, his campaign would be a serious one designed to get him on the Democratic ballot. That, of course, requires winning primaries, delegates and electoral votes--in essence, going beyond his core constituency, although his appeal continues to grow nationally outside New York City. However, in order for Sharpton to be a viable candidate, white Americans would have to vote for him in substantial numbers. Given the widely held view among whites that Sharpton is a racially polarizing figure, how likely is that?
"The odds of him winning are no odds," says columnist and author Stanley Crouch of a Sharpton presidential run. Crouch has followed the political scene in New York City and nationally for years. "I'm not sure that his grasp of national politics is such that it would enable him to really engage in a presidential campaign," he adds. Crouch, author of The All-American Skin Game or, the Decoy of Race and Notes of a Hanging Judge, doesn't see the political dimension and public appeal in Sharpton's campaign necessary for a meaningful race. Discussing police brutality and "some conspiratorial ideas about black Americans in relation to the rest of the country," Crouch suggests, is not enough. And therein lies Sharpton's Achilles' heel--the whole "black" thing, the "race" thing. The civil rights issue is too limited for him to go where his ambitions lie, says Crouch. He believes that neither the National Action Network nor Sharpton's exploratory committee is representative of a political movement. "He's sort of a cult leader, actually," says Crouch. And his supporters, or following, isn't nearly enough to mount a credible national campaign, according to Crouch.
First, let me say this," Sharpton offers in his own defense. "The hidden secret that I discuss in the book is that they will say that Al Sharpton cannot get the majority of the white vote. The fact is--no Democrat has gotten the majority of the white vote in many years," he says. "Bill Clinton didn't get the majority of the white vote. The Democratic Party has been able to put together a coalition of a sizeable portion of the white vote, the overwhelming majority of black votes and Latino votes. That has been their winning strategy, their strategy in 1992 when Clinton won the first time and in 1996 when he was re-elected," he continues. "It was their strategy in how they re-took the Senate in 2000 when [Senator James] Jeffords switched, and now it's their strategy for 2002," says Sharpton. "I'm saying first, before we get to white voters, if blacks have been ninety percent Democrat, `what did we get for that?' No black governors. No black U.S. Senators. Welfare reform hurt a lot of our underclass. And capital punishment disproportionately hit our community, so we have an over-investment for no return. That's first," argues Sharpton, notwithstanding former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder and former Illinois Senator Carol Mosley Braun.
"Second, the issues that I raise are just as credible to whites as those that any other Democrat has raised, and I can get the same 30 to 40 percent [of the vote] that they raise," Sharpton contends. "I'm the only candidate that will probably run who is against the death penalty. And many whites are opposed to it on moral grounds. I'm the only one who has not been influenced by big business money--there are no Enron or Global Crossing checks going to "Sharpton for President" or Sharpton for anything else," he says.
"I can talk about corporate accountability with a moral authority that nobody else running can talk about. I have as much involvement in foreign policy issues, whether it was Haiti, South Africa, or the Middle East--as George Bush. In fact, George Bush has never been to many of the places I've been to," says Sharpton. "So I think that to the average working American, my experience is theirs."
Sharpton's childhood was somewhat unusual for the time. Born to Ada Richards Sharpton and Alfred Charles Sharpton, Sr.--both of whom came to New York from Alabama and Florida during the black migration from the South--Alfred Charles Sharpton grew up in Brooklyn. Young Al and his sister Cheryl lived in the East New York section of Brooklyn, and in 1960, when Sharpton was just five-years-old, their father's financial success enabled the family to move to suburban Hollis, Queens. His mother initially worked as a seamstress, but was a housewife during much of Sharpton's youth, while his father prospered as a landlord and businessman. Early on--as young as four-years-old by most accounts Al Sharpton was encouraged to preach especially by Bishop F.D. Washington, the renowned Pentacostal minister of Brooklyn's Washington Temple Church of God in Christ. By the time he was seven, Sharpton toured with Bishop Washington and was known as the "Wonder Boy" preacher. The church was an integral part of his mother's life. And although his father Alfred Sr. did not initially share his wife's enthusiasm for young Al's ministry, he later took pride in his son's accomplishments. But by age 10, Sharpton's life changed suddenly and irrevocably when his parents' marriage ended. His father, Alfred Sr. had begun an affair with Sharpton's half-sister, Ada's daughter from a previous marriage.
Following the divorce, Sharpton's mother Ada was forced to go on welfare, and at one point the family went without electricity for six months. Eventually they returned to Brooklyn, moving to a housing project where they stayed briefly, then to Crown Heights and later East Flatbush. Sharpton was ordained and licensed as a minister shortly after his parents' breakup, so his earliest role models were ministers, including Bishop Washington and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
As a teenager, Sharpton's world primarily revolved around church and a growing interest in social activism. In 1969, he was named Youth Director of Operation Breadbasket, a civil rights organization led by Reverend Jesse Jackson, a disciple of the late Martin Luther King Jr. By the time he graduated from high school in 1972, he had already organized several youth protests. After two years at Brooklyn College, Sharpton left to devote more time to Operation Breadbasket and his National Youth Movement, an early prototype of the National Action Network. Though Sharpton says leaving school was one of his greatest regrets, after dropping out of college he went to work with James Brown where he met his future wife, Kathy. At the time, she was one of Brown's backup singers; they later married and now have two teenage daughters, Dominique and Ashley.
"I know what it is to be evicted as a kid, like farmers are facing eviction in Iowa," he says referring to his own background, something that Sharpton believes helps him relate to voters from different walks of life across racial and class lines, more so than his would-be opponents. "I know what it is to make a payroll, because I never received federal, state or city money," he says of National Action Network. "I'm like a small businessman in Middle America who has to worry about, `How am I going to make payroll this week? How am I going to pay the health insurance every quarter.' Most of the people who talk about running are senators and governors," says Sharpton.
In addition to overseeing NAN, which now has chapters in more than 20 cities, Sharpton spent the early part of 2002 on a "Getting to Know You Tour" in Iowa and New Hampshire, among other states. "The reception was very positive," he says. "In fact, not only were they positive--to the surprise of the media--there were big turnouts. Because a lot of the people--given that civil liberties are being suspended because the war on terrorism has justified the suspension of the Constitution in many cases--a lot of people want somebody who will stand up and talk. I admit, some of it may be curiosity," says Sharpton. "Some of it may be my celebrity. But a lot of it is they also see somebody who will stand up and speak. People who travel with me will tell you, as many whites as blacks stop me and talk to me in airports and different places, because they feel I've shown a consistency and a courage in my convictions," he says.
Sharpton's more recent interests are somewhat removed from those in his last book, Go and Tell Pharaoh, his 1996 autobiography.
"Go and Tell Pharaoh came out in 1996. I hadn't even run for [New York City] mayor in '96. Abner Louima hadn't happened in '96. Amadou Diallo hadn't happened," says Sharpton. "Racial profiling hadn't happened. The New Jersey Four hadn't happened (four black and Hispanic motorists were pulled over and shot by New Jersey state police in a case of racial profiling). Taisha Gordon in California hadn't happened. The whole fight over the Madison Avenue Initiative in advertising had not happened. My forays into the Middle East, Sudan, Vieques, going to jail, none of that had happened," he recalls. "I've lived a whole lifetime in the five years since the first book and I think in each of those incidents there is a growth and expansion."
Even his critics agree. "There are times when I've found him remarkable and responsible," says Stanley Crouch. He recalls that after the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a young black man from Brooklyn, Sharpton brought together Hawkins' stepfather with one of the group of white boys that had killed his son. "This would have been more recognized had it been someone like Giuliani," says Crouch. "After the Diallo verdict, he discouraged people from being violent," warning locals in New York that violence would not only put them in harm's way, but it would reduce them to the low level from which the unjust verdict originated," he notes. "So you have these great moments. He's also taken a more mature vision of the police and moved to differentiate those good white cops, who enforce the law properly in tough and often dangerous environments, and bad cops."
In Go and Tell Pharaoh, Sharpton describes his early life, his development as an activist and the mentorship he found in Adam Clayton Powell, Jesse Jackson and James Brown. It also details many of the cases in New York City around which he organized, rallied, marched and protested--the activism that made him famous in some circles, and infamous in others. It is a sticky point for many Sharpton critics, who say marching and organizing is outdated.
In 2002, however, Sharpton's political agenda is broader, though he still addresses some of the same issues he has in the past. One is police brutality, which once again emerged in the re-trial of one of the officers previously convicted in 1997 violent assault of Abner Louima, a young Haitian man.
Sanford Rubenstein represented Louima and is one of several attorneys who work with Sharpton. He says of Al on America, "It really gives the American public an opportunity to understand Reverend Sharpton's position on important issues. It will be an opportunity for the American public to get to know Reverend Sharpton better than it does now through the sound bites and news pieces."
New Yorkers may see some irony in Sharpton having a Jewish attorney, given his involvement in past racial conflicts between blacks and Jews in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. However, Rubenstein worked very closely with African Americans and Haitian Americans in Brooklyn long before meeting Sharpton. But the irony isn't lost on him. "When Reverend Sharpton does something, it is not necessarily reported by the press--in this case the Jewish conservative press--fairly." Rubenstein recalls Sharpton's trip to the Middle East last fall, during which he met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as well as Israeli foreign minister Shimon Perez and senior Israeli state department officials. "When the Israeli government facilitated our trip to see Arafat, encouraged us to see Arafat, for Reverend Sharpton to be criticized by the conservative Jewish movement in New York was wrong," says Rubenstein, who accompanied Sharpton on the trip.
Sharpton's work over the past decade raises questions about the viability of the Civil Rights Movement in the 21st century. It's unclear whether another leader will emerge or employ the same tactics. However the movement plays out, Al on America provides some clarity about its most significant American figure. "In many ways the difference between the first book and the second book was in the first book, it was about my development years and an attempt to explain why my life's mission was to confront and go tell pharaoh. Al on America is what I'm going to say to pharaoh when I get his attention."
Finally, I ask Sharpton what he wants the public to take away from Al on America. "Here in the post-Civil Rights generation has emerged a guy who has become well-known in public policy fights, but this book explains what those public policies are, what his vision is, what he sees and what he believes and whether I agree with him or not, I'm at least clear on what it is he's trying to say."
RELATED ARTICLE: The Sharpton Time Line
1965--At age 10, Sharpton is ordained as a minister in the Pentecostal Church and begins preaching in Brooklyn and Queens, touring with famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
1969--As youth director of Operation Breadbasket, Sharpton meets Reverend Jesse Jackson, who at the time served as the anti-poverty program's national director.
1973--At a benefit concert for his National Youth Movement, Sharpton met another mentor, entertainer James Brown, and began a lifelong kinship.
1974--Sharpton meets boxing promoter Don King during negotiations to book James Brown for the Ali/Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire.
1985--Sharpton leads marches against Bernhard Goetz, a white man lauded in the media for shooting four black kids in the subway who he accused of trying to rob him.
1987--Sharpton and Minister Louis Farrakhan speak at a rally in Newburgh, New York, on behalf of a young black woman, Tawana Brawley, who says she has been raped by local police officers.
1987--Sharpton leads the first "Day of Outrage" to protest the Howard Beach incident in which a young black man Michael Griffith was fatally struck by a car after being chased by an angry white mob.
1989--A young black man, Yusuf Hawkins, is murdered in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn by a mob of white youths who thought Hawkins was there to see a neighborhood girl.
1991--Sharpton is stabbed while leading a protest march in Bensonhurst.
1991--Sharpton is consulted by the family of Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old black boy who is struck and killed in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when the motorcade of a Jewish rabbi runs a red light.
1992--Sharpton enters the New York Democratic primary race for Senate, capturing 16% of the statewide vote, 21% of the New York City vote and 70% of the African-American vote.
1994--Sharpton runs for the Senate seat a second time.
1996--His first book, the autobiographical Go and Tell Pharaoh, is published.
1997--Sharpton and the National Action Network organize protests and support Abner Louima, a victim of police brutality.
1997--Sharpton makes an unsuccessful Democratic primary bid to be mayor of New York City.
1998--Sharpton brings national attention to racial profiling after four, young, unarmed black and Hispanic men are shot in their van by New Jersey state police.
1999--Sharpton is called to aid the family of Amadou Diallo, a 24-year-old Guinean immigrant who was fatally shot in a hail of 41 bullets in the vestibule of his home by New York City police.
2000--Sharpton and the National Action Network welcome a host of candidates, including presidential hopeful Ralph Nader and then senatorial candidate Hillary Clinton.
2001--While touring the Puerto Rican island of Vieques to protest Navy bombing maneuvers taking place there, Sharpton and other New York officials dubbed the `Vieques Four' are arrested. Sharpton, who goes on a fast, is held for 90 days.
2002--Sharpton files a $1 billion lawsuit against HBO, and its parent AOL Time Warner, over the airing on Real Sports of a 1983 FBI tape of Sharpton in an aborted undercover sting operation.
Tracy Grant self-published his debut novel, Hellified, in 1999. He is also a freelance journalist and an adjunct English professor. His short stories have appeared in several fiction anthologies, including After Hours: A Collection of Erotic Fiction by Black Men, the upcoming Twilight Moods and Proverbs for the People. A frequent contributor to BIBR, his magazine work has appeared in Black Men, Today's Black Woman and XXL. He is currently working on his next novel. In this issue, Grant wrote the cover profile on the Reverend Al Sharpton.