To critics, he is known as "Al Charlatan" or "Rev. Soundbite," a rabble-rousing racial ambulance chaser who never met a video camera he didn't like. To others Al Sharpton (born 1955) is a voice for the disenfranchised, an intelligent, articulate activist who knows how to play the media and speak for the underclass.
The Reverend Al Sharpton has emerged as a voice that people listen to—even if they don't like what they hear. Sharpton, a Pentecostal minister without a parish, uses his theatrical style and inflammatory rhetoric to make himself as familiar a front-page figure as New York City residents Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley. The self-declared civil rights leader injected himself into many of the city's stickiest issues—the Tawana Brawley case, the Bensonhurst racial murder trial, the Bernhard Goetz shooting— often making himself part of the controversy.
Even Sharpton's harshest critics admit he touches a nerve by tapping into a vein of black discontent with white society. Revelations that would devastate other leaders, such as the news that Sharpton secretly worked as an FBI informant and tape-recorded conversations with blacks, rarely stick to Sharpton because they merely confirm the view of his supporters that the white media and the white criminal justice system are out to get him.
Creature of Media
Sharpton is "a creature of the New York media," Wilbert Tatum, publisher of New York's black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, told Newsday. "When they saw Al Sharpton, who was articulate, fat and wore jogging suits, with a medallion around his neck and processed hair, they thought that he would be the kind of caricature of black leadership they could use effectively to editorialize without editorializing at all…. While white media were using Al as a caricature, he was organizing the troops to do what respected black leadership could not do: speak to the issues without fear or favor, and use media in the process. Media thought they were using Al, and Al was using media."
On January 12, 1991 Sharpton was stabbed in the chest minutes before he was to lead a protest march through a predominantly white Brooklyn neighborhood where a black teenager was slain by a mob of white youths two years earlier. In stable condition at the hospital the next day, he did something typical—he called a press conference. As Esquire's Mike Sager wrote, "Sharpton has been defined by his sound bites, nine or 10 seconds of the most explosive rhetoric the reporter or TV producer can find. Of course, Sharpton comes from a tradition of hyperbole; he started preaching in the Pentecostal church at age four."
Born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn where he still lives, Sharpton was drawn to the spotlight at a young age. He says that he decided early on to become a preacher, and began delivering sermons before entering kindergarten. By 13, he had become an ordained Pentecostal minister and was known as "the boy wonder," preaching gospel in local churches and accompanying entertainers such as Mahalia Jackson on national religious tours.
Sharpton graduated from Brooklyn's Tilden High School, a classmate and friend of longtime major league baseball player Willie Randolph. He briefly attended Brooklyn College before dropping out. Sharpton's father was a well-off contractor who bought a new car each year. But when Al was ten, he told the Los Angeles Times, his father deserted the family, forcing his mother to work as a cleaning woman and go on welfare. After his father left, Sharpton attached himself to a series of father figures, from U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to Jesse Jackson to singer James Brown.
Became Youth Director
In 1969 Jackson, then a young Chicago minister, named the 14-year-old Sharpton as youth director of his group, Operation Breadbasket. Around the same time, Sharpton grew close to Brown, whose son, a friend of Sharpton's, had been killed in a car accident. "He sort of adopted me," Sharpton told the Washington Post. "He lost a son, didn't have a father, so he made me his godson." Brown hired the stout teenager as a bodyguard, and introduced him to his business agents. Before he even finished high school, Sharpton was working in the concert promotion business.
Brown introduced Sharpton to two other people who would figure prominently in his life. One was backup singer Kathy Jordan, whom Sharpton met in 1972 and married in l983. (Together they have two daughters, and Jordan now works for the U.S. Army.) The other was boxing promoter Don King, whom Sharpton met in 1974 while promoting a Brown concert that coincided with the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight. Soon, Sharpton was seen at the ringside of major prize fights. Years later, Sharpton and King would team up to win a $500,000 contract to promote Michael Jackson after threatening to organize a boycott of Jackson's concert tour because of lack of minority involvement.
In the early 1970s Sharpton founded the National Youth Movement, an organization with the stated purpose of fighting drugs and raising money for ghetto youth. As the l6-year-old director of the organization, Sharpton made his first newspaper headlines in 1971 by urging black children in Harlem to participate in the African celebration of Kwanza instead of traditional Christmas events. The organization was later renamed the United African Movement, which Sharpton touted as a charitable anti-drug group with 30,000 members in 16 cities. But Victor Genecin, a New York state prosecutor, told the Washington Post that the group was "never anything more than a one-room office in Brooklyn with a telephone and an ever-changing handful of staffers who took Al Sharpton's messages and ran his errands."
In 1974 Sharpton again made headlines when he led a group of older black leaders into a meeting with New York City's deputy mayor to protest the police shooting and death of a 14-year-old black youth. The meeting was prompted by a Sharpton-led demonstration of 500 people at City Hall. Later in the decade Sharpton began experimenting with protest tactics of disorderly conduct. He was arrested for the first time in 1970 after a sit-in at New York City Hall to demand more summer jobs for teenagers. Later, he was ejected from a Board of Education meeting after sitting in front of the board president during a protest. Another time, he led a group along Wall Street, painting red X marks on office buildings he claimed were fronts for drug dealing. Sharpton told the Washington Post he borrowed such tactics from Martin Luther King, Jr. "How did King establish his leadership? By marching, by putting people in the streets. Tell me when in the history of the civil rights movement the goal wasn't to stir things up."
By and large, however, Sharpton was not known beyond his Brooklyn neighborhood. That changed in 1984, when he led the demands for a murder indictment for white subway gunman Bernhard Goetz, who shot four unarmed black teenagers he said were trying to rob him. Goetz was indicted on a murder charge but acquitted on all but minor gun charges. As Goetz's trial unfolded, Sharpton led daily protests on the courthouse steps, often finding his way onto the nightly news.
Sharpton gained national prominence with his tactics in the 1986 Howard Beach racial killing. In that case, three black men leaving a pizza parlor in the community were assaulted by a group of bat-wielding white youths. One black man died when he was chased into traffic and run over by a car. Sharpton led a "Days of Outrage" protest that shut down traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and halted subway service in Brooklyn and Manhattan. A year later, he became closely involved with the case of 15-year-old Tawana Brawley, an upstate New York girl who claimed she was raped by five or six white men, one of whom had a police officer's badge. Sharpton, as one of Brawley's three "advisers," publicly accused several officers of the crime and persuaded Brawley not to cooperate with the state investigation. Eventually, several inquiries strongly indicated that Brawley had fabricated the entire incident.
Sharpton "seemed utterly out of control, likening the state attorney general to Adolf Hitler and demanding the arrest of Duchess County officials without a shred of proof," wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer's Claude Lewis. "Both Brawley and Sharpton proved to be among the saddest of figures, using their talents at deceit to fool the public. They thought that by merely being mysterious they could bamboozle us. They refused to speak specifics about the case and employed mysticism to enhance charges of racism to put the authorities in a defensive position. Both proved to be virtuosos at distorting reality. They are brazen people with no scruples." Sharpton remains unrepentant about his role in the Brawley case. "We don't let nothing slip through the cracks, and that case is still unresolved," he told the Los Angeles Times. "We've only won when we hit the streets and stay out in the streets and keep this town in disruption."
To the amazement of many, Sharpton survived his curious role in the Brawley affair, as well as revelations in 1988 that he was an informant for the FBI. Sharpton confirmed that for five years he secretly supplied federal law enforcement agencies with information on Don King, reputed organized crime figures, black leaders, and elected officials.
Sharpton a Survivor
In 1989 and 1990 Sharpton again beat the odds, prompting Newsday columnist Murray Kempton to compare him to "a cat who has nine lives. He just keeps surviving." First, Sharpton beat a tax evasion rap, which he called a government vendetta. Then, in 1990, he was acquitted on charges that he pocketed more than half of the $250,000 he raised through the National Youth Movement. At the beginning of the case, Sharpton wrote to the grand jury: "Since I was a young child, I was a minister. I know no other life than serving others and allowing God to take care of me. I never owned a car, house, jewelry, etc. My intent is my causes, not wealth."
Sharpton's most recent cause was Yusef Hawkins, a black 16-year-old who was killed by a bat-wielding mob in Bensonhurst in August 1989. The murder stunned New York, which was already beset by spiraling racial tensions. To many New Yorkers it symbolized a breakdown in racial civility that had no quick explanation or readily available cure. Hawkins's father, Moses Stewart, called Sharpton for help the day after the murder. "I wanted someone who was going to take my plight and scream for justice," Stewart told the Washington Post. "I didn't want anyone to come to me with a compromise. I wanted the world to know that my son was murdered because he was black. This is what Sharpton does. He brings it to the forefront."
Sharpton led protest marches through Bensonhurst and led a group standing a noisy vigil outside the courtroom where two white teens were being tried for Hawkins's murder. Not-guilty verdicts, Sharpton told Timemagazine, would be "telling us to burn down the city." Eventually, one of the teens was convicted for the murder.
Recovers from Stabbing
On January 12, 1991, while preparing to lead a march in that same Bensonhurst neighborhood to protest the light sentence given to Hawkins's killer, Sharpton was attacked by a man who stabbed him in the chest. The attack occurred in front of more than 15 supporters and 100 police officers. Sharpton was hospitalized, but officials said his wound was not serious. Michael Riccardi, 27, of Bensonhurst, was immediately arrested and charged with the stabbing.
Shortly following this incident, Sharpton visited London in the Spring of 1991 in an attempt to call attention to the killing of Rolan Adams, a black London teenager who had been allegedly stabbed to death by a gang of whites. However, Sharpton was less then credible with his facts— he did not know Adam's correct name or age and showed marked confusion over police attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice. Sharpton quickly returned to New York where citizens and the media were more amenable to his often outrageous charges and accusations than their English counterparts.
In early 1992 Michael Riccardi was found guilty of stabbing Sharpton and was sentenced to a 5-15 year jail term. Sharpton, always aware of the media spotlight, pleaded on his assailants behalf and asked Judge Francis X. Egitto for leniency when sentencing Riccardi. In a show of Christian forgiveness Sharpton told the court that with the proper help Riccardi could be rehabilitated.
In April 1993 Sharpton was recognized as a "… dedicated leader who remains steadfast in the fight for equality" when he was presented with the National Action Network Award. At the awards ceremony New York City Councilman Adam Clayton Powell IV and New York mayor David Dinkins had nothing but accolades for Sharpton. Now that he was being praised by politicians why not become one? In late 1992 Sharpton had entered the New York U.S. Senate primary and ran a lively if futile campaign against Geraldine Ferraro and garnered a surprisingly high 166,000 votes. In 1993 talk of a senate seat for Sharpton was revived and there was much talk in his camp mounting a similar campaign against Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It was hoped by some, and undoubtedly feared by others, that Sharpton's name on the ballot would empower many otherwise disenfranchised-enfranchised black voters. Sharpton subsequently mounted an aggressive primary challenge to Moynihan but the New York Times dubbed it as a campaign more "… pragmatically aimed at feeding his own outsider's ascendancy in black politics." He did not win the primary but he did win a place as a power-broker on the New York political scene.
With the Tawana Brawley fiasco all but forgotten and with Sharpton now being courted by various politicos his demeanor was rapidly changing. In 1995 New York said Sharpton was no longer the "Winnie Mandela of African-American politics," but was rather adopting a more conciliatory style reminiscent of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With Sharpton's entry into mainstream politics a kinder and gentler Al was calling for racial harmony and a Christian attack on the politics of meanness. Leading a 1995 March from New York City to Albany in protest of Governor George Pataki's budget cuts Sharpton told his fellow marchers:
There is a mean-spiritedness in the land. If the poor can be scapegoated today, who can be tomorrow? It's as though it's somehow criminal to be unfortunate. Over 60 percent of the children who are classified as poor in this country are the children of people who work every day. This is a battle for the soul of this country. A battle between the Christian right and the right Christians. The Christian right says cut the poor. The right Christians say feed the poor.
In a December 1995 article Newsday wrote that to his admirers Sharpton is an authentic leader, a courageous standard-bearer, and a champion of causes where others fear to tread. To his detractors however Sharpton is an inflammatory race-baiting agitator and a "… self-aggrandizing, publicity-seeking manipulator of the media." Sharpton took it all in stride, he's heard it all before, and announced a possible challenge to Rudolph Giuliani's mayoralty. On June 21, 1997, he formally announced his candidacy for New York City's Democratic mayoral nomination.
In 1996 Sharpton published his autobiography Go and tell Pharaoh: the autobiography of Reverend Al Sharpton.
Further Reading on Al Sharpton
Estell, Kenneth, ed., The African-American Almanac, Gale Research, 1994.
Sharpton, Al, Go and tell Pharaoh: the autobiography of Reverend Al Sharpton, Doubleday, 1996.
Albany Times-Union, April 11, 1990.
Atlanta Constitution, May 12, 1989.
Buffalo News, August 26, 1990; October 15, 1990.
Esquire, January 1990.
Gentleman's Quarterly, December 1993. Jet, April 6, 1992; April 26, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1989; January 13, 1991.
Miami Herald, July 14, 1989. Newark Star-Ledger, August 26, 1990.
New Republic, September 19-26, 1994.
Newsday (Long Island), January 20, 1988; January 22, 1988; June 22, 1988; January 6, 1989; April 27, 1989; June 30, 1989; May 21, 1990; August 12, 1990; January 13, 1991; January 18, 1991; December 14, 1995.
Newsweek, May 13, 1991.
New York, April 3, 1995.
New York Times, January 21, 1997.
Orlando Sentinel, May 25, 1990.
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 24, 1990.
Time, May 28, 1990.
Washington Post, July 14, 1988; September 5, 1990.