Reverend Al Sharpton, preacher, black civil rights leader, and inciter of riots, once upon a time regularly answered to the word “flamboyant.” During the Eighties and Nineties, one could look it up in Webster’s Dictionary and anticipate an etching of Sharpton, pompadour hair style in full bloom. But these days, the man known as “Reverend Al” goes by some newer words: “pragmatic,” “respectable” and “sensible.” This stage-managed image shift has enabled him to become an adviser to the powerful, among them President Obama.
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For some three decades, Al Sharpton has been one of the nation’s most durable demagogues. His most recognizable role is that of “adviser” to individual blacks and their families, supposedly denied justice in connection with a race-related crime. Every one of his very noisy and public campaigns on behalf of his clients, whether in his native New York City or elsewhere, rests on a presumption that whites are guilty and blacks are innocent. Long on factual inaccuracy and reckless character assassination, his assertions accomplish little, save for distorting public discourse and preaching to the converted. In Sharpton’s mind, whites owe blacks a huge debt – and must pay up.
All of Reverend Al’s campaigns bear the imprint of this odd notion of “civil rights.” Even where whites really are guilty of a crime, as in the case of the 1989 shooting death of a black youth, Yusuf Hawkins, in Brooklyn, he exploits every possible racial angle to build a mass political movement. In some instances, as Crown Heights, Brooklyn (1991) and Freddy’s Fashion Mart, Harlem (1995), his acolytes have committed murder.
Apparently, all this is in the past. For the last several years, certain high priests of journalistic respectability have informed us Al Sharpton has “changed.” Pragmatic, and sensible, he has transcended the politics of grievance with grace and style. In turn, he has been granted access to the top echelons of power. He delivers 6 o’clock weeknight news and commentary on MSNBC. His nonprofit group, National Action Network, is a major player on the political stage, attracting corporate donors such as Home Depot, WalMart, McDonald’s and Colgate-Palmolive. And he consults regularly with President Obama, having been a registered White House visitor dozens of times.
In this view, the “old” Reverend Sharpton – the crude overweight loudmouth with the track suits, medallions and incendiary rhetoric – is extinct. Now age 60, nattily dressed and svelte, he is an idealistic civil rights elder statesman, spreading a message of hope, healing and decency for all. What about his estimated $4.5 million in outstanding federal and state tax liens? Hey, not to worry!
The Wall Street Journal on March 17, 2010 provided a good example of this attitude adjustment. Noting that President Obama had turned to Sharpton for counsel on race-related issues, the article observed: “Mr. Sharpton has emerged as an important part of the White House response. On his national radio program, he is directly rebutting the president’s critics, arguing that Mr. Obama is right to craft policies aimed at uplifting all Americans rather than specifically targeting blacks.” Several months later, a fawning cover story in Newsweek (August 2, 2010) concluded: “He (Sharpton) is out there alone, still standing on the same principle he first enunciated in his housing project in Brooklyn: Poor people have the same right as rich ones, to justice in the streets and the courts.”
Don’t believe this hype. Al Sharpton is the same person, as always bent on constructing the illusion that American society is rigged against blacks – and intimating that violence might happen if the nation doesn’t get with his program. A few weeks ago at a Manhattan hotel, for example, speaking before an enthusiastic private audience, Reverend Al announced: “We’ve been waiting for the issues of race and social justice to reach a boiling point in America, and that time is finally here. We’ve been waiting for an opportunity to lead, and now I’m in that position.” Does that sound like change you can believe in?
During the latter months of 2014, Sharpton had conducted a virtual New York-to-St. Louis shuttle in an attempt, ultimately unsuccessful, to pressure a state grand jury into indicting Darren Wilson, a cop in nearby Ferguson, Mo., for killing of an “unarmed” black, Michael Brown. In point of fact, Wilson had viciously assaulted Officer Wilson, and might well have killed him, had Wilson not used his service revolver in self-defense. What people might not know about that Missouri campaign is that Sharpton had the full backing of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. Sharpton had been tapped by the Obama administration to defuse racial tensions in Ferguson. The irony was rich: Al Sharpton, a man with a long history of fomenting racial violence, now was preventing it.
Reverend Al Sharpton always has operated in, and benefitted from, a political culture in which blacks enjoy an implicit right to intimidate whites. The difference is that now he’s on the inside looking out. A Trojan horse in the halls of power, he has grown more powerful than ever. That’s an American dilemma.
Carl F. Horowitz is a researcher and editor with National Legal and Policy Center, a Falls Church, Va. nonprofit group dedicated to promoting ethics and accountability in American public life. He is author of Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise.