Is the Rev. Al Sharpton still president of black America? Was he ever?

December 15, 2014

McSpadden and Sharpton smile as they lead the national Justice For All march against police violence, in Washington

The Rev. Al Sharpton didn’t rocket to stardom.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he was, at best, a regional activist who had successfully used outrageous tactics to call attention to the plight of dozens of unarmed black men who had lost their lives at the hands of angry white mobs and police officers.

In an act of civil disobedience, Sharpton — armed with a bull-horn and a track suit — rushed into a subway train station in Brooklyn Borough Hall  on a cold, December evening in 1988 with about a dozen  of his followers in tow. The activists halted rush-hour commuters to demonstrate outrage over persistent racism in New York City and the tragic killing of a 16-year-old named Yusuf Hawkins by a mob of white youngsters.

That one bold act of defiance was successful on many levels. Sharpton got around-the-clock media coverage and was able to use the public spotlight to catapult himself onto the national stage.

Over time, he became known as one of black America’s best weapons in the fight against systemic racism and police brutality and went on to decry police misconduct in the case of Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and countless others. It was a position that Sharpton himself openly embraced, though it was not all smooth sailing.

For years, Sharpton was dogged in the media for his aggressive defense of Tawana Brawley, a who in 1987, was a 15-year-old black teenager who claimed that she was attacked and raped by a group of white men. Many considered the case to be a hoax, but Sharpton continues to stand by his decision to come to her aid, much to the chagrin of those who wish that he would simply apologize and move on.

Sharpton had learned how to engage in civil disobedience as a youth leader of Operation Breadbasket — which served as the economic arm to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Sharpton’s intimate interactions in the 1970s with civil rights giants like Ralph D. Abernathy, William Augustus Jones. Jr. and Hosea Williams, helped him to develop an aggressive plan for how to transfer King’s 1960s southern tactics to New York City, which many foolishly considered a melting pot, free of racial strife and tension.

Over time, Sharpton developed his own audacious style, much to the dismay of the older and much more conservative southern black activists, who wondered if the rabble-rousing preacher had gone astray.

What did not change, however, was Sharpton’s consistency in fighting for the victims of civil rights injustices, even leaving behind a lucrative life on the road with soul singer James Brown in the early 1980s to return to New York penniless with the goal of building a civil rights career.

Without question, Sharpton had personal ambitions too. After several unsuccessful bids for political office, by the late 1990s he wanted more than anything to surpass his one time idol, the Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson, and become the unofficial President of Black America.

Like King, who was summoned to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 after a bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four young girls, Sharpton was the first to take up the causes of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

As Barack Obama cautiously weighed in on these recent cases from the comfort of the Oval Office, Sharpton was on the ground and can be credited with helping to nationalize these stories, by using his MSNBC show “Politics Nation” and his syndicated radio show to keep these victims in the news every day.

But now, younger and more radical activists are waiting in the wings to take the baton from the 60-year-old Sharpton, who they say has lost his edge.

There is also no consensus that African Americans view him as their leader. This is evidenced by the recent decision of a Brooklyn family to disinvite Sharpton from delivering the eulogy at the funeral of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man who was shot to death by police in the stairwell of a housing development.

“I don’t see him getting arrested and going to jail anymore,” said Timothy Morrison, 42, a New York activist , who pointed out that as Sharpton has grown in national stature, he has become less militant and less connected to the grassroots.

“You have to give him his props for the work that he’s done, but he now needs to step aside and let the young people lead,” Morrison added.

If the extent of Sharpton’s influence is measured by the thousands of people who showed up to his rally against police misconduct in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, then one can argue that he remains a power broker, even as activists planned what some viewed as a competing rally and march at the same time in New York City.

But don’t count on Sharpton announcing his retirement from public life anytime soon. Obama may be the nation’s first black president, but Sharpton still sees himself as President of Black America.

PHOTO: Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, center, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, right, smile as they lead the national Justice For All march against police violence with other family members of people slain by police in Washington, Dec. 13, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg 

18 comments

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I didn’t read this article because the title is offensive enough. No, of course Al isn’t and never was the “President of Black America” because that title has never existed. It’s ridiculous to seemingly inform people that one person has never been the voice of any entire when it’s absurd to ever assume he was. I’d be willing to bet that Al would wish he didn’t have a job and everyone would play by the law, the Constitution, their bible, or even their own moral fiber. As long as people are willing to put their own hatred ahead of all else in their lives, Al — and people like him are a Godsend. …on another note, Jamal, you need to put your energy into something positive and use this medium to discuss real matters that make a difference. Stop stirring a pot that already has too many hands and too many ladles. If you can’t do that then you tell Reuters that I can and they can call me anytime.

Posted by CAAirman | Report as abusive

Sharpton is a self centered blowhard, never been anything but. Get lost Sharpton, nobody is listening.

Posted by p19 | Report as abusive

I agree with your comment P19. He is also an embarassment to the word Reverend.

Posted by ConcernedFuture | Report as abusive

Between Obama and Sharpton, it doesn’t seem possible to forget there are races, they remind us every minute of every day.

Posted by unbiasedind | Report as abusive

Were the civil rights cases to disappear, the Sharptons of the world would happily also become absent. There are new cases nearly daily, with the possible NC lynching threatening to cause the next divisive chaos. Similar to deaths tied to gun rights issues, the racial unrest will continue long after the current players are gone

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

Al is the selected black leader of the fascist corporations. A true black leader would not be allowed, most likely assassinated. It’s best to have someone who pays lip service to justice but has no concrete suggestions for how that may be accomplished. In fact, that is what all our so called leaders are, talking heads selected by the monetary powers to appear to care but do nothing. To vilify Al more than you do the typical politician suggests a somewhat childish and unrealistic view of the world. He is simply doing as he is told, and he is told to act like he cares but do nothing.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Comparing Obama to Sharpton is ridiculous. Obama represents all Americans. Sharpton is an opportunistic vulture that preys on black misfortune and turns every incident into a case of racial injustice to fit his agenda. Civil rights is over. You won Al. Let’s all pull up our pants and go to work.

Posted by dmiller748 | Report as abusive

@unbiasedind just how does Obama and Sharpton fit into the same sentence when it comes to reminding you of race. Obama has been extremely cautious about weighing into matters of race. He’s certainly never chased the race ambulance. Perhaps you should look try past the skin color of the person talking and listen to what they are talking about.

Posted by JulsMan | Report as abusive

It is indicative of the anarchy put forth, by many, that “I am black and you are white, you have no right to tell me what to do or to touch me!” It is the same idiocy that cretins like Sarah Palin put forth in their view that, “So, maybe I am stupid, but you have not right to teach me to know better.” Anyone that thinks Wilson acted out or racism toward Brown is 100% mistaken, “Big Mike,” as Brown was known and called throughout testimony by associates, was an anarchist. The anarchists are angry that they shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever they please, based on their claim of “You can’t judge me! You don’t know me!” Well, you can be judged and you are not unique; there are no unique people, “uniqueness” is an out and out lie. As long as one person shares a physical attribute, like having DNA, you are not unique, no male with a penis is unique nor is an female with a vagina unique. Stop the anarchist crap.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

@JulsMan, anyone at this late date that believes Mike Brown didn’t rob the grocery store then try to wrestle officer Wilson’s weapon from him is in need of mental help. While the video CLEARLY shows Mike Brown robbing the store and assaulting the clerk, Obama still dispatched Holder to Ferguson to investigate the police department for racism. What Obama did most certainly constitutes weighing in on matters of race.

Posted by unbiasedind | Report as abusive

I like Rev Al for everything he stands for; overall he is a good man with his heart in the right direction – a voice for the disenfranchised.

For Reuters to allow this article to be published is a shame and should be pulled.

This is why race relations between Blacks and Whites are so poor. There is enough mess with the police beating Black folks, now you want to write this.

What a messy country we live in, shame on you.

Posted by uc8tcme | Report as abusive

I’m a 53 year old black professional living in Washington DC. There is a segment here in DC who can’t wrap our brains around Al Sharptons thought/ views. He does not speak for the majority black people that I associate with. We have lost complete faith in the NAACP who claim to fight for black people. NAACP and well as Mr. Sharpton should always be a part of conversation, however both fail miserable in intellect and constructive conversation on hard issues with smart black people. Lots of smart, very smart black people who are out there, should step up and represent black people voice in this leadership void that we have.

Posted by vicharden | Report as abusive

Al Sharpton is a clown that only the white media anoints special royalty to. You’ll never find any caucus of non ghetto black people who support that turd. It’s just a convenient way for white people to “deal”, “handle”, and “trade” with black people rather than treaty black people as individuals.

Posted by turk183 | Report as abusive

Al is a clown – Barry is danger-man – dumb, muslim, racist, hypocrite

Posted by jackdanielsesq | Report as abusive

al sharpton is a real piece of crap. he never spoke against the so called protestors from yelling “kill the cops”. I hope there will be a peaceful assembly for the police officers in this country. I will have a sign which we all can be proud of, “make this country better,, kill AL SHARPTON!” It has to happen sometime soon. There is a lot of people that would like to put him deep in the ground and be done with him. He will then be closer to his birthplace,,, HELL.

Posted by tiredofobama | Report as abusive

Is Abraham Fox president of Jewish America?

Posted by Pianki | Report as abusive

Police officers are hired employees. They are not the boss the people of the municipality they work in are the boss. That arrangement must be reestablished. This present situation where citizens are afraid of the hired police force is stupid. The present condition in New York where the police department holds political threats over elected officials is another example of something that has gone completely array. The “Police Union” in New York is instigating a Them vs Us atmosphere that needs to be put back in it’s proper place. The NYPD Commissioner should have given an order with punishment if not meet. The Mayor relating his black male son and the history of them when encounters with white police officers is real and not a myth. Put the police back in their place as employees and if they do not like it then fire them and let them be on their way.

Posted by Pianki | Report as abusive

Police officers are hired employees. They are not the boss the people of the municipality they work in are the boss. That arrangement must be reestablished. This present situation where citizens are afraid of the hired police force is stupid. The present condition in New York where the police department holds political threats over elected officials is another example of something that has gone completely array. The “Police Union” in New York is instigating a Them vs Us atmosphere that needs to be put back in it’s proper place. The NYPD Commissioner should have given an order with punishment if not meet. The Mayor relating his black male son and the history of them when encounters with white police officers is real and not a myth. Put the police back in their place as employees and if they do not like it then fire them and let them be on their way.

Posted by Pianki | Report as abusive