Al Sharpton, Reconsidered – The New York Times

“When I was born,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said through a plume of smoke, “you had all these movements. You had the anti-Vietnam War movement, you had the Panthers, you had King’s nonviolent movement, you had N.A.A.C.P., you had black power — all this flurry of activity. Then Dr. King gets killed. And what happened? Who won the election in ’68? Richard Nixon.”

Folded into a far corner of the Grand Havana Room, a private Midtown cigar club on the penthouse floor of 666 Fifth Avenue, Mr. Sharpton looked downright stately. Reporters have tagged along with him to the Grand Havana over the years, because few things get between Mr. Sharpton and his daily cigar, and because he understands it makes for a good scene.

“Fast-forward 40 years later,” he continued. “Black president. Black-on-black violence, Black Lives Matter, this, that and the other. All this fussing: Who’s going to do this, and who’s going to do that? Young, old, blah, blah, blah. Who wins? Donald Trump.”

It’s easy for Mr. Sharpton to draw a line connecting the two eras: he met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. way back when, and he’s known Mr. Trump for over 30 years. America’s present resembles its past — and that’s why, Mr. Sharpton argues, he’s uniquely positioned to take on President Trump, whom he considers as great a danger to civil rights as any he’s fought against in his years as an activist.

But at the moment, he wasn’t fighting; he was poring over his life and legacy in a cigar bar among bankers, politicians and celebrities. He was telling me about when he was jailed in 2001 for 90 days in Vieques, Puerto Rico, after he protested against the U.S. Navy using the island to test bombs and toxic chemicals. He and three other New York politicians were arrested.

He’d moved on from that story when a distinguished-looking man in a suit walked up to our corner and greeted Mr. Sharpton like an old friend. It was, improbably, Roberto Ramirez, one of the three imprisoned with Mr. Sharpton in Vieques. I watched skeptically as they exchanged pleasantries.

I later realized this is how millions of Americans view Mr. Sharpton. Coincidences come off as chicanery, and even his greatest achievements done with the best intentions seem somehow nefarious.

Take the Grand Havana Room. It’s owned by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. And while Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Ramirez had been attending the club for years, times are different now, and there are other places you could smoke a cigar. On some level, our interview, like so much of Sharpton’s life, was a performance.

Mr. Sharpton has doggedly agitated for social justice for over 50 years, organizing, marching and fighting for black people. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown have fueled the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their cases are in the mainstream partly because their families picked up the phone and called Mr. Sharpton.

But these aren’t the things that readily come to mind when people, particularly white people, think of him. He is known best for the worst thing he’s done: His loud support of Tawana Brawley, an African-American teenager whose claims of abuse and rape by a gang of white men turned out to be a hoax.

Mr. Sharpton is many things to many people — a freedom fighter, a boogeyman, a racial opportunist, an aging man just hanging on. But he has used his entire career to tell America a story about itself that it does not want to hear: that racism exists today, and is pervasive outside of the Deep South. And he has worked ceaselessly toward two intertwined, impossible goals. First, the demand for equal rights for all. The second is about securing his legacy as the Martin Luther King of the North.

“What I want it to be is I helped urbanize the King movement,” Mr. Sharpton said. “I was the one that could bring the King movement into the Northern, urban centers.” But where Dr. King’s activism led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mr. Sharpton’s efforts haven’t amounted to national reform.

Mr. Sharpton, 63, figured he’d be retired by now. He thought he’d keep his Sunday-morning MSNBC program, “PoliticsNation,” and his daily radio show, “Keepin’ It Real.” He said he was ready to name a successor to his civil rights organization, the National Action Network, and the marching, strategizing and agitating that came with it. All that was left to do was build a civil rights museum in Harlem. But riding off into a life of punditry isn’t an option with Mr. Trump in office. Mr. Sharpton said he and his allies thought they were poised to help a President Hillary Clinton pass national police reform legislation. His mission is now different, and more modest.

“You’ve got to preserve what you’ve got done,” he said. “It will not matter if he revokes the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act of Dr. King. You need to preserve the racial profiling laws, and police reform like stop and frisk,” he continued. “Otherwise, it’ll be a bygone era.”

Now 133 pounds, Mr. Sharpton is less than half the man he was for much of his life. A morning salad and banana serve as his only real sustenance for the day, and in my time with him, he drank nothing but green tea — not even water. His flamboyant conk is now steely gray, slicked back over his thinning crown. He’s quick to joke, but he rarely laughs. He has long since replaced his sweats with bespoke suits.

But the new Al Sharpton is the same person he always was.

Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. was born in 1954 to a middle-class family who had a house in a nice neighborhood in Queens. At 4, before he even knew how to read, young Al began preaching, and often practiced at home in his mother’s robe. When he was just a boy, his mother connected Al with two pastors, Bishop F.D. Washington and the Rev. Dr. Bill Jones. They called him Boy Wonder, and he toured the country preaching before he was even a teenager. In 1967, Dr. Jones introduced the young preacher to a 26-year-old civil-rights activist named Jesse Jackson. Mr. Jackson took him under his wing, and Al decided he wanted to spend his life like the men who looked after him, fighting for civil rights in the prophetic tradition of Dr. King, who was assassinated when Mr. Sharpton was 13.

In 1971, when he was 16, Mr. Sharpton founded his first civil rights organization, the National Youth Movement, with money from Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. He met James Brown, who adopted him as his godson in 1973; for most of the next decade, Mr. Sharpton was always at the singer’s side. If Jesse Jackson taught Mr. Sharpton how to organize, it was James Brown who taught him how to perform.

“I would watch what moves and what songs excited people, and I would take notes,” Mr. Sharpton told me. “Because you’ve got to keep people’s attention.”

In 1980, Sharpton married Kathy Jordan, one of James Brown’s backup singers. They had two daughters, and he spent much of the 1980s scraping together a living in New York as a minister and civil rights activist.

In the late 1980s, Don King brokered a meeting between Mr. Sharpton and Donald Trump with the idea that Mr. Sharpton could get James Brown to play one of Mr. Trump’s Atlantic City casinos. They boarded Mr. Trump’s helicopter, and the three flew to Atlantic City. “It was probably the most surreal 45 minutes of my life,” Mr. Sharpton remembered. “Just two guys talking nonstop, not listening to a word each other said.”

Then came the event that sealed Mr. Sharpton’s future. On the night of Dec. 19, 1986, four black men were stranded in Queens when their car broke down. Three of them went looking for help. They stopped at New Park Pizzeria, in Howard Beach, an all-white neighborhood. As they ate, they encountered and argued with some white teenagers, who left and returned with a mob, some wielding baseball bats, who attacked them. One of them, Michael Griffith, was beaten badly and chased out onto the Belt Parkway, where he was struck by a car and killed.

White New Yorkers, blind to the city’s racism, were stunned. Mayor Edward I. Koch called it a lynching.

“To have it happen in New York City,” he said. “Unbelievable.”

The next weekend, over a thousand protesters marched through Howard Beach. Once the progression made it to New Park Pizzeria, a 32-year-old Sharpton, rotund, with a track suit and a perm, went in and ordered a slice.

“In the biggest metropolis in the world, a black kid is dead because of the color of his skin,” Mr. Sharpton said at the time.

In the end, a special prosecutor was assigned to the case, and three white attackers were convicted of second-degree manslaughter.

Mr. Sharpton talks about Howard Beach all the time. It was his big break, his first major success as a strategist. Nearly as bracing as the details of Mr. Griffith’s death were the newscasts of enraged white locals who had to be separated by police from diverse, nonviolent demonstrators. Mr. Sharpton’s demonstrations were a stroke of visual genius.

He was a city kid who had no illusions about racial oppression. He knew even in progressive, cosmopolitan enclaves, racism was still tightly woven into the American fabric.

“Howard Beach was the first public awakening of Northern racism,” Mr. Sharpton asserted. “People were in denial before that.”

This revisionism omits urban activists who came before. Still, for white New Yorkers in the late 1980s, it was horrifying. Howard Beach implicated everyone.

Just as quickly came Mr. Sharpton’s disaster.

In November 1987, a 15-year-old black girl who had been missing for four days was found in a trash bag near her family’s old apartment building in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. Feces were smeared in her hair, and racist epithets were written with charcoal on her body. She said she’d been kidnapped, tortured and raped by a group of six white men and left for dead. Her name was Tawana Brawley.

“We have the facts and the evidence that an assistant district attorney and a state trooper did this,” Mr. Sharpton said at a rally the following June. It was the peak of months of protests that dominated the news and captivated the tabloids.

The charges were absolutely shocking, and in the end, they were not true. There was no evidence of rape, or even exposure to the elements. Ms. Brawley’s shoes were sliced, but there were no lacerations on her feet. The slurs written on her were upside-down. The feces were determined to have come from a neighbor’s dog. In September 1988, following a seven-month inquiry, a grand jury ruled it a hoax. Mr. Sharpton and Ms. Brawley’s lawyers were successfully sued for defamation. It could have been the end of Al Sharpton as a public figure, but he survived.

“Why did I get involved with Brawley?” Mr. Sharpton asked rhetorically. “Because I believe the criminal justice system is unfair.”

“What’s the difference between me believing her and me believing the kid out in Howard Beach wasn’t out there selling drugs?”

After the Brawley case, Mr. Sharpton’s past was scrutinized. He had failed to file his tax returns for three years running, and he owed his landlord money. He had worked as a federal informant, recording conversations with the mob and Don King, and he was even accused of spying on black civil rights activists.

In 1989, Mr. Sharpton was indicted on a charge of stealing a quarter-million dollars from the National Youth Movement. He was acquitted of all charges, but the organization folded. He went on to launch the National Action Network in 1991.

Many New Yorkers felt more comfortable seeing Mr. Sharpton as a buffoon or a race-baiter. The Brawley case cemented it. And for many, he will never escape.

“Al Sharpton is not a credible individual,” Edward Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, told The Observer in 2014 when Mr. Sharpton again emerged as a vocal critic of the police after Eric Garner died after a chokehold administered by Officer Daniel Pantaleo on Staten Island that July. “He never has been, yet he’s all over the media. He gets front page. He’s allowed to sit in City Hall and threaten the mayor.”

It is convenient, even necessary, for the defenders of Officer Pantaleo to delegitimize Mr. Sharpton.

“Whatever you want to say about Al Sharpton, the reason he’s sustained all these years is because he deals with stuff that y’all have not stopped,” Mr. Sharpton recently mused in his office in NBC’s Midtown headquarters.

“You want to make him go away? Why don’t you stop killing blacks then?”

And even today, Mr. Sharpton claims to have no regrets for the Tawana Brawley episode. “If I had to choose between a 15-year-old black girl and a white legal system that has always done us wrong, I’m going with her,” Mr. Sharpton said.

Far from retreating, Mr. Sharpton in fact raised his profile. He ran for the United States Senate in 1988. He didn’t even slow much when, in 1991 while leading protests in Brooklyn after a young black man named Yusuf Hawkins had been murdered by a white mob in Bensonhurst, Mr. Sharpton himself was stabbed in the chest. He ran for the Senate again in 1992 and 1994, and he ran for New York City mayor in 1997. In 2004, he ran for president. He lost every race.

Mr. Sharpton seems ubiquitous, behind a podium or leading a protest following every outrage.

“There are different rules when it’s our kids lying dead on the ground,” said Benjamin L. Crump, the Florida civil rights lawyer who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012 when he looked suspicious to George Zimmerman, who was working a neighborhood watch shift. Mr. Crump was retained by Trayvon Martin’s parents. He assumed that local police would arrest Mr. Zimmerman. When they didn’t, Mr. Crump called Mr. Sharpton. “Rev. takes the calls, man,” Mr. Crump said. “A lot of people don’t take the calls until it’s popular.”

In August 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Mr. Brown’s grandfather called Mr. Sharpton.

“What I always say when they say I’m an ambulance-chaser,” Mr. Sharpton said, “is that I’m the ambulance. They knew that I would come.”

Mr. Trump dove into politics in 2011 by peddling the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and therefore an illegitimate leader. In 2012, he tweeted that “an extremely credible source” had informed him that Mr. Obama’s birth certificate was a fraud. Mr. Sharpton, both on the radio and his new MSNBC show, hammered Mr. Trump every night. Wounded, Mr. Trump summoned Mr. Sharpton to Trump Tower.

“‘I’m not a racist! You know me, Al,’” Mr. Sharpton said Mr. Trump told him. “I said, ‘But what you’re saying is racist.’”

The two men are linked, and there’s an odd mutual respect that has survived the years. They’re both outsiders, New York creations who could not and would not exist anywhere else.

“I think we filled a need at the times that we rose,” Mr. Sharpton said. “And we’ve been delivering for parts of America that were marginalized. Even Trump.”

Mr. Trump cut the ribbon at Mr. Sharpton’s National Action Network convention in 2002, and he attended the convention again in 2006. “We were all right,” Mr. Sharpton allowed. (The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

And now he sees Mr. Trump as the threat to not only Dr. King’s legacy, but to his as well.

“Fifty years after King was killed, Trump is president,” Mr. Sharpton said. “I really am scared that Trump’s going to dismantle all the things we did.”

It’s difficult to imagine how Mr. Sharpton could prevent the government from rolling back civil rights gained with Dr. King.

“The question to me is, why would you stop?” he said. “What did you do all of that for if you’re just going to give up?”

Mr. Sharpton lacks a clear legacy, and his fight with Mr. Trump appears in part a branding exercise. Most activists can’t control how they’re remembered; someone else ultimately writes their legacies once they’re silenced or dead. But Mr. Sharpton is different. Regardless of what Mr. Trump does, Mr. Sharpton will spend the final chapter of his life building a civil rights museum in Harlem.

“It’s going to cost me $50 to $100 million,” Mr. Sharpton said. He added that he is negotiating between two potential sites, and he’s still young enough to dedicate years of energy to the project.

“There’s a whole lot of civil rights history in the North across the board, black, Latino, L.G.B.T.Q., that has not been told,” Mr. Sharpton said. There isn’t anywhere for people to visit to learn about the fight for Northern civil rights. “I want to build that landmark, and say this has been the struggle in the North. I’m going to build that before I die.”

Its working name is the Civil Rights Museum of New York. He said he has no intention of making a shrine, but he will surely have a prominent place within.

“It’s debatable if nonviolence is as good as self-defense,” Mr. Sharpton said. “It’s debatable if we needed King’s love message or Malcolm’s black pride more. What’s not debatable is that Martin Luther King made sure that Rosa Parks was on the front of the bus, and we can now sit on the front of the bus.

“It’s not debatable that you did not have stop and frisk in New York City after we went after it,” he continued.

“‘Sharpton’s a demagogue,’” he said, mocking critics. “Whatever. Is stop and frisk here? No. At the end of the day, when it’s all over, people will not care about my hairstyle or my old tracksuit. They will say, ‘He did this, this, this, and this.’”

He simply needs to not lose ground under the current administration.

The last time Mr. Sharpton had any contact with Mr. Trump, he said, was at the 40th anniversary show of “Saturday Night Live.” Both men had hosted the show at some point, and so they were invited. It was February 2015, roughly four months before Mr. Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower to declare his candidacy for president. They ran into each other backstage and shook hands.

“He said, ‘Al, you still beat me up,’” Mr. Sharpton recalled, impersonating Mr. Trump. “‘But hey, you gotta do what you gotta do, and I gotta do what I gotta do,’” Mr. Sharpton recounted. “I said, ‘I’m gonna tell you what you’re doing is wrong.’”

It was a good scene. It flattered Mr. Sharpton, made him sound like a hero. It might have been true.

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