Al Sharpton: The spokesman for black America

The firebrand preacher has been leading the protests in Ferguson. Just don't mention the tax bill

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Once upon a time, if you wanted to get an idea of the Rev Al Sharpton, a quick perusal of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities would have sufficed.

Publicity-seeking and permanently indignant, Sharpton had to have been the  real-life model for the Rev Reginald Bacon, Wolfe’s self-promoting black, inner-city preacher-cum-activist who made a living from venting outrage.

In some respects, today’s Al Sharpton hasn’t changed much. Turn on the television, and he seems to have all but taken over the wretched story of Michael Brown, the black teenager shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, emerging as de facto spokesman for Brown’s family as rioting engulfed the St Louis suburb when a white-dominated grand jury declined to press charges against the officer.


In other ways, however, this is a different Sharpton from the caricature of a quarter of a century ago. The indignation is still there. But his role has changed since the 1980s, when Wolfe wrote his novel about New York, and life then imitated art as Sharpton championed Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl who said she had been abducted and raped by white men. A grand jury concluded she had made up the entire story. Sharpton accused the prosecutor of racism. The latter sued for defamation, and won.


Back then Sharpton was a purely New York figure – albeit with a national reputation for demagoguery. The causes he took up, and his civil rights activism, were rooted in the state, and mostly in the city itself. Today, he has largely replaced the Reverend Jesse Jackson as the spokesman for black America.

Once Jackson was Sharpton’s mentor; indeed in 1969 he gave him his first serious civil rights credentials, at the tender age of 15, by making him a youth director for Operation Breadbasket, a nationwide organisation aimed at boosting jobs and opportunity for black Americans.

When Sharpton was engulfed in the Brawley debacle, and then fuelling black anger against Jews during New York’s Crown Heights riots of 1991, Jackson was the country’s unofficial “black president”, playing the statesman in every racial confrontation. In 1984 and 1988 he ran for president; in the Nineties he was unofficial adviser on matters racial to President Bill Clinton.

Now Sharpton has taken over that role. Jackson led the Rainbow coalition; Sharpton runs his non-profit, the National Action Network (Nan). He’s a television personality too, with his own show on the cable channel MSNBC, the liberals’ refuge from Fox News. In part, the handover is generational: Jackson is 73, Sharpton only turned 60 this year. But he relishes his new ascendancy “I think he’s [Jackson’s] realised that he’s older now,” Sharpton told Politico magazine in August. “He realises that I’ve come into my own, and he’s got to deal with it.”

During New York’s Crown Heights riots of 1991, Jackson was the country’s unofficial “black president” (Illustration by Lauren Crow)

And when the unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin was shot dead by the neighbourhood watch vigilante George Zimmerman at a gated community in Florida in 2012, Sharpton – not Jackson – was the face of national black resentment, calling Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal “an atrocity”. Now he’s under a similar spotlight in the even more charged case of Michael Brown. And just as Jackson 20 years ago, he’s an informal counsellor to another Democratic president.

Even outwardly, the change is startling for anyone who has followed Sharpton over the years. Once he was a chubby, tousled figure whose favoured work garb was a cheap tracksuit. Now he’s sleek and slimmed down, by some accounts 10st lighter than in his early New York street days. Tracksuits have given way to fine business suits, easily affordable when you’re reckoned to be earning up to $1m (£640,000) a year.

Most important, as a White House aide told Politico, he’s become Barack Obama’s “go-to guy” on race issues, talking frequently to Valerie Jarrett, arguably Obama’s closest aide, as well as to the President himself. “He gets it, and he’s got credibility in the community that nobody else has got,” the aide continued. “There’s  no one else out there who does what he does.”

Sharpton has become President Obama's "go-to-guy" (Getty Images)

The two could not be more different: the cool, cautious and over-analytical Obama, and the fiery, in-your-face Sharpton. But as the first black president struggles with his uniquely tricky task of being a national spokesman on race, Sharpton has emerged as an important guide. The erstwhile rabble rouser has become an insider. For Obama, whatever Sharpton’s past transgressions, they are far outweighed by his campaigning for downtrodden and deprived black Americans.

In that sense, Sharpton may be best compared to Marion Barry, the legendary Mayor of Washington who died last weekend. Both were civil rights activists and lifelong champions of the underdog – polarising figures demonised by white conservatives, who accused them of deliberately stoking racial tension when they claimed to be fighting it. 

There were, of course, differences. Sharpton was always the more publicity-attuned figure. But in politics, Barry was far more successful, serving four terms as mayor of the nation’s capital. Sharpton by contrast has been a serial electoral loser, three times in bids for a Senate seat from New York, once for mayor of New York, and once, briefly, as a candidate for the White House, in 2004. But as he points out, winning isn’t what really matters. It’s getting yourself noticed.

But fame and advancement have a price. Old controversies get raked over – the Brawley affair of course, and Crown Heights, when Sharpton was alleged to have made an anti-Semetic comment about “diamond dealers” and an “aparthied ambulance service” in reference to the riots. Earlier this year, a spotlight was turned on Sharpton’s role as a secret FBI informant in the 1980s (though he maintained he was informing  on the Mafia, to help stem the flow of crack cocaine to black communities).

Sharpton has been dogged by tax problems (Getty Images)

Problems over taxes, however, may be harder to shake off. According to The New York Times last week, Sharpton and his various businesses, including non-profit concerns such as Nan, owe more than $4.5m in federal and state taxes. “Mr Sharpton,” the paper thundered, “has regularly sidestepped the sorts of obligations most people see as inevitable, like taxes, rent and other bills.”

Nan, it is claimed, was only able to pay Sharpton’s $250,000 annual salary by not paying federal payroll taxes on its employees. He claims he’s paying down the arrears, thanks to increased corporate donations to Nan and to the fact that he’s making serious money, not least from MSNBC. He says he has used his personal funds to make loans to Nan and denies owing “a dime” in current taxes.

“You can say I’m not a great administrator,” he told the Times, but “you can’t say I’m not committed.” Facing criticism on the first score, Sharpton has always had an equal army of defenders because of his outspokenness on the second.

“We can lose a round, but the fight is not over,” he proclaimed this week after the grand jury ruled in Ferguson. And whatever his tax travails, and the foes who will never be convinced he is anything other than a charlatan, the same goes for Al Sharpton himself.

A life in brief

Born: 3 October 1954, in Brooklyn, New York.

Family: Brought up by his mother Ada, a maid, when his father Al left the family. Married three times and has two daughters with his second wife Kathy Jordan.

Education: Attended Brooklyn College and later awarded an honorary degree by A P Clay Bible College.

Career: Civil rights activist and preacher. Set up the National Action Network in 1991. Was a nominal Democrat presidential candidate in 2004.