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.
Jamal Eric Watson is a senior staff writer for Diverse: Issues In Higher Education magazine and a contributor to The Root. He is the author of a forthcoming biography of the Reverend Al Sharpton. You can follow him on twitter @jamalericwatson or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org