The Evolution of Rev. Al Sharpton

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

Originally published in The Westchester County Press, October 20, 2011

I watched Al Sharpton on “The Wendy Williams Show” last week.  Reverend Al has really reinvented himself.  Gone are the long permed tresses inspired by his early mentor and employer “Godfather of Soul” James Brown.

Godfather of Soul James Brown and Al Sharpton

They’ve been replaced by a shorter, more conservative ‘do’, that he informed Wendy he had done once a week at a Harlem hair salon.  He’s slimmer, too, down 125 lbs. from his peak weight of 305.  Rev. Al also has a new nightly cable show on MSNBC, “PoliticsNation,” an opinion program where he talks issues and current topics with guests, a radio show “Keepin’ It Real” broadcast on New York City’s WWRL-AM and “The Al Sharpton Show” that airs on Sirius XM Satellite Radio.

Al Sharpton's new show is PoliticsNation

Reverend Sharpton did not morph into this kind of acceptable, mainstream, media darling overnight, it’s been a long time coming.  Sharpton first appeared on my radar with the Tawana Brawley accusations in 1987, in which a 15-year old Black girl from Wappinger Falls, New York alleged that a group of white men had raped her.  Sharpton was one of the young woman’s advisors at the time, along with attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason.  The bizarre case ended with a Grand Jury finding Brawley’s charges false and Sharpton and his cohorts were looked upon with a very jaundiced eye.

Before the Brawley incident, New York City was already unhinged and Al Sharpton was the go-to guy when there was trouble impacting the Black community.  There was Howard Beach in 1986, where three black men were assaulted by a white mob and one of them, Michael Griffith, was hit by a car and killed trying to escape the brutality.  Rev. Al organized a nonviolent protest in which more than 1,200 African Americans marched through the all-white Queens, NY neighborhood protesting the assault and death.

Rev. Al Sharpton and supporters march on Howard Beach in Queens, NY.

Then Bensonhurst happened in 1989.  Again, Black youth were assaulted by a white mob and this time, Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year old, was killed in the predominantly white Brooklyn community.  Rev. Sharpton led a march with Hawkins’ family through the streets of Bensonhurst as an angry white crowd taunted and spat on the marchers.  And in 1991, Crown Heights, also in Brooklyn, erupted after 7-year old Gavin Cato died from injuries sustained when he was hit by a car driven by a Jewish man.  Rumors spread throughout the predominately Black and Jewish enclave that the two young Black children pinned by the car received medical care after the driver and passengers in the car.  After several days of rioting and clashes between Black youth and Hasidic Jews, Sharpton organized a march through the Hasidic community to protest the death of Cato.

Sharpton’s ability to be at the center of major events that involve racial and social injustices and his skills of mobilizing people around specific issues has catapulted him to the national and international stage.  In 2001, Rev. Sharpton was arrested for protesting the practice bombings by the U.S. Navy on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, along with nine protesters including political leaders from the Bronx.  Other prominent demonstrators who were arrested included: environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., actor Edward James Olmos, and New York labor leader Dennis Rivera. The Reverend received the longest sentence, 90 days, for trespassing on the Navy firing range on Vieques.  While in prison, Sharpton was visited by the who’s who of politics including Senators from New York Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, as well as civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and the Mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson.

Rev. Al Sharpton has been consistent with his message and commitment to social injustices and does not shy away from the consequences.  His support of President Barack Obama has been unflagging and in the interview with talk show host Wendy Williams recently he explained his position.

Rev. Al Sharpton and President Barack Obama

“He [Obama] inherited the worse economy…since the depression.  I think the fact that the President was able to come forward and bring this country from the threshold of a real depression..fought, got healthcare through, the first President to do that, I think he’s done a good job.  I’m with him.  I think he’s gotten a bad rap…And I’m not one of these fair-weather friends.”

On Saturday, Rev. Sharpton led thousands on a March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.  The crowd on the National Mall included members of labor unions, government officials, demonstrators from Occupy DC, and employed and unemployed Americans. Organized by Sharpton’s National Action Network and partners from labor, education, civil rights and religious organizations, the rally was a platform to bring attention to a wide range of issues impacting Americans including President Obama’s jobs bill which failed passage in the U.S. Senate, the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia and voter identification cards now required by some states at polls.

The march for jobs and justice preceded the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on Sunday which brought together 10,000 people on the National Mall.  President Barack Obama was among the speakers, as was Rev. Al Sharpton.  The legacy of Dr. King continues and the methods that he and the leaders of the civil rights struggle employed to change American society reverberates across the globe today – in the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.

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