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Sharpton 2.0: From Outsider To Insider

The Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of National Action Network, prepares for his MSNBC show <em>PoliticsNation </em>in January.
Shiho Fukada for NPR
The Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of National Action Network, prepares for his MSNBC show PoliticsNation in January.

Although he's been a public figure for three decades, the Rev. Al Sharpton is more visible these days than ever, often in ways even he wouldn't have dreamed when he was leading protests on the streets of New York in the 1980s.

If you watched the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama, you probably saw the dais behind him filled with the usual lot of past presidents, members of Congress and so on. You also may have caught sight of a new, and improbable, addition: Sharpton.

His exclusive seating among America's top dignitaries was a first for the controversial civil rights leader, whose career has been a thorn in the side of many politicians.

Sharpton recently told NPR: "I've had worse inaugurations. I remember George [W.] Bush's [2001] inauguration; we were marching because we thought he stole the election."

As reported on NPR's Tell Me More, it's a turnabout that comes just after the 25th anniversary of the Tawana Brawley rape case, the alleged hoax in New York that made Sharpton perhaps the most racially polarizing figure in the nation for a time.

Since then, the outsider gradually has become the consummate insider.

Once considered by many elected officials to be political kryptonite, Sharpton, 58, now has the ear of a sitting president. Once fiercely combative with the news media, Sharpton now is a prominent part of it as host of both a nationally syndicated talk-radio show, Keepin' It Real, and the MSNBC nightly program PoliticsNation.

Perhaps just as unlikely, MSNBC says that after 15 months, PoliticsNation has the largest audience in the 6 p.m. hour in the cable network's history. In addition,the show ranked second behind Fox's programming in both total viewers and the coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic that advertisers covet.

For decades, civil rights leaders have used the news media to bring attention to their causes. Sharpton is the first to do it as a member of the media, using his two national programs to extend his activism.

"People think I'm just on the street corner with a megaphone," he says.

To illustrate what his staff calls "media activism," Sharpton recalled the methods used last year to organize 30,000 people to protest the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, who was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

Twice an hour on his radio show, Sharpton promoted the upcoming march and gave listeners directions to buses waiting in several cities, and chartered by his civil rights organization, National Action Network, that would bring them to Florida.

Sharpton explained:

"Them 30,000 people didn't just get there. ... See, the thing that nobody ever deals with in the media is how come we get numbers and other people call [for] rallies on the same issues and don't get the numbers? Because they don't have the infrastructure to do it. I have an organization and the media outlets."

He also hosted PoliticsNation from the site of the protest. His coverage over consecutive days led other MSNBC shows to follow suit.

Some journalists criticized Sharpton's dual role — activist supporting Trayvon's family and show host covering the case — as a conflict of interest. He argues that he's an opinion host, not a journalist, and shouldn't be held to the same standard.

Sharpton's critics remain legion. Many of them discredit his prominence as ill-gotten because they say he hasn't made amends for some of his most notorious remarks and conduct.

As NPR recounted earlier this year, his involvement in the 1987 Tawana Brawley rape case and the 1991 riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn stand as the most infamous.

During the Crown Heights violence, Sharpton is accused of making anti-Semitic remarks and fomenting hostilities between black and Jewish residents.

New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents part of Brooklyn and is a leader among the city's orthodox Jewish community, said Sharpton has "managed to get away with not addressing some of his past. He has been kosherized by a lot of people who I don't think would give many of us a second chance."

More from Hikind:

"He could be president of the United States and it wouldn't matter. ... The point is he's radioactive to a lot of people in New York and many other communities. What Al Sharpton represents — we remember the past, we know who he is — he hasn't dealt with it. And until he does, it doesn't matter how important he thinks he is or some other people think he is."

One enthusiastic supporter is White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who says "the reverend has grown over the years." She says he "has earned a reputation of late" as a committed advocate of "justice for all and fairness for all."

Jarrett told NPR that as an Obama surrogate Sharpton has "strengthened the presidency" on issues such as education and immigration, but that "if he thinks we're misstepping, he will tell us that." She added that Sharpton and the president have a "strong working relationship and friendship."

Obama owes his re-election in part to record black and Latino voter turnout, which Sharpton played a pivotal role in mobilizing. The Obama campaign also benefited from Sharpton's high-profile fight against state voter identification laws, which opponents said would reduce minority turnout.

To his critics from the past, Sharpton says, "If they are going to criticize me, at least pick something from this century."

He denied a common accusation that he's an opportunist who leverages racial injustice to advance his own celebrity. Yet he admitted to having been immature and even vain at times:

"When you're younger and trying to get somewhere, sometimes you've mistaken your aggressiveness and ambition for passion. ... Your vanity can outweigh your sanity.

"I had some vanity. ... I think you can do things because you like it in a vain way, but not for the ambition they say. Because I've never done anything but preach and be a civil rights activist. ... But if you read anything about civil rights [leaders], they always accuse you of opportunism. That's going to go with the territory."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Dade is a national correspondent for the NPR Digital News team. With more than 15 years of journalism experience, he writes news analysis about federal policy, national politics, social trends, cultural issues and other topics for NPR.org.