The transformation of Reverend Al Sharpton from street provocateur to civil rights eminence ranks as one of the more remarkable image makeovers in American public life. And mainstream journalism has played a central role. Anyone doubting as much should read the recent (August 2) cover story of Newsweek magazine, "The Reinvention of the Reverend." Written by Allison Samuels and Jerry Adler, the article is a fawning and misleading portrait of the Harlem-based preacher/politician. The piece doesn't quite beatify Sharpton. But it does make a highly selective use of information, some of it factually wrong, in stating the case for "the Rev," as he is commonly known, as a moral conscience of the nation. It also stands as an example, as if any more were needed, that "diversity" in the newsroom isn't about a diversity of opinion.
Reverend Sharpton, as National Legal and Policy Center often has noted, has a long history of public demagoguery in the service of civil rights. In the spring of 2009 NLPC released a lengthy Special Report (which I had written) documenting how Sharpton has used his social standing among many fellow blacks to transform a crime, or an allegation of it, into collective moral grievance. His style follows a distinct pattern. First, he receives word of a black or blacks allegedly victimized by white civilians or cops. Should he be sufficiently outraged, he will insist on serving as that person (and his or her family's) "adviser." At that point, he will launch a nonstop media-focused campaign in the streets designed to mobilize public opinion in favor of the victim and against the opposition. In his mind, blacks continue to be second-class citizens, their cries for justice all but ignored by powerful elites. Thus, these elites must feel the heat of the street. In his 2002 autobiography, "Al on America," he writes (pp. 93, 95): "To many in America, racism is a thing of the past. It's something that happened ‘back then.' To millions of blacks in this country, it is something we live with every day...(T)he outcome of my marches is one of the reasons why I will always be considered ‘controversial' in some circles - because I rip the veil off Northern established liberal racism."
It's true that Al Sharpton doesn't project the buffoonish swagger and menace that launched his career as an A-list provocateur around 25 years ago and carried him through the Nineties. To some extent, that's a product of aging. Now 55, he would look doubly foolish remaining in his old guise, pompadour hairstyle intact. But more significantly, he doesn't have to project menace. He knows he can accomplish far more with his America-is-still-racist-country message by affecting statesmanlike dignity. Over the years the man has cultivated many friends and allies in the top echelons of politics, business, labor, philanthropy, clergy and entertainment. His New York-based nonprofit organization, National Action Network, enjoys generous financial support from corporations such as Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Macy's, Toyota and Wal-Mart. He has become a Democratic Party kingmaker in New York City. And he's reached across that proverbial aisle, befriending such conservative politicians and media stars as Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Fox News Channel talk show host Bill O'Reilly. With the help of his top aide and media consultant, Rachel Noerdlinger (herself an underrated figure), he's become The Man to See. Not less than eight times since President Obama's inauguration, he's been a White House guest.
At his core, Rev. Sharpton is still the same man, something he doesn't hesitate to point out. The Newsweek article quotes him: "My mission, my message, and everything else about me is the same as always. The country may have changed, but I haven't." But his evolution in style, as opposed to beliefs, has everything to do with why mainstream media, generally dismissive of Sharpton during the Eighties, Nineties and even his run for the presidency in 2004, now appears almost lovestruck. No longer an embarrassing spectacle, he's become Sensible and Dignified, a pragmatic facilitator of an overdue "national conversation" on race. Even more than Jesse Jackson, he is the presumptive heir to Martin Luther King, wielding his church- and street-bred wisdom to "heal" America. Typical of this view is an article appearing this March in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Wallsten titled, "Obama's New Partner: Al Sharpton," which hopefully took note of Sharpton's emergence as a key confidante of President Obama.
Now here come Newsweek's Allison Samuels and Jerry Adler with a full-fledged cover story. It's a puff job - often informative and nuanced, but still a puff job whose intent is image enhancement. Lead author Samuels herself is black; she in fact had authored a post-election celebration piece in 2008 in that magazine's heralding the impending arrival of Michelle Obama as First Lady ("What Michelle Means to Us"). This latest article, not unexpectedly, takes any number of facts out of context and inserts some suspect ones.
Consider the opening sentences:
If the Rev. Al Sharpton didn't exist, he would have had to be invented. In fact, the novelist Tom Wolfe has claimed he did invent him, in the character of the Reverend Bacon, a supporting figure in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Each generation of black America gives birth to its own incarnation of the charismatic preacher-activist who confronts the white power structure in the streets and talks circles around it on Meet the Press. Just a few months after the fictional Bacon made his appearance in 1987, the real Sharpton burst onto the national stage as the fiery advocate for Tawana Brawley, a New York teenager who claimed to have been raped by a gang of white men, including a policeman.
This is wishful thinking. If Al Sharpton, whose syntax is often wanting, "talks circles" around lackeys of the white power structure on "Meet the Press" or any other political TV talk show, few have noticed. And Tawana Brawley didn't simply "claim" to have been gang-raped; she fabricated a massive hoax which Sharpton chose to believe against all sound evidence to the contrary. Moreover, one hardly can imagine Tom Wolfe, an exceedingly sharp-eyed observer of the colliding social worlds of New York City, claiming that his composite literary creation, Reverend Reginald Bacon, "invented" Reverend Sharpton. If anything, it was the other way around. By the time "The Bonfire of the Vanities" appeared in bookstores in 1987, Sharpton already had become a national public figure, having made mayhem in the streets of New York in trying to railroad "subway vigilante" Bernhard Goetz and do likewise to the putative perpetrators of the death of a young black man, Michael Griffith, in the Queens neighborhood of Howard Beach. Sharpton, having absorbed first-hand the convictions and theatrical styles of Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and James Brown (among others), invented his own persona and ran with it. He needed no help from Tom Wolfe.
The authors' snow job becomes even more blatant when they assess the impact of his campaigns over the years:
Sharpton has been right much more often than wrong in his choice of causes, dating back at least to the 1989 murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a black teenager who paid with his life for the mistake of walking down the wrong block in Brooklyn. Many African-Americans will be forever grateful to Sharpton for taking on the thankless task of defending the victims of Bernhard Goetz, who opened fire on four unarmed black teenagers in the subway. But he also has made some grave missteps. In 1991, during a tense confrontation between blacks and Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, he notably failed to calm tensions with a remark about "the diamond merchants in Crown Heights." In 1995 his reference to "white interlopers," at a protest against the eviction of a popular Harlem music store, was followed by a fatal arson attack on the white-owned business that held the lease.
Each of these statements misrepresents the facts, if not in letter then certainly in spirit.
The phrase "right much more often than wrong" is a huge stretch. The authors give just two examples of his being "right." Let's a have a look at the case of Yusuf Hawkins. His fatal shooting one evening in August 1989, as I explained at length in the NLPC Special Report, was indeed a crime. But the sequence of events leading up to it makes clear this was as much a case of mistaken identity as it was a wanton act. Only a few among the crowd of white male teens was materially involved. Moreover, the group earlier had been threatened by a local white teenaged girl who reacted to members' disapproval of her dating a black male by vowing to sic a group of his black friends on them. The young whites had good reason to be nervous when they encountered Mr. Hawkins and three black companions. They guessed wrong, of course. But the shooter's action did not reflect on the whole Bensonhurst neighborhood. Oblivious to context, Rev. Sharpton and his minions thought it did. For many months thereafter, he routinely held protest marches through the neighborhood, holding up the community as a haven of hate. The ceaseless provocations would produce another crime in January 1991; an enraged white spectator stabbed Sharpton in the staging area of a planned march, nearly fatally.
The case for Sharpton as a hero in the wake of the arrest of Bernhard Goetz is even more preposterous. By any reasonable definition, Goetz had acted in self-defense when he shot four young menacing blacks who had surrounded him in a New York City subway car on the afternoon of December 22, 1984. His "victims" - Barry Allen, Troy Canty, James Ramseur and Darrell Cabey - already by then had amassed a combined nine criminal convictions. Two of the "unarmed" youths, moreover, were packing sharpened screwdriver shanks. Their intent, as Cabey himself admitted at Goetz's civil trial, had been to rob Goetz. To describe Goetz, a mild-mannered white electronics repairman, as having "opened fire" on these criminals is true only in the narrowest sense. Any number of blacks, one might add, publicly defended Goetz, including civil rights leader Roy Innis. If defending Goetz's assailants was a "thankless" task, it's because Sharpton didn't deserve any thanks - especially since it was his intent to send Goetz to prison.
Even where the authors Samuels and Adler admit Sharpton's campaigns were ill-advised, they parse their language to minimize his role in egging on mobs, even if he wasn't there in person. The "tense confrontation" between blacks and Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn's Crown Heights in August 1991, in fact, was a case of predator fitfully encountering resistance from prey. Roving bands of blacks had gone on a rampage in the wake of a local black boy accidentally struck and killed by a passing car occupied by Jews. What ensued was a full-fledged riot, not simply a confrontation. One of the rioters stabbed an unarmed Jew to death. To say Sharpton "failed to calm tensions" gives him far too much credit. He helped create them. One wonders if Samuels and Adler would describe the Rape of Nanking as a "tense confrontation" between Japanese and Chinese.
As for the fatal arson attack on a retail store in Harlem in December 1995, the Newsweek authors conveniently omit the fact that the attack (actually a combination of arson and gunfire) was committed by a black and that it claimed the lives of seven innocent people plus that of the murderer, Roland Smith aka "Abubunde Mulocko." They also omit the fact that the white-owned retailer holding the lease on the black-owned record store (actually it was a sublease - a black Pentecostal church was the landlord), Freddy's Fashion Mart, was white-owned. That's why it was targeted in the first place. Sharpton, for his part, did more than simply denounce a "white interloper" on a radio broadcast months earlier. He also had sent one of his lieutenants, Morris Powell, a man with a history of mental instability, to organize menacing pickets in front of Freddy's Fashion Mart to prevent the "racist" eviction of that record store which had operated at the same location for some 20 years. The murders were the culmination of months of Sharpton-directed intimidation.
The authors, of course, don't deny Sharpton's faults (as if we don't all have a few). But on balance, they conclude, his legacy is highly positive. Here's how they wind things up:
It is, of course, the fate of people like Sharpton to be misunderstood, and his own tendency to get carried away while addressing a crowd has contributed to it at times...He is out there alone, still standing on the same principle he first enunciated in his housing project in Brooklyn: poor people have the same rights as rich ones, to justice in the streets and in the courts. If he didn't exist, we might, in fact, need to invent him.
We'll probably be seeing a lot more media revisionism like this. And we probably won't have long to wait. Rev. Sharpton is prime organizer and scheduled lead speaker at a "March on Washington" on August 28 to commemorate the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The event will start with a rally at Washington, D.C.'s Dunbar High School and follow with a march to the site of the Martin Luther King Memorial now under construction on the National Mall. Having become the acknowledged standard bearer of King's message, Sharpton's stock probably will rise higher than ever. The problem is that his hobby horse, a "national conversation" on race, will continue to be one-sided. And if there is anything people like Sharpton don't like, it's when opponents inject inconvenient facts into the narrative.