The frail figure of Reverend Sharpton, bent in his striped suits, is everywhere. He is at the forefront during Michael Brown family press conferences and the one held for Eric Garner, two African Americans killed this summer by white police that grand juries in the counties of St. Louis and Staten Island have decided to exonerate. He is at the head of the procession of protesters chanting “Black lives matter,” in Ferguson and New York. But also in the private rooms of President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who consult him diligently. Finally, in the evening on all TV screens of the country in his daily program “Politics Nation” on MSNBC.
Spokesman of rage, media figure and unofficial cog of the executive: how the New York pastor – never elected and long considered disreputable – has become the representative of the black community in the United States?
Former James Brown fan
Legend has it that Al Sharpton, born in Brooklyn in 1954, delivered his first sermon at the age of 4 years. An ordained pastor at 10, the young Mozart of the sermon preached with gospel music. In the 1970s, along with his first steps in activism alongside Jesse Jackson, a stalwart of Martin Luther King, became the fan of James Brown – he adopts his eccentric style.
The charismatic activist then was engaged in every movement related to the black community on the East Coast, relentlessly pounding the pavement without fear of fall into populism. Left to go astray in 1987, when he makes an issue of false collective rape case of a black teenager by whites. A media disaster that inspired the novelist Tom Wolfe’s character sour Reverend Bacon in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Controversial figure of the New York political backwater, he survived an attempt at assassination with a knife in 1991.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric accents finishes tarnish on his reputation, particularly during Crown Heights riots in 1991, which opposed Orthodox Jews and blacks in Brooklyn after a road accident involving the two communities.
These excesses, for which he made an act of contrition, are behind him. The man smoothed his word and image. During the last decade, white hair slicked back, the pastor loses half of his 130 kg to get a senator seat, failing, despite three attempts in 1988, 1992 and 1994.
Defeated once again during the Democratic nomination in the 2004 presidential election, Sharpton sets his sails to conquer the media. Katrina death of African-American Trayvon Martin: reasons to be indignant abound, and no matter if Fox News assigns to him the role of the arsonist that fuels tensions between communities to tread water on the mill of his business.
The defiance of some activists
Barack Obama elected Sharpton to become his unofficial adviser and one of his most trusted media lawyers. They are assigned roles: head of state claims to unify the country, and the pastor valves the black community. “While Obama made it into sentimentality, Sharpton is in the concrete and speaks to the black working class. He says that the President does not dare say,” analyzes Andrew Diamond, American historian teaching at the Sorbonne.
During Ferguson case at the end of the summer, Sharpton was coldly received by local activists, who feared that the ego of cathodic Reverend would crush the cause. As for Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder Missouri, suggested that “this man who calls for lynching and incites chaos” leaves the state. In New York, the family of Akai Gurley, another young Black killed in what the NYPD called itself “tragedy of bad luck,” violently pushed the pastor away, accusing him of “turning the circus tragedy for his own financial and political interests.”
“Thinner Mr Sharpton occupies more space,” quips the New York Times in its issue of November18. The newspaper accuses Sharpton and his association to owe more than $4.5 million in taxes. He also used the funds to finance his NGO, among others, the studies of his daughter, while traveling in first class. None of this, however, seems to worry “Reverend Al” who denounces a political maneuver and ensures that his debts are being paid.
According to Andrew Diamond, Sharpton is “one of the last representatives of the generation of religious leaders engaged in the tradition of Martin Luther King, and the opposite of the new wave of centrist African-American politicians and close to the business circles” empowered by Barack Obama. “A very hard role to play,” according to the professor, “in a country where the white majority thinks that racism is a thing of the past, and where “all anti-racist campaigns face very powerful barrage.”