Back in Spotlight, Sharpton Seizes the Moment


Stepping to the pulpit at the church located minutes from where a St. Louis police officer shot and killed a black suspect, Al Sharpton wielded the controversial words that have marked his long, notorious career.

“These parents are not going to cry alone,” he preached last Sunday in Ferguson, Missouri. “We have had enough!” But when Sharpton sat down days later with New York’s mayor to discuss the death during an arrest of a black man, he recalibrated his rhetoric. “We don’t have to agree on everything, but we don’t have to be disagreeable,” Sharpton said.

Plenty has been said about Sharpton’s “reinvention,” as he shed 170 pounds, traded warmup outfits for tailored suits, started a daily cable show, and built relationships with the White House and New York’s city hall. But to both allies and critics who have watched him parachute into racially charged crises for decades, recent weeks are just testament to Sharpton’s unflagging ability to seize the moment.

He first commanded national attention in 1987 as the medallioned 305-pound spitfire demanding justice for an African-American teen in what turned out to be a made-up story. He was widely derided, but his doggedness earned credibility with some blacks as the voice of the street.

In 1995, Sharpton lambasted the Jewish owner of a store in Harlem, labeling him a “white interloper.” Soon after, a protester set fire to the store, killing eight people. Many blamed Sharpton for inciting the crime.

At the 1991 funeral for a black boy accidentally struck and killed by an Orthodox Jewish driver in Crown Heights, Sharpton railed against the “diamond merchants.” Shortly afterward, mobs of African-Americans roared through the neighborhood — one killing Yankel Rosenbaum — Hy”d, and keeping Jews holed inside their homes for three days.

“There was an anti-Semitic tide running through that neighborhood and he fueled it,” said Wayne Barrett, a former investigative reporter.

In recent years, Sharpton has acknowledged “mistakes.” But for those who lived through his “mistakes,” he can’t undo the damage.

His mistakes went beyond rhetorical missteps. In the 1990s, Sharpton was acquitted of tax fraud and stealing from one of his charities but only pleaded guilty to failing to file a state tax return. In 2008, he filed long overdue returns that showed he owed nearly $1.5 million in taxes.

“If Al Sharpton didn’t exist we’d have to invent him, where he’s invented himself several times,” said Mary Frances Berry, a scholar of black American history.