DENMARK, S.C. — The Rev. Al Sharpton is late. But you wouldn't know it by looking at him. The preacher and political provocateur, wearing a pin-striped suit and flanked by a handful of aides, strolls into the packed gym at Voorhees College like he was right on time.
And when he starts to talk, the words just cascade. It's part sermon, part history lesson, part political theater. The message: If you're young and black, you've got more reason to vote than at any time in modern history.
"Today, blacks in South Carolina, 2003, are double unemployed compared to anybody else in the state," he intones, his gravelly voice deepening with intensity. "Today, it is four times more difficult for you to get a bank loan than people with the same education, same background, and same credit. Today, there are more young black men in jail than there are in college. As long as we don't vote, no one will respect us."
Then, Mr. Sharpton relaxes, turns conversational. "I understand you have to tell the truth to go to this college, is that right?" The crowd of about 500 agrees. "How many of you all are registered to vote?" Most hands go up. "Good. How many of you aren't?" A few hands rise. "Come on, tell the truth." More go up. "I want you all to come on down here and we're going to register you right now."
Sharpton is on a mission - as he has been since he started delivering sermons to his sister's dolls at age three. Sure, he wants to be president: "If Arnold Schwarzenegger can go from the terminator to the governor," he says, "I can be president and the Queen of England, too."
But he's got an ulterior motive in seeking the Democratic nomination, and like everything else controversial about him, he's unapologetic about it. He wants to rejuvenate the liberal wing of the party. He wants to register more blacks and young people than anyone before him. He wants to be the power-broker, the black man at the table when doors get closed and deals get cut. He wants to be to this decade what the Rev. Jesse Jackson was to the 1980s.
But to do so, he's had to moderate his image as a political flamethrower and tone down his sometimes incendiary rhetoric. It's a process he says began when he was stabbed by an angry white man while leading a protest in 1991 in Brooklyn. But some political observers contend that his move toward the mainstream has been hastened by his desire to step onto the national stage. Sharpton dismisses the analysis and simply focuses on his current goal.
"We have to energize a base of disenfranchised people, blacks, Latinos, progressive whites, and young people," he says over a breakfast of eggs and grits in Columbia, wearing a blue jogging suit with red trim. "While people are trying to play to the right, to the conservative Democrats, the real numbers to me are in the young people and the disenfranchised."
Sharpton has another goal, too, as he barnstorms from college to college around South Carolina - a key state where he must do well to have credibility because of its large percentage of African-American primary voters. Sharpton wants to wean young people from the rap/gangsta culture. He rails against attitude - "if you got attitude and they got power, that's fine with them."
He shuns the glorification of gangs and guns, and the brothers who denigrate their sisters no matter how much they've accomplished.
"Black culture has never been about how low you can go," he tells an energized crowd that responds with "Yeah," and "Uh huh" at Morris College, a black school in Sumter, S.C. "Black culture was about no matter how low you was, you reached higher than anyone."
For Sharpton, this mixing of cultural and political messages is key to energizing the African-American vote. He sees a generation that is too self-absorbed and politically apathetic.
"You've got the kind of decadent self aggrandizement - me, me, me," he says of the gangsta culture. "I don't think you can go to these campuses and deal with social issues without confronting their being told, 'Just be a thug, just be a hood, just be a gangster.' So it may be cultural and political, but it's one and the same."
Always a lightning rod in racial politics, Sharpton in this race has been at once dismissed as a completely improbable candidate and applauded as refreshing relief - in both white and minority communities. His quick wit and Revivalist delivery have won him plaudits in debates. ("Don't get confused, they're the Christian Right, but we're the right Christians.")
His attack on rival Howard Dean for his statement that he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" won Sharpton gratitude among blacks for whom the flag is a symbol of repression, and also among some white leaders stunned at Dean's lack of sensitivity.
But the state of Sharpton's campaign - small, disorganized, and lacking a war chest - has caused even some followers to question whether he's running for real or for his own ego gratification. Sources say his first campaign manager, Frank Watkins, who is widely respected in political circles, left because he felt Sharpton wasn't committed to running the kind of campaign (read: raising money) that was necessary to make an impact like Jesse Jackson, Sr. did in the 1980s. A week after Mr. Watkins left, Jesse Jackson Jr., for whom Watkins used to work, endorsed Dean. ("I won't discuss Congressman Jackson!" Sharpton says - even before the question is half asked.)
And then there's the Sharpton baggage. He's the only candidate who's been indicted for tax evasion and fraud, then acquitted; who's been taped by the FBI in an alleged drug deal; and who's been stabbed for leading a protest in a predominantly white and Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Some dismiss him even before he opens his mouth.
"Sharpton is not going to be as successful as Jesse Jackson was," says David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Politics and Economics in Washington. "The fact is that he's not as widely known or popular a figure among African- Americans as Jesse was. When Jesse ran [for president], his favorables were 90/10 [favorable/unfavorable] among African-Americans. Sharpton's at 42/29."
Since Sharpton was 3, donning his mother's bathrobe as vestments and lining up his sister's dolls as a congregation, he has stepped to his own beat. When he was 4, he preached his first sermon from John 14: "Let not your heart be troubled. Ye who believe in God also believe in me." By the time Sharpton was 9, he was ordained a minister by the Pentecostal church. He was a local Brooklyn celebrity, the boy preacher.
Then at 10, his life was shattered. His father, a local landlord ("slumlord," Sharpton calls him) was forced to leave the family after getting Sharpton's older half-sister pregnant. The family went from middle class comfort to the projects.
His mother, who'd gone from housewife to domestic help, looked to the church to help her son. And Sharpton's status as a minicelebrity brought him a string of impressive and disparate mentors, from gospel great Mahalia Jackson, to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Sr., to the 'Godfather of Soul,' James Brown. They have all influenced and helped create Sharpton's character, which has been described as intense and inflexible, strong and stubborn.
"It's just not in my personality construct to worry about other's reactions," Sharpton says. "It's kind of hard, when you've been marching to your own drummer all your life, to start listening to other beats now."
"The Rev," as he's known among his staff, has always been a polarizing figure. The self-declared champion of the downtrodden has been perceived by many as a self-promoting race baiter who exploited the suffering of others for a spot in the klieg lights.
He's the man who sparked the rage in Harlem in 1995 against a Jewish storeowner who wanted to expand. Sharpton called him "a white interloper" at a rally; eight people were later killed in a fire set by one of the protesters.
Sharpton is the unapologetic champion of Tawana Brawley - the teen whose 1987 tale of abduction and rape by white police officers garnered national headlines, but was later deemed a hoax by a grand jury. ("I didn't think I was wrong," he says. "I still think something happened to her.")
But to many others, The Rev is a civil rights leader, a crusader unafraid to demand justice where it's lacking.
He was the one who brought protests to Howard Beach, the predominantly white neighborhood in Queens where, in 1986, a white gang chased a black construction worker to his death on a busy highway.
Sharpton is the man who stood by the five young African-Americans accused of beating and raping the Central Park jogger in 1989. ("I was cartooned, lampooned, and everything," he says. "Thirteen years later, a guy came forward and said, 'I did it,' after some of those kids served 8 years. One of them works for me now.")
And Sharpton is the one who was arrested with a handful of other political leaders in Vieques, Puerto Rico, protesting the Navy's bombing practices in 2001. The judge gave him 86 days in federal prison for trespassing, twice the time as others charged with the same crime.
"He will be there and he's prepared to be arrested," says former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who first got to know Sharpton in 1978 when he had him arrested for refusing to leave City Hall.
Throughout the years, though, and in this election in particular, a far more moderate Sharpton has been emerging. Whether it's a conscious move toward the middle or a simple softening over time, he's toned down his clothes, packing away his trademark medallion and his jogging suit (at least in public appearances). His James Brown bouffant is combed in a more conservative style, and his rhetoric is less inflammatory.
Sharpton traces his shift to a more "sober and serious" attitude to his stabbing in 1991, as he led a peaceful protest through a white section of Brooklyn.
"I think that you are confronted with your mortality, and you start saying that you'd rather use whatever time you have more seriously," he recently said in a televised interview. "It didn't change my views. It just changed how I would be more sober and serious about getting things done."
As a result, the controversial black leader has ended up surprising some critics with his intelligence and political savvy.
"I had an extremely negative view of Sharpton," says Matthew Laverghetta, a white graduate student at the University of South Carolina who waited two hours for Sharpton to arrive so that he could hear him speak. "I watched the debate in Detroit a few weeks ago, and I've never seen anyone speak with so much candor and shooting straight from the heart."
Koch also appreciates Sharpton's frankness. But he doubts that Sharpton can emerge as a serious political contender until he "repudiates Tawana Brawley."
That's something Sharpton has vowed not to do. And he dismisses critics - even friendly ones like Koch - who give him such advice. Like everything else he's done, Sharpton is making this presidential run on his own terms.
That stubbornness, says Sharpton, is part of who he is. He sees nothing unusual in his earlier flamboyance, or in his current penchant for fine pin-striped suits. He insists he is simply being himself.
And he's as clear about his mission now as he was when he first donned his mother's bathrobe: "I believe that just like in the Reagan Era when the Democratic party had lost its way and Jesse Jackson came forward - in this Bush Era, I'm necessary and on time."