The Rev. Al Sharpton's latest crusade
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."