These are heady times for the Rev. Al Sharpton. Earlier this week it was announced that his prime-time gig on MSNBC would be made permanent, starting Monday, Aug. 29. Until Hurricane Irene came to literally rain on his parade, his National Action Network activist group was to lead thousands in a March for Jobs and Justice today in Washington, D.C., along with radio host Tom Joyner and a group of labor leaders. His growing clout with the Obama administration is noteworthy to all and alarming to some: Anyone who attended NAN's 20th-anniversary conference this past April witnessed an impressive turnout of cabinet members, as well as the president himself.
With all of these developments, it can be argued that the controversy-attracting minister and street activist from Brooklyn, N.Y., has reached a new height in his career — even higher than when he ran for president in 2004. As is inevitable with any rise in public profile, he's drawing fire from critics, with the focal point for the salvos being his new MSNBC cable news show, PoliticsNation.
There's the viral silly season that erupted after a recent teleprompter flub, with Rush Limbaugh baiting him about a "racist teleprompter" — and Sharpton shooting back, "I gave you a gift … because I want all your listeners to start watching me."
But more seriously, right-wing bloggers have dredged up Sharpton's role in the 24-year-old Tawana Brawley rape-allegations case as evidence of the network's questionable judgment. Black journalists complained that the slot should have gone to someone in their ranks. Liberal muckraker Wayne Barrett even suggested that Sharpton was given the slot as a quid pro quo for his support of the controversial Comcast-NBC Universal merger. The man he replaced in the 6 p.m. MSNBC slot, Cenk Uygur, has complained that Sharpton's friendliness to the Obama administration could be the reason he got the show.
Sharpton is fighting back against all comers, though he appears to be especially hurt by the criticism he has received from black journalists, who have seen their ranks decimated in the newsroom during the economic downturn. In a recent interview with The Root, he argued that the target of their ire should be the mainstream news outlets, not him. "They [mainstream media] escape from the discussion because you pick a fight with the civil rights leader rather than having your eye on the prize."
Sharpton defended his record as an advocate of black journalists, saying that he regularly hosts them on his syndicated radio show, Keeping It Real With Al Sharpton; has pressed for greater diversity in television news; and convened a panel on black media ownership that included journalists at the NAN convention in April, among other actions.
Of course, there's that agreement that he and other civil rights leaders struck with Comcast in exchange for voicing support for the NBC Universal takeover in a letter to the FCC.
"It is in the interest of those that want to deviate and distract to have us reacting to crumbs," he said. "It is really to me petty to argue about who's gonna be on TV when we should be talking about how NAN, National Urban League and the NAACP negotiated a memo of understanding with Comcast and NBC (pdf) to give us four black stations."
Signed before the January 2011 merger as a response to concerns that the transaction could stifle programming diversity and limit distribution outlets for minority-owned channels, the memo sets out a series of steps that the company will take to increase African-American hiring, staff development and programming, including creating four new networks "in which African Americans have a majority or substantial ownership interest."
"If I was worried about a show, when we have an agreement for four stations, I'd be insane," said Sharpton. "I could get on any show I want on any of those four stations. The point is, what about these big mergers and these big deals that are being cut? What about [plans for] the re-election [of] the first black president? And ain't nobody [black] on television but me right now, and [the president’s] gonna be totally assessed and commentated on by an all other-than-us [media]. That is the big picture, so my thing is, are we really missing the point? Or do they really think we're that stupid? It is in people's interest to drive us to the ridiculous."
Make no mistake whose interest Sharpton was talking about: "The right wing," he said. "Because as long as we're arguing about stuff that doesn't matter, then we won't fight about what does."
During the Aug. 11 interview, Sharpton also shared his thoughts on the now-postponed dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, flash mobs and his record of activism. The topic of his activism led to a discussion of the case of Tawana Brawley, a black teenage girl from upstate New York who, in 1987, accused a group of white men of raping her — a claim that was later determined to be a hoax. Sharpton's involvement as one of her advisers put him in the public eye and eventually got him successfully sued for defamation by one of the men accused. Part of the interview is below.
The Root: Why are we seeing flash mobs pop up now in Philly, Milwaukee, even in London?
Al Sharpton: The economic conditions make the surface flammable, so any spark sets a fire. The spark is usually a police matter — if it was Watts in the '60s, if it was South Central L.A., it was always police matters. Because when you're dealing with raw power and you can't answer it, that's when you explode — and you're already mad because you're unemployed. So the surface is there, and it can happen anywhere. People just don't get up one day and say, "I'm unemployed, I want to start a riot." It's usually a spark, which is usually a police matter.
Those who have raised all of this — like NAN, like the Urban League, like the NAACP — we do it without a riot, we don't need an incident. After Katrina, we went and marched across that bridge warning people. Putting focus on that stuff is what leads to people getting cases [into the justice and legislative systems].
If we hadn't done these marches and put focus on these cases, [we would] never have had racial-profiling laws. So at one level, it shows you the double talk of a lot of our media types and intellectuals. If I say Abner Louima and all of [injustice cases] and the marches and movements around them is what helped push the racial-profiling thing, they'll say yeah, well, that's part of it, so we don't get any credit for it. But if we do a case they disagree with, like the one on Brawley, that's all our fault.
AS: Tawana Brawley was a judgment that I made 24 years ago, and I believed in her like some people believe in the DSK [former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn] maid. If the jury says they don't believe [the DSK maid], are they going to ask [the people who believe her] to apologize?
When Tawana Brawley happened in November of 1987, I didn't know [her]. Her lawyers got to me in March 1988; that's when I got involved in the case. I believed Brawley. Just like if the maid came to me, if I stand up for her, am I supposed to apologize if, later, the jury doesn't believe her? Then was everybody going to apologize to OJ when the jury acquitted him?
I mean, the real question I want people to ask is, what do they want me to apologize for? Believing her? The jury that heard the case said that there was no conspiracy, that we weren't involved. So what am I apologizing for? Because then you're robbing us of advocating [for] what we believe.
TR: So in other words, what you're saying to people is look at my intentions; they were good.
AS: My intentions were good, and it is the same way I've operated in every other case that everybody agreed with. So in 30 years out here, you're gonna take one case and judge my career cause you disagree with it?
TR: Why did you decide to organize the March for Jobs and Justice on the National Mall to take place the day before the dedication?
AS: It's a defining time in our history, and from the vantage point of National Action Network, the reason we called this march and were able to get labor and others in is because I think that if we allow people to distract us as a community, we will miss where we are. We are in a great moment and a sad moment at the same time.
The great moment is that we have a black president, [and for] the first time blacks are going to have a monument on the banks of the Potomac, so I can take my daughters to see a monument of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that looks like them and represents the struggle that opened America up. It's the worst of times, though, because of high unemployment, continued racial bias and continued educational disparities.
TR: Some of the criticism from people in the black press over MSNBC choosing you as a news-show host is against the backdrop of black trained journalists disappearing from newsrooms, while you see plenty of black pundits on television. What do you think of that?
AS: I have paid my dues from when I was 13 years old, as the youth director of Operation Breadbasket, until now to talk to this country about what I want and feel is important. I'm the only one on national TV that can say that I've almost been killed. I look at a knife wound every morning, where I was stabbed — I almost died — by Michael Riccardi [during a 1991 march in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn]. And I went to jail over 30 times leading protests; one time I had to spend 3 months in jail. Everybody can step on the platform all they want; I'm the only one who's going to stand up there and say I survived death and jail.
So you're going to argue with me about what? I earned the right to talk. We were talking on the show about the Republican debate [on Aug. 11 in Iowa]. I ran in '04. I did 32 debates. Who is better to assess a debate than me? Who was in them?
Sheryl Salomon is deputy editor of The Root.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is senior editor-at-large of The Root and a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editorial consultant. Follow her on Twitter.