The Reinvention of the Reverend

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Byline: Allison Samuels and Jerry Adler

Why the indefatigable Al Sharpton still has work to do. And what his evolution tells us about race and politics in Obama's America.

If the Rev. Al Sharpton didn't exist, he would have had to be invented. In fact, the novelist Tom Wolfe has claimed he did invent him, in the character of the Reverend Bacon, a supporting figure in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Each generation of black America gives birth to its own incarnation of the charismatic preacher-activist who confronts the white power structure in the streets and talks circles around it on Meet the Press. Just a few months after the fictional Bacon made his appearance in 1987, the real Sharpton burst onto the national stage as the fiery advocate for Tawana Brawley, a New York teenager who claimed to have been raped by a gang of white men, including a policeman. In that incarnation he still haunts the popular imagination: a bulky, bullhorn-toting figure in a neon-hued tracksuit, topped by a preposterously high, wavy pompadour. About all that remains today is a bare suggestion of the pompadour and roughly two thirds of the 300-pound 1980s-vintage Sharpton himself, now typically clad in an impeccable custom-tailored suit. His erstwhile ally, rival, and adversary, former New York City mayor David Dinkins, maintains that of course Sharpton has "grown up and matured, as most people do if they live long enough."

But the interesting question is whether his role is still needed in an era when the man atop the national power structure himself is black, and Sharpton now regularly meets with him--issuing not just demands but advice. If you asked Sharpton himself, he'd undoubtedly reply, are you serious? Blacks still have twice the unemployment rate of Americans overall, and young black men are still being shot by cops under circumstances that range from tragic to suspicious. The election of Barack Obama has provoked an almost hysterical reaction from the far-right media, which last week claimed as its latest victim an obscure African-American official in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Relaxing with a thick Ashton Churchill in a plush midtown cigar lounge, the once-and-still Reverend Al scoffs at the idea that there is, or ever has been, a new Sharpton. "My mission, my message, and everything else about me is the same as always," he says. "The country may have changed, but I haven't."

So, taking him at his word, Sharpton--at 55, a half-generation younger than Jesse Jackson and seven years older than Obama--can serve as a marker against which to gauge the shifting river of American race relations. Contacted in May by the family of a 7-year-old girl accidentally killed by Detroit police, Sharpton called no angry press conference and declined to get himself arrested. Instead, he preached an impassioned, but hardly inflammatory, sermon whose message--"we are all responsible for our children's safety"--could have offended no one except Mike Cox, a Republican candidate for governor of Michigan, who pronounced himself "disgusted" that Sharpton would come to his state to preach at a child's funeral.

What has changed, though, is the center of gravity of political anger in America. Sharpton's next big project is a march on Washington planned for Aug. 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Sharpton's "Reclaim the Dream" rally will coincide with a speech by Glenn Beck near the Lincoln Memorial. Sharpton is especially cutting about Beck's "Take Back America" tour with Sarah Palin earlier this year. "The nerve and gall," he expostulates. "Who are they taking America back from, and who are they giving it to?" Reclaim the Dream versus Take Back America.

And if Sharpton's "mission" and "message" haven't changed, his approach surely has. From last week's fast-moving events in Washington--which found Sharpton in Hawaii, delivering a speech to a convention of dentists--the lesson he drew was about the danger of leaping to conclusions, as both the NAACP and the administration did in disowning Shirley Sherrod, Georgia's director of rural development for the USDA, after a right-wing Web site and Fox News denounced her as a racist based on an excerpt from a months-old speech. …