In a lengthy profile of the Rev. Al Sharpton on the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post, reporter Eli Saslow captures the controversial civil rights figure in the midst of an existential crisis.
At 60, Sharpton is at the apex of his decades-long influence, commanding radio and television shows, a robust fundraising operation and a direct line to President Obama. Despite that stature and the endless celebrity perks that seem to accompany it, Sharpton is on the defensive as he confronts a new generation of activists eager to scrap civil rights-era models of activism for new approaches that are faster, flatter and more aggressive.
And yet, between moments of confident posturing, Saslow reveals that Sharpton’s harshest critic might the reverend himself as he begins to measure his long career against those of the former civil rights heavyweights whom he always aspired to become like.
“Am I good enough?” he asks at one point. “Am I more than just a showman?”
Sharpton may not have had answers for those questions, but within hours of the profile’s publication, the Internet certainly did. Fox News Channel called the story “eye-opening” and said Sharpton comparing himself to Martin Luther King was “like Pee Wee Herman wondering if he’ll ever be Clint Eastwood.”
Meanwhile on the left, a handful of younger activists spent the afternoon attacking Sharpton on Twitter with the hashtag #SharptonSays. Chief among them was DeRay McKesson, a school administrator turned protest organizer in Ferguson, Mo., who highlighted a number of brazen Sharpton quotes for his 65,700 followers.
Others, such as organizer Charles Wade, said they had respect for Sharpton and his many years of activism, but have grown disinterested in a strategy that relies on a centralized leader chipping away at change incrementally.
“Our generation doesn’t believe that we have to wait anymore,” he told The Post, referring to young activists as members of a “microwave generation.” “What’s happened in Ferguson takes movements years to get without the use of the Internet. We’re tired of being spoon-fed a little reform at a time when we want a revolution.”
Other Twitter users reacted to statements in the article that they felt were signs of Sharpton’s outsize ego.
Despite becoming a staging ground for Sharpton condemnation, Twitter was not devoid of Sharpton supporters.
And then there was Sharpton himself, who seemed to welcome any attention that Saslow’s article stirred up, regardless of what it might bring.