The public life and private doubts of Al Sharpton
The public life and private doubts of Al Sharpton
The carefully cultivated leader of the civil rights movement tries to live up to the moment
The carefully cultivated leader of the civil rights movement tries to live up to the moment
In New York
Al Sharpton had not made news for 13 hours, and this was cause for serious concern. He climbed into the back seat of his luxury SUV, told his driver to take him four blocks to Times Square and refreshed the news feed on his cellphone. “Seriously? Nothing on Ferguson?” he said. “Nothing about my statement on good policing?” His power depended in part on publicity; the civil rights movement depended in part on his power. He ran a comb through his hair and dialed one of his assistants. “If we lose this spotlight, then our whole opportunity here, our historic moment — it’s dead,” he said.
The car pulled up to a hotel, where a security team greeted Sharpton and hurried him upstairs to a private meeting. The conference room had been arranged to his exact specifications: thermostat cranked high to help loosen his voice, hot tea waiting on the table, Dominican cigars stashed nearby in case there was time for a break. His audience was already seated, and Sharpton took his place at the front of the room. An assistant introduced him as though welcoming a prizefighter.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the leader of our movement, the reason we are all here, a champion of justice, the people’s preacher, the Reverend Doctor Al Sharpton!”
Sharpton stood as they applauded and took his time removing his coat and scarf.
“We’ve been waiting for the issues of race and social justice to reach a boiling point in America, and that time is finally here,” Sharpton said, and his audience clapped.
“We’ve been waiting for an opportunity to lead, and now I’m in that position,” he said, and they applauded again.
The group was composed of 25 pastors, organizers and community leaders from across the country, all of whom were members of Sharpton’s National Action Network, and all of whom had traveled to New York in early January at Sharpton’s request and expense. “A summit to discuss and determine our next move,” the invitation had read, and they all understood that would mostly mean listening to Sharpton discuss and determine their next move, and they were fine with that. He had always needed an audience — had built one on the streets of New York and grown it over four decades, until finally he had become a fixture of the American news cycle. He had a national radio program, a nightly TV show, a nonprofit social justice organization with active chapters in 38 states and a dozen visits each year to the White House. Now he believed the country was facing a racial crisis of unjust policing, and once again the leader of the civil rights movement had called upon himself to respond. The audience had assembled as his muse. Sharpton alone would decide. The next move was his.
“We are going to be judged by how we respond in this moment,” he told them. “What happened in the era of ‘I can’t breathe’? What happened with Trayvon Martin? I ain’t getting any more famous. I’m in the history books now. Question is, when my moment came, could I get real change? Is my chapter good or bad?”
He stood and spoke for an hour until hotel workers arrived with trays of breakfast, and then he waved them out and kept going. His posture was certain and his feet were rooted to the floor. His socks matched his pocket square, which matched his glasses. He felt most himself at the front of the room and always had, ever since his mother built pews in his playroom so he could learn to talk at age 2 to an audience of his sister’s dolls. A traveling boy preacher by age 6. Ordained by 9. Organizing voter drives by 12. He had never written out a speech, because he had learned to speak in public before he could read or write. He did his best thinking in front of a crowd, piecing together his thoughts on the fly. It was only when the audience disappeared that he started talking to himself, sometimes second-guessing his effectiveness, asking the same questions during his morning meditations at age 60 that he had begun asking at 25. “Am I good enough? Am I more than just a showman?” he sometimes wondered.
But now the audience was with him, hanging on his famous, gritty baritone, and he could turn the room dizzy with a joke or hold it still with a long stare. Breakfast turned cold on the buffet table. A scheduled break came and went. He told stories about running for president, meeting Nelson Mandela, befriending Muhammad Ali, getting stabbed by a white supremacist during a march and sitting on stage during President Obama’s second inauguration. Sharpton had spent most of his career railing against the American power establishment, but now he was a linchpin of it, expected not only to stir a civil rights movement but also to harness its fracturing parts, not only to accentuate the country’s racial problems but also to solve some of them.
He quoted from his own speeches, eulogies he delivered when Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and when Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer in New York’s Staten Island. “Enough!” he said. “We demand lasting change.” Body cameras for all police officers, federal oversight of police violence, the demilitarization of local police — these were the changes Sharpton wanted in the next months, and these were the goals by which he now expected to be judged.
“They say I want publicity?” he said. “That’s exactly what I want. I want publicity on the issues.”
“Yes, Rev. Preach.”
“You think anybody has ever called in Al Sharpton to keep a secret? We come in to shine the light.”
“Tell it now.”
“I’m dealing with the White House. I’m talking to the mayor. I’m on TV. I’m organizing the marches. If I didn’t exist, they’d have to invent me.”
“Mmhmm. That’s right.”
“Our opponents can deal with three to four weeks of anger. I’m the guy who doesn’t go away. Every morning when my feet hit the floor, I want them saying, ‘Damn. He’s up again.’ We all need to ask ourselves: How can we keep these issues front and center until they get solved?”
He didn’t pause to wait for a suggestion, and nobody offered one. He was rolling now, the pieces of a puzzle coming together in his head. “King Day,” he said, thinking of the national holiday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which was 10 days away. “Now that might be an opportunity.” Maybe there was a symbolic way to connect the current police violence to the country’s troubled racial past. He wanted to put himself back in the news with an event that would rivet a little more of the country’s attention.
“Okay,” he said, finally. “King Day. I know exactly what we’re going to do.”
At his office at NBC headquarters in New York, Sharpton prepares for his show, “Politics Nation,” on MSNBC. Sharpton has become a fixture of the American news cycle, working in radio, TV and nonprofit organizations.
He had styled himself to be effective in this moment. Gone were the sweatsuits, the big hair, the extra pounds and the golden medallion that had been his trademark when he first grandstanded his way into the nation’s consciousness in the early 1980s. He had been so intent on finding a righteous cause during those early years that he had sometimes acted as the agitator, railing against “white interlopers” and Jewish “diamond merchants,” and spending months demanding justice for Tawana Brawley only to have her allegations of gang rape by a mob of white attackers turn out to be a hoax. To much of America, he had seemed nothing like the civil rights giants he often quoted in his speeches — not a King or a Ralph Abernathy or a Malcolm X — but an opportunist who would do whatever was necessary to assemble a crowd.
Now the America of 2015 wanted leaders with discipline and restraint, and if that was what finding an audience required, then sure, Sharpton could manage that, too: an $11 bottle of organic kale juice each morning, a salad and a banana for lunch, a few slices of wheat toast for dinner and off came 176 pounds, leaving him looking so gaunt that people wondered if he was sick. He took up meditation. He began writing a column for the Huffington Post. He built up his National Action Network by soliciting corporate donations from companies such as Wal-Mart, Anheuser-Busch and Macy’s, raising $5 million a year. He decided he needed to connect better with white audiences and studied Bill Clinton and Jerry Falwell. He and the National Action Network began paying down hundreds of thousands of dollars in overdue taxes. He organized marches not just for racial justice but also for gay rights, the environment and undocumented immigrants. He awoke at 5 each morning. He hired two schedulers, two drivers, a lawyer, a publicist and a traveling assistant, all of whom had essentially the same charge: to extend his presence as a civil rights icon until he was too ubiquitous to ignore.
“Can we get to Cleveland ASAP?” Sharpton was asking his staff now, as he rode to his radio studio in the back of his Lincoln Navigator. He had just watched a newly released video of Cleveland police officers shooting a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice in November. The child had been carrying a fake gun when he was shot and killed, and the video showed police officers handcuffing his hysterical sister and ignoring the boy’s body for several minutes before paramedics arrived. “We should march on this thing next week and blow it out,” Sharpton said.
“You’ve already got two speeches in Columbus next week,” one of his aides said.
“Extend the trip,” Sharpton said. “Add in Cleveland.”
“You’re supposed to be back for breakfast with the cardinal.”
“Push him off a day.”
“But you’ve got the L.A. Clippers people coming in to follow up on the Donald Sterling thing, plus that minority business event at the White House.”
“Okay. Then do Cleveland the week after.”
“That’s London for your Oxford speech.”
“You wanted to be in Hollywood for the diversity meetings, then Oakland for policing.”
“Figure it out,” Sharpton said, as the car pulled up to the NBC headquarters and he walked into his radio studio two minutes before showtime. The producer signaled his cue to go live. He returned an e-mail from a reporter in Germany while leaning into the microphone for his standard introduction to 600,000 listeners. “Do you know what time it is? It’s Al Sharpton’s time,” he said, because in fact it was always his time — seven days a week on the radio and the past 850 weeknights on MSNBC, during which time he had never once missed his show, broadcasting it live from 31 cities.
It had been one of the riskiest decisions of his career, joining a media establishment he had long demonized, and even allies such as Jesse Jackson and Cornel West had called him an opportunist and a sellout. But Sharpton considered his evolution toward the mainstream to be a move of strategic genius. “Our adversaries aren’t waiting at the end of the bridge with billy clubs anymore,” he said. “They’re not beating kids in Birmingham. They are firing at us on cable TV.” Fox News had mentioned his name 682 times in December alone, or about 22 times each day, usually preceded by “race hustler” or “racial arsonist.” Now he was equipped with the guaranteed airtime to fire back. Now, when nobody else wanted to cover Al Sharpton’s America, Al Sharpton could.
On this day, he began his radio show with what amounted to an Al Sharpton exclusive. “Let me tell you about what I have planned for King Day,” he said, and then he outlined the idea he had come up with as a way to bring more attention to police violence. He would go to Washington to eat breakfast with members of Obama’s Cabinet, return to New York for a law enforcement forum with the mayor and then gather in private with members of Eric Garner’s family. Together they would travel to Brooklyn to lay wreaths for two police officers who were killed in December by a fugitive who had wanted to avenge Garner’s death. Then they would continue to Staten Island, where a police officer had placed Garner in a chokehold, to lay a wreath for him. “A coming together, in the spirit of nonviolence, in the spirit of King,” Sharpton told his listeners. “There’s so much at stake. This is a larger problem, and we need the courage to have an honest conversation. We need respect for all lives. It’s time to change this. Now let’s open it up to the phones.”
He sometimes took as many as 10 callers each hour, listening as he returned e-mails and prepared for his TV show. Now his security guard took a nap. His producer left to get lunch and Sharpton managed the callboard alone. The radio show was his “unofficial poll on race in America,” he said, which also meant it was often a poll about him. A recent survey had found that 81 percent of Republicans considered him a “negative force,” and Sharpton delighted in repeating the uglier terms they used for him: race baiter, hatemonger, charlatan. But to his radio audience, he was the leader who saw beyond the facade of a colorblind nation to recognize injustice in black and white.
Debbie, in New Jersey: “Thank God for you. Thank God you still have the courage.”
Vicky, in Baton Rouge: “Down here, they’re comparing you to that Klan leader David Duke. How crazy is that?”
The show ended, and Sharpton went across the hall to the TV studio, where a staff of 15 prepped him and hurried him into makeup. He sat alone on the set, listening to a producer through an earpiece and staring into the camera as he got the signal to go live. “So much at stake,” he told the audience. “A larger problem.” “An honest conversation.” “Respect for all lives.”
“You’re clear,” the producer said, after an hour, and Sharpton grabbed his coat and rushed toward his SUV. An assistant followed and asked a question about the trip to Cleveland. “Can I just get one quiet minute?” Sharpton said, walking faster now. He exited the building and his car was waiting at the curb. The heat was set to 80 degrees to soothe his voice. A box of cigars waited on the seat. His driver came around to open the passenger door.
“Mr. Sharpton!” someone yelled, and he turned around and saw a celebrity gossip reporter for TMZ. The reporter shouted a question about the actor James Woods, who had posted on Twitter that Sharpton was a “disgusting pig” who was “DIRECTLY responsible for the murder of two good policemen.” Sharpton stared hard at the reporter for a few seconds with a look that said this was a dumb question, and who cared what James Woods thought about policing, and why should Sharpton be expected to answer? The reporter backed away. The security team kept moving Sharpton toward his car.
“Hold on a minute,” Sharpton said, turning back toward the reporter, pointing at the camera, willing his way back into character. “Do I have a response? Of course I have a response,” he said, smiling, and everyone idled in place as he began to answer.
The Rev. Al Sharpton gives an impassioned keynote address for the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a social activist mentor and pastor at the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, last month.
‘Is there anyone else who can do all of this? Anyone other than me? Seriously, I’m talking about anyone else?”
This is what Sharpton was asking the next day, back in the hotel conference room, meeting again with the 25 community leaders from his National Action Network. The issue at hand was one Sharpton thought about often: Who, if anyone, was in place to become the next Al Sharpton? He wanted to invite some younger national leaders to join his vigil with the Garners on King Day, but he didn’t know whom to invite. “What ever happened to Ben Jealous?” Sharpton asked, referencing the former leader of the NAACP. “How about talented leadership in Chicago? Anyone good coming up behind Jesse in Chicago?”
Nobody answered, so Sharpton asked for the opinion of his national youth director, Mary-Pat Hector, a 17-year-old from Atlanta who had risen to her position after calling in to his radio show. She already had founded an anti-bullying group and organized a tour against gun violence. For her blend of ambition and charisma, she had earned one of Sharpton’s highest compliments. She had “a little Sharpton in her,” he said.
TOP: The Rev. Al Sharpton rides an elevator with Michael Hardy, general counsel for the National Action Network, spokeswoman Jacky Johnson and Rachel Noerdlinger, his former director of communications at NAN, from left. SECOND: Sharpton hosts his radio talk show in Jacksonville, Fla., this month. He broadcasts seven days a week. THIRD: At NBC headquarters in New York, Sharpton records his daily TV show called “Politics Nation” on MSNBC. ABOVE: Sharpton travels to the Newark airport to catch a flight for a preaching event in Jacksonville, Fla.
“The issue with my generation is we’re more about the Occupy organizing model,” she told Sharpton now. “You know, everyone can be a leader, that kind of thing.”
“I hear them saying that,” Sharpton said. “ ‘We don’t want Al Sharpton taking over our movement.’ But my question is: What movement? Y'all ain’t got nothing to take over.”
“They want everything to rise from the ground up,” Hector said.
“Fine, okay, but then tell me your strategy,” Sharpton said. “You burned the building down. Great. Now what?”
Sharpton had met in private with youth organizers in Ferguson and tried to understand their model, but he couldn’t imagine a successful civil rights movement without a leader like the ones he had been studying since childhood. Jesse Jackson had offered Sharpton a job as his youth director in 1969, and later Sharpton befriended King’s son and then King's widow, Coretta. She invited him to King’s private archives, and Sharpton spent several days in Atlanta reading King’s notes on nonviolent resistance and movement building. King believed in the power of oratory, so Sharpton became a great speaker. King had courted the media, so Sharpton began holding weekly news conferences. King led marches, and so did Sharpton. He had considered adopting other strategies focused on social justice over the years — preaching at a mega-church, becoming a politician or promoting black entertainers for boxing mogul Don King — but there was only one role he wanted to play. “I will be the next national civil rights guy,” he remembered telling Jackson once, as a teenager.
Now, by deliberateness or default, he was that guy, the one in front of every march. But Sharpton wasn’t King, and these weren’t the civil rights battles of the 1950s and ’60s. There were no more buses to desegregate, no more Jim Crow laws to defeat. Sharpton’s ascension had come at a time of incremental battles against more subtle and persistent strands of societal racism. The enemy was more opaque, as were the goals, so instead of achieving broad cultural change and earning his own place among the giants of civil rights, he had spent 40 years grinding out the strategy, attempting to bring awareness to one issue after another, from one march to the next.
After so much work, few things irked him more than the popular notion in the young black community that he was going about it all wrong — that the King model was out of date and the existence of a national civil rights leader was unnecessary, even insulting. In December, when Sharpton organized a “Justice for All” march in Washington that drew 10,000 people, a group of young activists had rushed the stage and tried to seize control of the microphone before Sharpton arrived. Why, they asked, did they need VIP passes to go backstage at a protest march for the people? Why should they trust Sharpton to be antiestablishment when he was a friend and loyal defender of the president? And why did the black community need to be represented by the same single voice — a celebrity making hundreds of thousands of dollars, who always arrived with his entourage and his own political baggage?
Sharpton hadn’t been on stage to hear their complaints. He was still in the car, surrounded by police protection, hot tea in hand, waiting to be announced. But he had spent the weeks since responding to their points whenever he could, to whichever audience was listening, including this one now at the hotel.
“These young leaders want to get on stage and be seen?” he said. “Fine. Go up there. Be seen. Now what?”
“That’s right, Rev.”
“How come Sharpton’s leading the march? ’Cause I organized the march. I brought the crowd. I got the permit. Those Porta-Potties cost us $20,000. You want to run the march? Fine. Get your own damn Porta-Potties.”
“You got yourself a group name? You got a nice hashtag? Great. But you want to know why all these families call us for help when their son or their daddy gets shot? ’Cause we got a phone number. We exist. They come see me!”
Now one of those families was on the way to visit him again, repeating the same journey from Staten Island to Sharpton’s office in Harlem that they made every Saturday, because they didn’t know what else to do or where else to go. Al Sharpton had become their option. First came Esaw, Eric Garner’s widow, wearing a T-shirt that read: “This World is Not Okay”; followed by Gwen Carr, his mother, who was still too shaky to return to work operating a subway train; followed by Emerald, his daughter, who had been spending so much time working with Sharpton that he had hired her as a full-time organizer, paying her salary out of the National Action Network’s budget.
Sharpton over the years
TOP: The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks at a news conference in 1989 with Tawana Brawley, who claimed to have been raped and tortured by six men — allegations that were eventually proven false. BOTTOM, FROM LEFT: Sharpton in 1983, 1995, 2006 and 2012.
The Garners arrived at the single-story building Sharpton had named the House of Justice, a converted gymnasium squeezed between a 24-hour chicken joint and a liquor store near the Harlem River. For the past two decades, Sharpton had used the space to hold a weekly public rally, where he preached for an hour about whatever was on his mind. Lately, that had been the Garners.
“Let me tell you about my idea for King Day,” Sharpton said to the Garners now, leading them into his back office a few minutes before the Saturday rally. A tray of pastries sat on the table, and pictures of Sharpton decorated the walls. Here he was on the cover of the New York Post embracing Obama. Here he was hosting “Saturday Night Live,” eulogizing Michael Jackson and marching with Beyoncé. One day, he wanted to collect some of his mementos into a museum he hoped to build in Harlem, which would tell the story of the civil rights movement after King.
“Our fight now is partly about optics,” he told the Garners, reminding them that critics were discrediting their cause by saying they were against the police. “On King Day, I think we should all go together and place a wreath in support of the police.”
“Okay,” Esaw said, even though her fear of the police had caused her to move to a different precinct after her husband’s death.
“Next we will go to where Eric died and lay a wreath for him,” Sharpton said.
“Okay,” Esaw said again, even though she had been to that spot with Sharpton for 12 other public events.
They had first met Sharpton two days after Garner’s death in July, when a Staten Island community organizer offered to arrange a meeting. Soon he had sent a car to bring the family to his office, where together they watched a video of the chokehold, listening to Garner repeat, 11 times, “I can’t breathe.”
“We need a good talker like you who can make people aware,” Carr remembered telling Sharpton that day, asking for his help. Ten minutes later, he was live on the radio announcing a march for that afternoon. An hour later, he had put out a press release and sent an e-mail to the National Action Network’s 10,000 members calling for participants. And by mid-afternoon, he had assembled a crowd of more than a thousand and a dozen television crews in Staten Island, where for the first time the Garners joined him in his trademark chant.
“What do we want?” Sharpton yelled.
“Justice!” the Garners yelled back.
“When do we want it?”
The family had spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with Sharpton. “Uncle Rev,” they occasionally called him, and Sharpton paid for some of their household expenses and bought them plane tickets to Washington for interviews and marches. The Garners, meanwhile, heeded Sharpton’s optics, releasing joint statements with him about “good policing” and “peaceful protests.”
Now they followed Sharpton from the back room to the House of Justice stage. They took their seats behind the lectern, staring back at a crowd of several hundred, many of whom were wearing T-shirts bearing Garner’s last words. “The Garners are here!” Sharpton said, and the audience applauded. “Show them some love,” he said, and the ovation grew louder. Since Garner’s death, there had been protests in Seattle, “die-ins” in London, condolences from Obama. Sharpton had, as he liked to say, filled the room. But as he looked out at the crowd, he thought about another truth: six months and still no indictment, no lasting change. “Is this whole thing leading to anything?” Carr had asked Sharpton once, and he had not known what to tell her. Forty years he’d been following his version of King’s model — 40 years of oratory, organizing and optics — and sometimes it seemed the only reliable change was the name of the victim and the location of the march. He had given, by his own count, more than 100 eulogies. Each year, he spent most of Mother’s Day dialing through a growing list of relatives of victims whose cases he had publicized, and yet each week he still began his Saturday rally in the same place, with the same broad demands.
“What do we want?” Sharpton said, leaning into the microphone.
“When do we want it?”
The Rev. Al Sharpton wipes the sweat from his brow after delivering a moving sermon at Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in Jacksonville, Fla. The firebrand orator has become one of the most visible spokesmen for the black community.
Sometimes the only place Sharpton wanted to be was on stage, leaning into that microphone and waiting for his audience to shout the answer, and sometimes the only place he wanted to be was where he was headed to now: a Fifth Avenue skyscraper, with a private elevator carrying him up to the penthouse floor. The suite was quiet and mostly empty. A sign on the door read, “Members Only.” A young woman greeted him at the entrance, took his jacket and handed him a box of his favorite cigars. “The usual table,” he said, and she led him to an alcove in a far corner of the room, a leather armchair under blue velvet drapes.
This was the Grand Havana Room, an invitation-only cigar club that Sharpton visited almost every night. The other members were mostly Wall Street bankers and advertising executives who left Sharpton to himself. Sometimes he came to smoke cigars and talk business with Michael Jordan, Jay Z or Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but usually he came alone. A waitress brought tea. An assistant ran to a deli to get his customary wheat toast. He lit a cigar and read a few passages from the Bible on his phone. He stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows and followed the view across Manhattan and into Brooklyn, trying to spot the church where he had preached his first sermon and where, as a 7-year-old boy, he had met King for one of the few times.
He watched the smoke billow out his mouth and thought about King, about his greatness and his legacy, and pretty soon he needed an audience to sort out his thoughts. He called one of his protégés. “You want a cigar?” he asked, and five minutes later, Charles Williams was sitting across from him. Williams was the National Action Network’s director of expansion, a talented preacher from Detroit, and now Sharpton told him a story that had been on his mind as King Day drew near. Sharpton had been running through the terminal at the Newark airport late one night, trying to make a flight, when a woman stopped and asked him to shake hands with her 10-year-old son. “He’s too young to know much about Martin Luther King,” Sharpton remembered the woman saying. “He won’t know Jesse Jackson. All he’s got is you, so I hope you never let him down.”
Sharpton finished the story and lit a second cigar. “I think about that kid a lot,” he said finally. “Am I letting him down? Have I been too caught up with satisfying my own vanity? My ego?”
“What do you mean, Rev?” Williams said.
Sharpton didn’t seem to be listening. “Did you know Coretta told me once that I was a leader capable of carrying on the King model, the King tradition?” he said. “I almost died and went to heaven when I heard that. But think about that now. How big is that shadow?”
“Huge,” Williams said.
“We come after a generation that was movement motivated,” Sharpton said. “They started with nothing and took down apartheid, and what have we done so far that compares to that? That bothers me. That haunts me.”
“I believe that.”
“I got a radio show, a TV show, a direct line to the president, and what good is all that if I still can’t get something done when they choke a guy out on tape?”
Sharpton had made his first trip to the White House in King’s memory in the early 1980s to lobby for the creation of a King holiday. He had returned to Washington three decades later to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s March on Washington, and by then there was a black president in the White House and a monument to King on the Mall. So many hallmarks of progress — and yet Sharpton also believed that some of King’s work was being undone: schools resegregating, the Voting Rights Act being disassembled by the Supreme Court, income inequality at historic levels and a continued racial bias in policing. He couldn’t help but wonder: Would all that be happening if King were still alive, still the one leading the marches?
“How many years we been at this now?” Sharpton said. He finished his cigar. He signaled for his coat.
“Long time,” Williams said.
“All my life,” Sharpton said. “All of it. And we’re still fighting these old battles. We’re still trying to get these same things done. He would have wanted us to do better.”
Sharpton gets out of his car in midtown Manhattan before heading to a meeting. His nonprofit social justice organization has active chapters in 38 states.
Now it was King Day, when the legacy of those civil rights giants sat the heaviest on Sharpton, fueling his insecurities. “Can we do anything more here?” he asked an assistant, looking over the 16-hour schedule he had announced the week before, which included two vigils, five public speeches, his television show, his radio show, and meetings with senators, mayors and Cabinet members.
He ate breakfast in Washington and spoke to a crowd of 300 at the Mayflower Hotel. “Honor Eric Garner,” he told them. He held a policy summit in New York with the mayor. “How many more Eric Garners?” he asked. He prayed with the Garner family, laid a wreath for the slain police officers and interviewed Martin Luther King III on TV.
“We need lasting solutions,” he said in one speech.
“Lasting change,” he said in the next.
“Something lasting,” he said once more.
And then it was time for the evening vigil with the Garners, Sharpton’s last event of the day and the one he hoped would refocus some of the country’s attention on police violence. He rode from his TV studio to Staten Island, coordinating the final details on his phone. “Make sure the candles are wax and not plastic,” he said. “Make sure you get the crowd into a nice semicircle so there’s room for us at the front.”
He had spent $5,000 on a fleet of buses to transport 400 people to the vigil, and by the time Sharpton arrived the buses were unloaded and everything was in place. Television cameras crowded against a barricade on the street, their spotlights illuminating the place on the sidewalk where Garner had first lost consciousness. Esaw Garner and Gwen Carr came to greet Sharpton at the car. He combed his hair and told his driver that he would be back in 10 minutes. A security guard and a team of police officers cleared his path to the center of the semicircle. Sharpton hung the wreath and began his speech by quoting King.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that,” he said. “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. We put a light in Staten Island, and that light will not go out until lasting justice is received.”
The crowd started to sing, first Stevie Wonder’s version of “Happy Birthday” to King and then the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.” The warm glow of so many candles lit Sharpton’s face. He stood in the cold and swayed to the music while his driver waited. Soon many people in the crowd were holding hands, and some of the police officers had begun humming, too. “Beautiful,” Sharpton said. “Beautiful, beautiful.” The camera crews began to pack their gear, and Sharpton hugged the Garners and returned to the car, his part in the vigil complete. He asked his driver to park at the end of the block. He rolled down his window to hear the singing, and for a moment he closed his eyes and seemed overcome. “Beautiful,” he said again, because the optics had been perfect, as good as he’d managed in 40 years. “That’s a vigil,” he said, and now he pulled out his phone to see what lasting impression it might have made. “What are they saying?” he asked, calling over one of his assistants. “Anything on the Web? Anything yet on the networks?”
But it was too soon to tell, and so far there was nothing. Sharpton put away his phone. He rolled up his window.
“Let’s go,” he told his driver, directing him to the Grand Havana Room, and by the time they pulled away the crowd had begun to disperse and the corner was dark.