The Real Al Sharpton

The Real Al Sharpton
Dr. Lenora Fulani

All the latest articles about Al Sharpton’s Presidential campaign miss the point. “Nightmarish complications” cries the liberal American Prospect. “The Sharpton nightmare” chuckles conservative columnist Bob Novak. “This strategy of appeasement…is devastating for the party as a whole,” admonishes The New Republic, referring to the legitimacy the white Democratic Presidential contenders are currently conferring on Sharpton. In other words, the shared obsession is about what he might do to the Democratic Party.

I have a different concern. I’m concerned not with what the Reverend Al Sharpton might do to the Democrats. My question is – what have the Democrats done to Al Sharpton?

During my nearly 20-year history with him, I have seen him become ensnared in a dangerous trap, one that is a political dead-end for him and, more importantly, for Black America. I have seen him set aside the visionary for the viable. I have seen him try to recreate himself as a progressive, out of expedience – not principle. I have seen him become what is, sadly, a second rate Black leader.

I know Al Sharpton. I probably know him better than any other Black leader in America knows him. I know him with the kind of intimacy that comes from being together in critical and formative times.

We did many things together in the 1980s and early ‘90s – things you’d expect, like marching for racial justice, sitting through courtroom trials, mourning at funerals for young Black men shot by the police or by local racists. But that was the public dimension. Privately, we’d become partners in a long-term enterprise to fill the vacuum in Black leadership. I bought him a good suit and my friends and I bought him an expensive watch.
We went to Los Angeles and stayed at the ultra-fancy Biltmore Hotel and held meetings with the Cripps and the Bloods. My close friend Jim Mangia and I took him into the gay community in San Francisco – his first public act of connecting to gays and the transgender community.

We’d sit in my offices – often with my political mentor Fred Newman, who funded some of Sharpton’s activities in the early days – plotting, scheming, and laughing about the backwardness of the handkerchief-heads, the white liberals, the phony Black revolutionaries. I brought white people out to Bensonhurst to march with us after the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in 1989 and we’d joke about how crazy the Black nationalists acted in response. Sharpton and I became a team. I was the socialist, he was the preacher. The Black community was curious, but supportive. We were so different from all the other leadership.


Today Al Sharpton is seeking the Democratic nomination for President not simply as a Black candidate, but as an anti-war candidate, a progressive candidate – in other words, as a left candidate. But when I first got to know Sharpton he was not what you’d call a leftist. He was a Black Baptist conservative, fairly homophobic, politically incorrect, prone to nationalism, though smart as a whip. He was persona nongrata to Black leftists and white leftists, they considered him trash and a police informant. The Black establishment and intelligentsia were embarrassed by him. The New York media hated him. To them he was a charlatan, a showman, a publicity seeker with conked hair and a fat belly.

I was no bargain myself – according to the establishment. I was (and am!) a leftist, raised in the Baptist church but no longer religious, with my own brand of political incorrectness. The Black left and the white left hated me too, but for different reasons from the ones that made them hate Al. They snubbed him because he wasn’t a progressive. They snubbed me because I was, although I refused to join their club. (Being a woman didn’t help, either.) The media didn’t like me, but, contrary to how they dealt with Sharpton, they expressed their disdain largely by ignoring me – except when they figured out they could sell papers by calling me a Farrakhan Friend, an anti-Semite, or a cultist.

Sharpton and I both recognized how visionless and compromised the New York Black leadership was, although he saw this in purely racial terms and I saw it in more political terms; I believed (and still believe) that the Democrats had betrayed their progressive roots, abandoning the fight against poverty and injustice in favor of empty notions of Black empowerment. Our partnership was based to no small degree on finding ways to create a new politic for the Black community. Newman and I told Rev he’d have to move left to do that: he’d have to learn and embrace progressive politics much in the same way that Malcolm X, Dr. King and W.E.B. DuBois had; he’d have to be willing to challenge the Black community’s fundamental conservatism in order for it to grow as a force in New York and national politics.

Sharpton was a quick study. He knew Black history, although he was conflicted about the influence of socialists and socialism on these great Black leaders. Still, he was a pragmatist. He saw Jesse Jackson go from 3.5 million votes in his 1984 Presidential bid to 7 million votes in 1988, largely as a function of his own move left and his ability to speak for what became known as America’s Rainbow movement. He saw and he made note, in the brilliant and calculating way that Sharpton always does.


When I ran for President as an independent in 1988 – becoming the first African American and first woman to access the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia – my campaign slogan was “Two Roads Are Better Than One.” The first road was to support Reverend Jackson.

I backed Jackson in the Democratic primaries but I believed (as did Sharpton) that Jesse – and Black America – would be turned away by the Democratic gatekeepers and reminded to stay in our place. The second road was my independent campaign, a tactic to lay the groundwork for an independent political movement that would free up African Americans to re-negotiate partnerships and programmatics with other becoming non-aligned Americans.

In the summer of 1988 Sharpton was with me in Atlanta – where we staged four days of rallies, protests, marches and Black Agenda gatherings outside the Democratic National Convention. Inside, Jackson was being marginalized by Michael Dukakis and the party hierarchs.

Al was understandably circumspect about electoral politics. He saw how difficult the independent road was – I got only a quarter of a million votes in 1988. Like many, he was outraged over what transpired with Jackson, who arrived at the convention having come in second, polling 29% of the votes cast and with 1200 delegates, and who left without the vice presidency or any significant role in either the campaign or the Democratic Party. The party bigwigs were obsessed with trying to bring white Reagan Democrats back into the fold.

Sharpton continued to see himself as the social agitator to my independent electoral crusader. I ran for Governor; he lay down on the subway tracks. I ran for President; he championed Tawana Brawley. “Whatever happens, I don’t want to end up like Jesse Jackson,” he told me repeatedly. He once wrote that the Black community would “be a jackass to follow” the Democratic Party “donkey.”


But Sharpton, while rejecting the establishment in general and Jackson in particular, was also irresistibly drawn to the limelight. Carefully cultivating his public image as the voice of the Black citizenry, he was almost oblivious to whether the political base gathering around him could be empowered in new ways, rather than simply used to bolster his own political ascendancy. Jackson had done much the same thing.

Sharpton was so incorrigibly committed to promoting himself that on the day he was stabbed in Bensonhurst in 1991, he was already figuring out how to use his near-death experience to open the pearly gates of political acceptability while he still lay in his hospital bed. I know this because Newman and I were there – we’d been with him in the schoolyard staging area when Michael Riccardi thrust a knife into his chest; Newman took him to the hospital in his car because the ambulance was slow to arrive. Once he was out of danger, Sharpton regaled us with hilarious accounts of the solemn parade of Black officialdom that passed by his bedside. The Black hierarchs – from Mayor David Dinkins to Jesse Jackson himself – were eager to preside over his redemption. And Sharpton, for all his righteous fury, wanted to be redeemed. In retrospect, I realize this was the day that Sharpton decided to trade in his nascent independence to become a Democrat.


A year later Sharpton took the plunge and decided to run for office himself. It was early 1992. Jackson had foregone a third run. I was in New Hampshire campaigning. It was my second Presidential try, and I’d entered the Democratic Party primary there to inject a pro-democracy message and to establish myself as a national Black leader who was willing to challenge the Democratic Party.

Sharpton drove up to Manchester to tell us about his decision to enter the Democratic primary for U. S. Senate. (Republican Senator Alphonse D’Amato was the incumbent.) Newman, with a distinct taste for the tongue in cheek, set up a support committee for the campaign that he called “White People for Sharpton.” The committee had a chairman, a treasurer, and, not surprisingly, no members. The media practically choked on the idea. (How the worm turns. Today Tucker Carlson looks like he’d head the committee if he didn’t have prior journalistic commitments.) But back in 1992, Sharpton was still radioactive.


Unlike Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson was no particular friend of mine. We’ve met in person only a handful of times. We both spoke at a labor rally in Detroit and have seen each other at various functions over the years. After the 1988 campaign Sharpton tried to put together a meeting with Jackson, Newman and myself but it never happened. In the one photograph Jackson and I posed for together we both look pained.

Our political relationship, such as it was, was a rocky one. I had been publicly and vocally critical of what I considered his obeisance to the Democratic Party, and I believe he squandered the force of the Rainbow movement by attaching it so unequivocally to the Democrats.

I wasn’t the only Black leader who thought so. Robert Starks, an associate of Jackson’s from Operation PUSH, once told journalist and author Marshall Frady that after Walter Mondale’s 1984 refusal to put him on his ticket, Jackson “should have organized a solid force to regenerate the Democratic Party, or formed his own independent party. For about two months there after the convention, you were ahead of the game, you could still get the agenda, and he could have put something together that could have made a great difference in this country.” (p. 368 Jesse: the Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson – Marshall Frady.)

Many people felt that way. I was perhaps the only one who said it publicly, and the only one leading an effort to create an independent party.

But, even with those differences, I will say this much for Jackson. His two Presidential runs were historic. Jackson was a protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the hearts and minds of Black America he inherited the legacy of King’s profound mass movement for equality and fairness that still remains unfulfilled.

What’s more, when Jackson ran in 1984 there had not yet been a full blown Black presidential candidacy. Yes, Shirley Chisholm had launched one in 1972, but it was almost immediately buried by the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. The Gary leadership, looking to reap the benefits of the civil rights and voting rights movements, chose instead to pursue the path of getting more Blacks elected to local public office, for which they wanted the support of liberal white Democrats. They would not back Chisholm over the left’s choice for the Democratic nomination, George McGovern.

Twelve years later, however, there was much water under the Democratic bridge. There was a network of Black elected officials who were hitting the glass ceiling of minority representation. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. The new conservative political reality – combined with the impotence of the Democratic Party to reverse it – fostered a climate ripe for a challenge. Jackson had both the brains and the balls to grab the opening. In so doing, he not only galvanized Black America into having a new stake in the Presidential process, he also galvanized the American left – much of which had previously disdained electoral politics altogether. Dr. King was revered by the left as a true visionary, a man willing to stand alone on principle, who paid the ultimate price for his independence. The left, for the most part, was willing to accept Jackson as his political heir.

In return, Jackson took political risks. Like Dr. King before him, he brought white progressives into his inner circle and asserted a vision that went beyond the Gary assumptions of entitlement and demographics to issues of poverty, the structural defects of capitalism, the critical role of organized labor as an engine for progressive social change, and the dangerously destabilizing nature of U.S. foreign policy. Jackson allowed his entry into electoral politics to transform him from a rudderless vestige of the civil rights era into a full throated left winger. The more he moved left, the more his vote totals grew.

There was one element of the left that Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition did not embrace, however. That was me, Newman and the evolving independent movement we were building. White leftists had busied themselves penning diatribes about us. The most popular of these was entitled Clouds Blur the Rainbow. Newman and I were the clouds. At its Washington, D.C. convention in 1986, the Rainbow Coalition rebuffed efforts to open a dialogue on pursuing an independent strategy if the Democratic Party route failed. And in 1992, the Rainbow Coalition informally sanctioned an “independent” Presidential run by Ron Daniels, a Black long-time leftist, who got on the ballot in nine states and devoted most of his campaign rhetoric to attacks on me.


1994, the year Sharpton and I both entered the Democratic Party primary to challenge two of New York’s most powerful incumbents – I ran against Mario Cuomo for the gubernatorial nomination, and he went up against Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan – was a turning point in our partnership. We had a very public, very ugly political fight during the campaign. Sharpton and I had planned to endorse each other, but the weeks dragged on and he refused to announce his support for my candidacy. I was interviewed on a popular local talk radio show and suggested that his silence meant that he might have cut a deal with Cuomo.

Sharpton went ballistic. To this day, I do not completely understand what motivated him, but he went on a major public tear against me, accusing me of being Fred Newman’s puppet and a traitor to the Black community, mimicking the Rainbow Coalition’s criticisms of me. He dispatched a variety of proxies to attack me in the Black press. In effect, it was a red-baiting attack designed to undercut me with Black voters and, I presume, to demonstrate to the Democratic Party hierarchs that he wasn’t afraid to take me on. I responded aggressively. Even with the attacks, when the votes were counted, he outpolled me by only five percentage points – 26% vs. 21%.

Following the primary, I did not endorse Cuomo. Instead, I solidified my evolving connection to the Perot movement and accepted Tom Golisano’s request to endorse his independent bid for Governor, a run designed to win ballot status for what became the Independence Party. At one point Sharpton tried to negotiate his way onto the ticket but failed. He went on to conduct a voter registration drive for the Democrats, but Cuomo lost anyway to Republican George Pataki. We won ballot status (Golisano polled 217,000 votes, more than four times the number needed for ballot status) and I set out to bring my base of Black, Latino and progressive independents into the Independence Party.

An interesting, and not irrelevant, side note is a comparison between Sharpton’s and Jackson’s New York numbers. In 1984 Jackson polled 355,541 votes, coming in third behind Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. In 1988 he came in second, with 585,076 votes, beating out Al Gore, among others, in the face of a vicious and highly publicized campaign by then Mayor Ed Koch to tag Jackson as an anti-Semite, warning that any Jew who would vote for him was “crazy.”

In Sharpton’s two statewide primary runs in 1992 and 1994, he didn’t get anywhere near Jackson’s New York totals, polling 166,665 and 178,231 respectively. Most of those votes came from Black districts. My 1994 total — 141,918 votes — came from a cross-section of Black and white communities, dispelling the myth that Sharpton was a significantly bigger vote getter than me among Democrats and establishing that a progressive candidate who is Black could be competitive with a Black candidate whose message was largely nationalistic.)


After 1994 our paths diverged dramatically. Sharpton ran for Mayor in 1997, almost forcing a run-off in the Democratic primary. The Democratic nominee, Ruth Messinger, lost badly to Republican Rudy Giuliani. Ed Koch came to Al Sharpton’s birthday party.

I continued building the Independence Party and the national independent movement. We backed Perot’s second run in 1996 and established the Reform Party on a national level. Sharpton got money from Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party for registration and get-out-the-vote activities. We were on distinctly different paths, but were friendly all the same.

In 1999, when Pat Buchanan entered the Reform Party’s Presidential primary and sought my support, I called Sharpton and told him I wanted to bring Buchanan to Harlem to meet with him. He agreed. Buchanan never came. In 2000, after U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Clinton publicly denounced me at an Independence Party forum as an anti-Semite and extremist (she wanted the Independence Party line without a primary and had been told she couldn’t have her way), Sharpton was the only Black Democrat to speak out in my defense.

Late in 2000, as the set-up for the 2001 mayoral contest was proceeding, Sharpton met with Newman and me to talk about his plans. He hadn’t decided whether to run himself, or whether to support Fernando Ferrer. He told us he was under a lot of pressure to join a Black/Latino coalition behind Ferrer’s candidacy, although he was still irked that Ferrer had supported Messinger in 1997 and not him. He was looking for a two-way street that hadn’t materialized.

Sharpton went on to endorse Ferrer, who won the first round of the mayoral primary but lost the run-off to Mark Green. The Ferrer defeat sparked a huge scandal over the Green campaign’s encouragement of white Democrats to back Green on the grounds that Ferrer was really controlled by Sharpton.

The Independence Party, meanwhile, had given our line to Michael Bloomberg, on whose behalf I campaigned in the Black community well before the Sharpton/Green incident played itself out. As soon as it did, Bloomberg gained traction among Black voters. Sharpton appeared at a unity rally with Green, but left early and sat out the rest of the race. The Independence Party went on to provide Bloomberg’s margin of victory, as 30% of the Black vote peeled away from the Democrats. Sharpton and Bloomberg had their picture taken together two days after the election.


Some have speculated that Sharpton’s idea of a Presidential run was being forced by his weakened circumstances on the ground in New York. The vaunted “Black/Latino” Democratic Party coalition had been deflated by Mark Green, and then undercut by Mike Bloomberg and the Independence/Republican coalition. It was regrouping behind the gubernatorial candidacy of Carl McCall, but Sharpton knew McCall was a loser. What’s more, Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel – not Sharpton – was its prime mover in the Black community. Plus, the Bloomberg win had repositioned the Independence Party in Black politics. The prospect of an African American break with the Democratic Party was “on the table” in a way it had not been before, which meant that I was in a stronger position than ever to challenge him over his role as a militant (albeit conflicted) front-man for the Democrats. Some observers thought he might be looking to disengage from the New York scene for a time.

Whatever his motives, though, Sharpton decided to make the run. That decision required him to come to terms with two things: the rationale for his candidacy, and his “crossover” appeal to white voters. Ironically, that meant he was finally going to have to deal with the issue that Newman and I had posed to him more than a dozen years earlier – the need for him to move to the left, politically, if he was going to be both relevant and significant. It also meant that he would have to face the specter that had haunted him for much of his political career. The man who did not want to end up like Jesse Jackson was about to follow in his footsteps.


In the interviews Sharpton has recently given to the liberal and left press, he tells a story of how the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) reacted to Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition by pulling the Democratic Party to the right. His candidacy, he says, is about returning the party to its progressive roots. “I watched Jesse take this party to where it should go,” Sharpton told the Village Voice in a February 2003 interview. “This is a battle in 2004 of the children of the Rainbow versus the DLC. I think this is what it’s going to come down to, if I’m successful in what I want to do.”

In actuality, though, Jesse didn’t take the party where it should have gone. He tried, but failed. In 1988, the pinnacle of Jackson’s movement, the Rainbow vision was displaced by Dukakis’ “it’s not about ideology, it’s about competence” anti-vision. No wonder the DLC’s Bill Clinton became the party’s standard bearer in 1992. He was the perfect synthesis of Jackson and Dukakis – of vision and anti-vision. He cared for the problems of the working man and woman (especially the woman) but he was pragmatic. He was a product of the visionary 1960s, but he didn’t inhale. The vision hadn’t mastered him. He had mastered the vision.

Once in the White House – doubtless the beneficiary of Perot’s attraction for what would otherwise have been Republican voters – even Clinton was surprised by the “soullessness” of the Democratic Party. They had the White House and control of Congress. Yet his dream of universal health care for all Americans – virtually all that remained of the party’s historic connection to socialist principles – was shattered. By the midterm elections in 1994, he was nearly undone. Triangulation became the Clinton watchword. He could not pass health care reform. He could only enact welfare reform. There would be no more vision – only deals.


To follow Jackson, but not end up like him, Sharpton must not allow himself to be overdetermined by the Democrats. He is a smart man. He is a great communicator. He has a profound intimacy with the pain and humiliation of being Black in America. This I know. But over the years he has learned to trade on that pain, bartering whatever vision he had at the ultimate marketplace for commodified oppression – the Democratic Party.

Recently Sharpton told the American Prospect : “Even if I lose, I have the option to negotiate points with the Democratic Party.” What points, exactly? The ones even Bill Clinton – as President – couldn’t win? The poverty, underdevelopment and cultural deprivation of Black America are so great that the political, economic, and social restructuring required to address them go far beyond any “points” that the Democrats are willing to negotiate with Sharpton, or with anyone else.

That is Sharpton’s dilemma. To be a true power on behalf of Black America, he must become bigger and more radical; he must not allow himself to be encumbered by the culture of Democratic Party politics. But to be a player in the Presidential primary process, he must constantly prove his loyalty to it.

More than ten years ago, I moderated a dialogue on Black-Jewish relations in New York politics between Sharpton and Newman in Brooklyn. A young Black woman raised her hand to speak. Where is the vision in all you are doing, Reverend Sharpton? How do you use what you’re doing to achieve freedom and dignity and decent lives for the poor?

We’ll deal with that, said Sharpton forcefully. We have to achieve a level of power, and then we’ll deal with that. The sister, in search of a mainstream Black leader who could put forth a progressive vision without compromise, sat back down in her seat. She did not believe her question had been answered.

When I think about Sharpton going through the primary season – making his way to the Democratic convention, being sidelined by whoever becomes the nominee, being given a speaking slot to assuage the restlessness among the children of the Rainbow – I think of that young woman in Brooklyn, and his promise that with a requisite level of power in hand, he’d be ready to fully embrace a progressive social vision. I can picture Sharpton up at the podium – eloquent as ever. I can hear him calling America to a higher ideal of brotherhood, equality and peace. And then, my fantasy goes – as the convention applauds wildly and party bosses glance over at one another, eager for the display to be over – Sharpton suddenly catches sight of his own image. Lord Jesus, he says to himself. I’m about to end up just like Jesse Jackson. And so, he announces that he’s leaving: leaving the convention, leaving the party, leaving politics-as-usual to lead an independent people’s movement.

I know Al Sharpton. I know him well. I haven’t given up all hope that this is the real Al Sharpton.

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