The Revolution of Reverend Al Sharpton

The Reverend Al Sharpton has moved from controversial street protester to a media activist with access to the president. Host Michel Martin talks with Corey Dade, NPR digital news correspondent, about his profile of 'The Rev.'

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, our moms lean in on Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's new book. It's called "Lean In." She talks about why more women aren't claiming top jobs in business and she says they might be too worried about balancing family and career. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to take a look at the evolution of a controversial political and cultural figure, the Reverend Al Sharpton. This week he delivered the keynote address at the National League of Cities breakfast here in Washington, D.C. The event's theme was Celebrate Diversity, and that alone speaks to the remarkable journey he has made, from a New York preacher and protestor with a reputation for being thoughtlessly provocative to a national media figure with connections to the White House.

We wanted to hear more about this. NPR's Corey Dade is with us. He recently spent a day in New York City with the Reverend Al Sharpton and he joins us now.

Corey, thanks so much for joining us once again. Really fascinating.

COREY DADE, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel. Well...

MARTIN: So tell us about this.

DADE: Sure. Al Sharpton has been evolving for some time. He was once, as you mentioned, a marginal figure nationally, and certainly a highly polarizing one. Today he has the ear of a president and ties to corporate America. It's the kind of mainstream relevance he never thought he'd have when he was protesting on the streets of New York back in the 1980s.

What makes this latest version of Sharpton interesting is his use of media these days to advance his activism, as you'll hear.

MARTIN: Let's listen.

DADE: It's early Friday evening at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York and Reverend Al Sharpton's nightly MSNBC show, "Politics Nation," is just about to start.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Roughly 15 seconds here.

DADE: Sharpton's show has made history for the cable network with the highest ratings ever in the 6 p.m. time slot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ten seconds here.

DADE: New York's celebrity activist was just briefed by his producers for tonight's lineup.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Roughly five seconds.

DADE: He stops for makeup and then...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Three, two.

DADE: ...it's show time.

THE REV. AL SHARPTON: Tonight's lead - here comes the freakout. The president and vice president are building a plan of action on guns.

DADE: Al Sharpton used to take on the media. Now he's a part of it. He uses TV and radio to advance his causes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHARPTON: It's Friday.

DADE: Sharpton hosts talk radio three hours a day.

SHARPTON: Do you know what time it is? It's Al Sharpton's time.

DADE: His show, "Keeping It Real," runs on 40 stations. It's his pipeline to black America.

JOHN: Affirmative action was initially for African-Americans, for the prejudice and bias that was being shown towards African-Americans.

DADE: Reverend Sharpton, or Rev, as he's known, takes all callers, all opinions, but when he disagrees, he breaks right in.

SHARPTON: John, John, what you're saying is factually untrue. From the beginning, it was addressing blacks, Latinos and women.

DADE: "Keeping It Real" has been on air seven years and has made Sharpton a fixture in many African-American homes and not just on the high profile news stories. Callers even ask him for diet tips. Just looking at him, it's the first thing you notice. This once super-size man who stuffed himself in track suits is downright skinny, and these days he wears tailored Italian suits.

SHARPTON: I eat a salad midday every day and the salad I have is lettuce, tomato, eggs - boiled eggs chopped - and onions.

DADE: Sharpton says he's lost 110 pounds in the past two years, but waistline and wardrobe aren't all that's changed. Sharpton's activism nowadays is more inclusive and reaches beyond African-Americans. In his younger days, he wasn't above using personal attacks and racial barbs to get his way.

SHARPTON: I think that the way this case has been handled by the state has been racist and brutal.

DADE: That's Sharpton when he took up the Tawana Brawley rape case in the late 1980s. A grand jury found the black teenager's claims to be a hoax. Sharpton, her biggest champion, later lost a defamation suit to the prosecutor. He's still widely condemned today for refusing to apologize for his role. It's just one of the incidents that made him a controversial and polarizing figure.

STANLEY CROUCH: All I saw at first with Sharpton was a lot of noise.

DADE: For years, cultural critic Stanley Crouch publicly called him a buffoon. Today, Crouch says, Sharpton is more sophisticated and focused.

CROUCH: The fact that Sharpton is so accurate today on so many different subjects about the federal government, about voting, he gets all these things right. I mean he could just throw out some rhetoric, but he ain't doing that now. He's not doing that.

DADE: But not everyone forgives or forgets Sharpton's past conduct.

ASSEMBLYMAN DOV HIKIND: I really have very little good to say about him.

DADE: Dov Hikind is a New York state assemblyman representing Brooklyn. He points to the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, where a black child was killed in a car accident involving a Hasidic rabbi's motorcade and blacks retaliated by killing a Jewish man. The violence lasted for three days. Sharpton led a march and made remarks that Hikind and others say further inflamed the tensions between black and Jewish residents.

HIKIND: He has managed to get away with not addressing some of this past. He has been kocherized by a lot of people who I don't think would give many of us a second chance.

DADE: Sharpton has expressed regret about some of his past actions and comments, but says his critics are too hung up on events from a distant past. He started his civil rights group, National Action Network, 21 years ago. It now has 40 chapters. He ran for the U.S. Senate and for president, and Sharpton took on new issues like the Show Me Your Papers immigration law in Arizona. He broke ranks with black ministers to endorse gay marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SHARPTON: Yeah.

DADE: Al Sharpton darts between appointments in a black SUV with a driver, an assistant, two SmartPhones and an iPad. For many years, civil rights leaders have used the media to promote their causes, but Sharpton is the first to do so as a daily radio and TV host. That's how he says he mobilized 30,000 people to Sanford, Florida to protest the shooting of the unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin.

SHARPTON: How do you think we put 30,000 people in Trayvon - see, the thing that nobody ever deals with in the media is having an organization and a media outlet.

DADE: That puts him squarely in the mainstream, where he gets the attention of people like philanthropist George Vradenburg. This day, Vradenburg asks Reverend Sharpton's help for an Alzheimer's campaign.

GEORGE VRADENBURG: Well, he in a sense continues to remain a firebrand and an independent thinker and a driver and a leader, but on the other hand he has certainly changed his style and his, I think, credibility. I think he is now a national credible spokesman for progressive causes.

DADE: His credibility extends to Washington, where Sharpton says he has the chance to directly influence key policies like education and jobs.

VALERIE JARRETT: He says exactly what he thinks.

DADE: White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett.

JARRETT: He does his homework. There are many times where he calls to check his facts to make sure that he's accurately representing the administration's position. And if he thinks that we're mis-stepping, he will tell us that.

SHARPTON: How long is the ride?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It probably shouldn't be bad, so we'll get there in probably 30 minutes at the most.

SHARPTON: Yeah. You think so?

DADE: It's 7. The "Politics Nation" staff goes home, but Sharpton's day isn't over.

(APPLAUSE)

DADE: He's speaking at a Martin Luther King scholarship dinner in Westchester County.

SHARPTON: Thank you very much.

DADE: He recalls his mother's funeral. Ada Richards died last year just as he was boarding a flight to stand with the family of Trayvon Martin.

SHARPTON: My mother was born and raised in Dothan, Alabama. When she was born, she didn't have the legal right to vote. She had to ride in the back of the bus in Alabama, but when she died, I was blessed to be able to read at her funeral a letter from the first black president of the United States.

DADE: People didn't leave the world the way they found it, he tells the crowd. On Saturday morning he'll be off to his next appearance leading his weekly Harlem rally. Corey Dade, NPR News.

MARTIN: And Corey Dade is still with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Corey, this was really fascinating. Were you tired after all that? Seems like you did a lot of running.

DADE: I was. I'm considerably younger than him and I felt like I struggled to keep up.

MARTIN: You could sense that. There's this sense of that kind of really frenetic pace. Now, obviously his working relationship with the Obama administration is represented by - I think the candor that Valerie Jarrett, you know, shared with you - I mean she told you basically he has a direct line, you know, to the administration.

You know, you certainly know that a lot of African-Americans have felt that the president has not been vocal enough on issues of particular concern to African-Americans. What does Al Sharpton see as his role in that?

DADE: Well, I think what he says is that he has no problem voicing his disagreements with the president. Usually, though, he does it in private. He does it when he's in those meetings with the president. Publicly, he's more of an advocate, but he also acknowledges, as other leaders like Marc Morial with the National Urban League and others, that he's in a bit of a rock and a hard place. On one hand he can't go too far in criticizing the president because he gives ammunition to the Republicans and adversaries on the right. On the other hand, he also understands that his black constituencies are not, shall we say, open to too much criticism of the president and so they demure a little bit.

MARTIN: He has - I have heard him say that the president deserves a base. This president deserves a base just like any other, you know, president deserves a base, and if his base is African-Americans, then that's just - that's how it is.

DADE: That's right.

MARTIN: So, you know, to that end, Corey, the final question that I had for you - you've talked a lot in the piece about how others see him and all the many hats he's wearing. Any sense - did you arrive at any sense of how he sees himself at this moment in history? I know he said, look, I'm not a journalist. That's not - so how does he see himself?

DADE: He certainly makes no bones about being a journalist. He says that, when he took the job at MSNBC, he was very clear in saying, I'm going to continue to be an activist. I think he looks at this period in his life where he is able to put all these things together and be what he calls sort of media activism. He is using his platform on his radio show and MSNBC to drive activism, to be more effective in building support for any cause, whether it's a march, whether it's a protest, whether it's just getting African-Americans, in particular, more engaged in the political process.

MARTIN: Corey Dade is a correspondent for NPR's digital news. He joined us here in our studios. Thank you, Corey.

DADE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And, for more about the Reverend's - Al Sharpton's - Reverend Al's transition from outsider to insider, you can visit our two-way blog at NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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