The Rev. Al Sharpton

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Al Sharpton
The Rev. Al Sharpton
Credit: NPR News

Sharpton 2004 campaign button
Credit: From the collection of Ken Rudin, NPR News

June 13, 2003 -- NPR's Bob Edwards spoke with the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York as part of an ongoing Morning Edition series of interviews with each of the announced candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Below, NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin provides background on the Sharpton candidacy.

Polls continue to show that the American public has yet to form an opinion on most of the Democratic presidential candidates. But few people are without an opinion on one of the hopefuls, the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton, the New York City-based civil rights activist and Pentacostal minister, has managed to insert himself into the political mix one way or the other over the past 30 years or so. He has led rallies against police brutality, racial profiling and the Navy's bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

At the same time, he has been referred to many times, derogatorily, as a "racial huckster." That mostly stems from his association with the accusations made in 1987 by Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl who claimed she was raped by white police officers along with a young white prosecutor. Sharpton was Brawley's most recognizable defender, and even when Brawley's tale turned out to be a hoax, Sharpton never repudiated or apologized for his efforts on her behalf.

Unlike the other eight Democrats in the race, Sharpton has never been elected to public office. But during his three previous bids -- Democratic primaries for the U.S. Senate from New York (where he received 15 percent of the vote in 1992, 26 percent in 1994) and New York City mayor (32 percent in 1997) -- he somewhat softened his rhetoric in an apparent effort at obtaining more mainstream white support. In his bid for the White House, Sharpton comes off as a clever and often entertaining figure who is usually armed with a great quip or memorable line. But there is no evidence that he is making headway with the electorate.

More ominously for the Democrats, the media remains attracted to his insurgency and outrageousness. It's clearly not a feeling shared by party elders. Many see him as a distraction with no chance of winning but certainly capable of helping the Republicans, as he did in New York, where he's been accused of sabotaging the chances of several Democratic candidates for mayor and the Senate over the past 15 years. (He has already equated the centrist Democratic Leadership Council to Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats.) The longer he is on the stage, some Democrats fear, the greater the chance that some of the party's core constituency will bolt to the GOP.

And then there is the inevitable comparison to the candidacy of Jesse Jackson, another African American, who sought the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988. Jackson, however, won nearly 10 million total votes and eight primaries in his two tries for the White House. He also helped register a great many first-time voters, especially blacks. There's no indication that Sharpton is on course to accomplish anything approaching that of Jackson's efforts. And Sharpton has nowhere near the kind of credibility Jackson had with whites or blacks.

Another difference is that the states Jackson won -- all in the South -- all came early enough in the campaign calendar that they received widespread attention. When Jackson won the Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and District of Columbia primaries in 1988, they came at a time when there was still uncertainty as to the identity of the Democratic nominee. This year, aside from Virginia and D.C., these states pick their delegates in March or later -- perhaps too late to do Sharpton any good. (Though it's worth noting that South Carolina, where 45 percent of the Democratic vote could be black, comes on Feb. 3.) Plus, there is another candidate, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who theoretically could dilute the black vote.

There has been some speculation that relations between Jackson and Sharpton are icy at best. When it was revealed in early 2001 that Jackson had fathered a child out of wedlock, Sharpton indirectly implied that Jackson's days as the preeminent black leader were behind him. But such reports may be overblown or outdated. Sharpton has hired Frank Watkins, a long-time Jackson loyalist who ran Jackson's 1984 and '88 efforts, as his campaign manager.

Sharpton is attempting to become a voice for the disaffected, the poor, the unemployed, the alienated. He was a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq, and is strongly critical of the size of the Pentagon's budget and the death penalty.

Sharpton has raised comparatively little money for his campaign, leading some to suggest that he is not serious about winning. Sharpton disagrees, saying that he is so well known that he doesn't have to raise the millions the other candidates are seeking. He insists he is in the race to become president.

Related NPR Stories

more Dec. 23, 2003: NPR's Robert Siegel interviews Al Sharpton as part of a series of All Things Considered discussions with the Democratic presidential candidates.

more Sept. 11, 2003: All Things Considered presents an excerpt of Sharpton's stump speech.

more Aug. 11, 2003: Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley joins Day to Day host Alex Chadwick to discuss why Sharpton isn't getting the attention he deserves.

more July 31, 2003: On Day to Day, Slate political columnist Will Saletan translates Sharpton's favorite buzzwords.

more July 28, 2003: Listen to a Tavis Smiley Show interview with Sharpton and commentator Cornell West about U.S. policy on Liberia.

more Feb. 7, 2003: Democratic candidates compete for black voters.

more Jan. 31, 2003: Listen to a Tavis Smiley Show interview with Sharpton about his presidential campaign.

more Nov. 1, 2002: Sharpton tells host Tavis Smiley what he thinks the Democrats are doing, and not doing, for African Americans.

more May 3, 2002: NPR's Juan Williams talks with Sharpton about his possible presidential run in 2004.

more May 2, 2002: Sharpton speaks at the National Press Club.

more May 1, 2002: Sharpton and Rep. J.C. Watts (R-OK), on Talk of the Nation, discuss the new generation of black leadership emerging in America.

more March 22, 2000: All Things Considered host Robert Siegel speaks with New York Post columnist Jack Newfield about Sharpton's career.

more More Morning Edition interviews with the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates

Web Resources

  • Al Sharpton's 2004 presidential campaign Web site

  • Sharpton's National Action Network