The Rev. Al Sharpton has come a long way from his bullhorn-shouting presence at some of the nation's most racially charged events, and has become President Barack Obama's go-to man for a White House seeking to make a connection when tensions are flaring between the races, a Politico Magazine article claims.
Sharpton's latest appearance happened this month in Ferguson, Mo. He arrived
72 hours after a white police officer shot and killed 18-year-old black man Michael Brown. Brown's grandfather requested he come in to help after Sharpton advocated for the family of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, reports Politico Magazine.
But these days, Sharpton is taking a different route, and instead of agitating protests, he's serving as a contact for the White House, a role he once again played in the Ferguson melee.
"There's a trust factor with The Rev from the Oval Office on down," a White House aide told Politico. "He gets it, and he's got credibility in the community that nobody else has got. There's really no one else out there who does what he does."
After Sharpton met with Brown's family and members of the local community, he connected with White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, who told him the president was "horrified" by the images he was seeing from Ferguson and wanted to know what the Brown family expected from the White House.
While the old Sharpton was avoided, the new Sharpton visits and texts or emails the White House and Obama officials frequently, especially with Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black man to hold that job. Holder, who traveled to Ferguson this week for a probe into the shootings, and Sharpton both say the Ferguson crisis is important to Obama's legacy.
The shift has been a lifelong goal for Sharpton, says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who in the past was often a rival of Sharpton.
Sharpton said he has matured over the years, but his critics don't accept that.
"I've grown to appreciate different roles and different people, and I weigh words a little more [carefully] now. I've learned how to measure what I say," he said. "Al Sharpton in 1986 was trying to be heard. I was a local guy and was like, 'Y'all are ignoring us'…. That's not the case now."
Sharpton's past is proving hard to live down. It was 30 years ago that he led a rally against a Harlem clothing store that ended up burned down, and even more infamously, he lost a civil suit against him for defaming a white prosecutor he accused of raping black teenager Tawana Brawley, accusations later proven untrue.
Sharpton also fueled rage when he railed against a Hasidic Jewish driver who killed a young boy with his car, preaching at the boy's funeral about Jewish "diamond merchants" who get rich selling South African "blood diamonds" before killing children.
Sharpton's campaigns for the presidency and for mayor also left him in debt.
But while Sharpton's respect factor is growing in many cases, he still has his critics. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly accused him of heading to Ferguson to advance his "own self-aggrandizement" and has called him a "race hustler."
Breitbart's Joel Pollack
, criticizing the Politico piece, complained that the story sanitizes Sharpton and leaves out large parts of his history. Further, Pollack complained that Sharpton used his place at the Martin case to push the line that the boy was shot by a white man, not a Hispanic, and to give himself leverage to report on the case for MSNBC while reporting to Obama as well.
Ironically, Sharpton may not have become part of Obama's circle if the president's campaign advisers in 2008 had managed to keep him away. He had been an early endorser of Obama, unlike other powerful black voices who backed Hillary Clinton, but Obama had issues over Sharpton's plans to campaign for him in white-dominated Iowa.
Obama maintained he wanted to make that visit happen, while discussing logistical problems, and turned Sharpton's mind around. Obama never forgot that Sharpton had backed down, which the activist says was "a turning point."
And for his part, Obama was able to get a national spokesman on black issues without having to rely on the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who Obama dismissed after an infamous "hot mic" incident in which Jackson was heard complaining about the future president.
Sharpton's rise has also confounded people who have been watching him for years.
"I don't know how he's managed to do it," Basil Smikle, a Democratic operative long active in Harlem politics, told Politico. "He's an outsider's insider or an insider's outsider, depending on your perspective. He's essentially covering for the president in Ferguson. ...
"His power has slowly and steadily supplanted that of other black leaders locally and nationally [and] the Obama victory provided a platform for him to alternate between agitator of institutions and defender of its leaders."
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