While public opinion may be evenly split over whether race relations in America are improving or deteriorating, its estimation of one of the issue's highest profile activists, Rev. Al Sharpton, is severely lopsided: most people – 60 percent, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll taken last year – simply don't like the guy.
When it comes to Sharpton's brand of American leadership, though, popularity is beside the point. Like Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, what's important is being widely known for loudly fighting on principles his core supporters believe in. Interestingly, Sharpton and Cruz share the same favorability number in the polls, 26 percent. But Sharpton holds a distinct edge on being widely known. While 62 percent of those polled know enough about Cruz to form an opinion of him, for Sharpton the number is a whopping 86 percent.
That kind of fame sells, which is why Sharpton has a television show on MSNBC and a syndicated radio show broadcast in 40 media markets and on Sirius XM satellite radio. His new book, The Rejected Stone, will likely sell pretty well – and perhaps, for some readers, it will do what it sets out to do: provide guideposts for how to be a successful leader like Sharpton.
For those many people who don't like Sharpton, the prospect of a book that seeks to spawn new Sharptons may be dispiriting. Turns out, though, Stone confirms what many may have suspected when Sharpton put much energy into supporting gay marriage in recent years: unlike Cruz, Sharpton seems to have grown up.
Stone reveals that Sharpton's haughty public-relations approach of yore, in which any conceivable rhetoric and tactic were plied in the service of a higher calling – which often seemed simply to be in service of Sharpton's own celebrity, and all too often caused real collateral damage – has tempered with age. Without apologizing for his past, in Stone he's willing to admit there are more constructive ways to operate.
In a phone interview with City Paper, Sharpton pegs the date of this change to the early 1990s. "I think that that's when I started realizing you're not just representing yourself, you're representing a cause that's bigger than you," he says. "You represent people that for whatever reason have entrusted whatever their issue is, and maybe their future, in your hands. And you can't be just so cavalier about that."
Sharpton's trademark antics before he matured, he says, were at times "trying to prove how glib and smart you can be," and "saying things that just are flippant that are a good sound bite, but really distract from the issue at hand." Behaving "in ways that are just a reaction, rather than thinking through," could "take away from what I really want the public to focus on." Now, he says, "there's a lot of real commitment: are you really about what you say you are about?"
Asked if there were any cases or issues from his past that he regretted, Sharpton issues a declarative "No." Each and every one, he says, "I would take again. I might have done them differently, but I would have taken the cases because the cases I took I saw a need to take them, and that need has not in any way been weakened over the years." That goes, too, for the Tawana Brawley case from the late 1980s, which to many seemed like a tragic, costly mistake of Sharpton and his colleagues campaigning on behalf of a young woman whose baseless accusations of being raped by racists became a national embarrassment. "Absolutely not," he says, when asked if he had any regrets.
Stone's 23 chapters essentially serve as short homilies drawn from Sharpton's experiences in life and the people who inspired him – either by serving as examples or by being foils, like the media he both reviles and relies on. While it's clear the man loves his fame, the comforts he's accumulated from success, and the chumminess he enjoys with the elites in the worlds of politics and entertainment, the lessons Stone tries to impart rise above such ego-driven concerns. Its sage advice, couched in stories that entertain while revealing Sharpton's still-present tendency to be proudly bombastic, is bankable for any aspiring Sharptons coming up in the world today.
Stone, Sharpton says, took about eight months to write with the help of journalist/author Nick Chiles – an effort he says was "challenging," given his day-to-day commitments to running his activist group, the National Action Network (NAN), and appearing on television and radio. But "I wanted to do it," he says, "so I found the time."
To get the word out about Stone, Sharpton is coming to Baltimore – where he came last year during the successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage, he recalls, and "had to meet with ministers around the issue" in "one of the most contentious battles I've ever had in Baltimore."
It was a "private meeting," Sharpton explains, and "some of the ministers in Baltimore were saying, 'Al, we supported you for years, [but] this is against what we believe.' And I said, 'It's not a matter of what we believe, it's a matter of do we have the right to impose our beliefs on others.' We should not operate like this – a theocracy rather than a democracy. And I think these are the kinds, going forward, where we are going to have the tension between those that don't understand that civil rights have to be for everybody or they're not for anybody."
Sharpton will be on hand at 6pm on Oct. 15 to sign copies of Stone at the Baltimore Empowerment Temple, 1505 Eutaw Pl., an event sponsored by NAN's Baltimore chapter, which is headed by Radio One talk-show host and former state Sen. Larry Young.