Pompadour With a Monkey Wrench
Al Sharpton will presumably have a moment in the spotlight at this summer's Democratic convention. But his goal has never been the presidency; he wants to become the leader of Black America. Problem is, that job no longer exists
"How does a movement-based political agenda sustain itself in the face of the success that it itself has wrought? It doesn't. It becomes farce." —Debra J. Dickerson, The End of Blackness
The Democratic primary race was well under way last year when I went looking for Al Sharpton's national campaign headquarters. It was a hot late-summer day in Washington, D.C., and steam rose from the streets as I drove south from downtown toward Fort McNair, looking for the address given me by Frank Watkins, Sharpton's campaign manager.
I had met Watkins and his candidate two months earlier, on a day when they were shopping for office space. At that point they were just getting started. Sharpton had formally announced his candidacy only weeks before, and the primary season wouldn't begin until January. He strolled noncommittally behind Watkins through a spacious second-floor location over a big Greek restaurant off Dupont Circle, listening with his head tilted and his eyes at half mast as his campaign manager described how each space might be used, where phone banks and computers might be set up, where volunteers might stuff envelopes or unpack posters and pamphlets. I pictured the place, months ahead, alive with the industry of democracy.
Now the race was on. The nine candidates had already met for several televised debates, in which Sharpton's cheerful pugnacity had made him an early audience favorite. He was clearly the most entertaining politician on the stump. His name showed surprising strength in some initial polls. Of course, no one really thought the notorious Harlem rabble-rouser could be elected President, but Sharpton was an undeniable force in New York City politics; and if he could rally black voters nationwide, the way Jesse Jackson had in his two 1980s presidential campaigns (both involving Watkins), he might arrive at the party's convention, in Boston, with real clout. To accomplish that he would have to score big in the District of Columbia's otherwise insignificant January balloting. It was an unofficial and nonbinding event, but because it was the first actual tally and a majority of its voters were African-American, it would gauge Sharpton's core strength—or lack of it. This was one reason why he wanted his campaign headquarters here.
The address Watkins had given me was nowhere near Dupont Circle; evidently, they had decided on a different place. I found the street in a neighborhood lined with tall apartment buildings, but as I was counting down to the right address, the street abruptly ended. Before me was a small park, and surrounding it were blocks of two-story row houses. I parked my car and went looking on foot.
It seemed an unlikely place for a political office, so I stopped a man on the sidewalk and asked for help. He made a face that mirrored my doubts. "There are no offices here," he said. "Just homes."
When I found the right number, I was standing before a simple residence. A dusty old motorcycle, long unused, was parked to one side of the front door. There were no posters or festive bunting. I double-checked the address and rang the bell.
Watkins opened the door. A dour man with thinning hair, he wore shorts, bedroom slippers, and a red T-shirt over his small pot belly. Noting my surprise at the surroundings, he executed a slight bow and swept his arms wide. "Welcome to the Al Sharpton for President national campaign headquarters," he said.
For me, it was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy glimpses the man behind the curtain. I hadn't expected a juggernaut; Sharpton was at best a minor candidate. But even the most rudimentary campaign has an office and a staff. Watkins was running this one from his living room.
He wasn't happy about it. In fact, just a few weeks later, as the primaries were about to begin, he would resign. This would leave the Sharpton campaign moneyless, virtually staffless, organizationless, and—as the primaries would show—supportless. The campaign had only one thing.
Booker T. Bellbottoms
Of all the details I learned about Al Sharpton while sifting through the alp of stories devoted to him since he bellowed his way to notoriety more than fifteen years ago in New York City, the one that struck me most was this: he was in grade school when he began calling himself "Reverend." After evincing a precocious aptitude for preaching, Sharpton was "ordained" by his pastor, a precipitate step that in his Pentecostal church required no education, training, or certification.
Picture him behind a classroom desk, a fat, imperious ten-year-old boy, inscribing his name at the top of an assignment, gripping his pencil mightily, practicing the dips and curves of his new honorific. Picture him standing his ground before a surprised teacher, or proclaiming his sudden eminence to the other children on the playground, where he excels at none of the contests that earn respect in a boy's world. These are the images that came to mind last June, when I saw Sharpton in person for the first time, a fifty-year-old man arriving to give a speech at a political conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, in Washington.
He briskly and commandingly crossed the lobby, head up, eyes forward, heedless of the fuss stirred by his arrival—camera lights, shouts of "Reverend!," and the sudden coalescence of a small mob. Sharpton in person is theatrically aloof. "Rev" (as he is called by his intimates) is said to have lost a hundred pounds in recent years; he once topped 300, and favored pastel leisure suits and a heavy gold cross around his neck. He is still a long way from passing through the eye of a needle. When he walks, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, he leads with belly. These days the gold cross is gone, and he's attired in conservative, well-tailored suits. His famous helmet of conked hair, which used to descend in stiffly contoured waves to his shoulders, is graying now, and has been trimmed to form a bob that protrudes a good six inches from the back of his head, ballast for the great round expanse of his outthrust jowls and chin.
He was late. He is often late.
Awaiting his arrival in the hotel ballroom was an army of supporters: leftist movers and shakers, Winnebago-hipped block captains with megaphone voices, tangle-haired young anarchists with tattooed necks and bejeweled noses, gray-stubbled men with thinning ponytails in patched jeans and T-shirts that read IMPEACH BUSH and SOMEWHERE IN TEXAS A VILLAGE IS MISSING ITS IDIOT, big-armed unionists fed up with corporate power, confrontational lesbians, New Age grandmas, militant vegans, eco-guerrillas, international anti-globalists, fierce pacifists—in other words, the Democratic Leadership Council's nightmare, an agglomeration of fringe believers 1,500 strong from all over America, ready to act up in almost as many directions, any one of them guaranteed to make your average suburban middle-class white voter hastily lock the doors of her car. But these were the kind of people who live their politics, who really work: organizing, marching, phoning, fundraising, cajoling. Assembled here for a morning session of the Take Back America conference, planned by the Campaign for America's Future, they were venting, plotting, and enjoying a three-day carnival of leftist affirmation, all calculated to drag the stubborn centrist donkey bequeathed to them by Bill Clinton back into the turbulent world of "progressivism" (the word "liberal" having been jettisoned after years of conservative abuse). If anybody could think boldly enough to imagine Al Sharpton in the Oval Office, it was the people in this crowd.
Six of the Democratic Party's presidential candidates were scheduled to address this conference in person, but for most of the field the event was dangerous. A mere nod in the direction of gay marriage or taxpayer-funded universal health care, for instance, would be ballot-box suicide. Of the then front-runners, the centrist candidates Joe Lieberman and Bob Graham had decided to avoid the event altogether, and Dick Gephardt had opted to speak from an antiseptic distance, by video. But what did Sharpton have to lose? It would take a strenuous act of God for him to win anything. Most people regarded him as a troublemaker and a demagogue, if not a buffoon. After swimming for more than fifteen years in Manhattan's media shark tank, Sharpton was both shameless and resilient; he had survived gaffes, betrayals, and attacks from all comers, including a would-be assassin who stabbed him in 1991. (Jesse Jackson unkindly commented that Sharpton's life was spared because the blade was so short and the flab so thick.) No, this candidate was damage-proof.
Outrage was Sharpton's milieu. He came wrapped in such a blinding aura of controversy that he could make faux pas that would be disastrous for other candidates on the campaign trail. For Sharpton this Take Back America crowd was pure opportunity. His root political argument, the rhetorical centerpiece of his campaign, was that over the past fifteen years the party had drifted disastrously from its ideals in its search for mainstream voters; it had been co-opted by centrists to the point that "real" Democrats—the folks in that ballroom—had been nearly pushed off the playing field. Two terms of Bill Clinton aping the conservatives, and then ... what? The party had lost the White House and Congress. It had become worse than powerless; it had become purposeless. On this sunny morning in June he planned to meet precisely the people who could help him change that. He needed people and he needed money. He still hadn't raised enough to qualify for federal matching funds, and he would need some kind of organization in the primary states, if only to get his voters to the polls. If ever there was a crowd he needed to work, this was it.
But Sharpton doesn't work crowds. He makes appearances.
His entourage that morning consisted of Watkins, dressed in black and looking typically glum. Together they camped in a large side room across the corridor from the ballroom. Sharpton paced in the empty space, hands clasped behind his back, gathering his thoughts for the performance, while Watkins shooed away the press and the curious. "Not now," he said sternly.
Sharpton entered the hall to a standing ovation. He moved with ease and purpose, seizing the energy in the room and revving it higher. He quickly showed how good he is at the fine political art of preaching to the choir. "Too many of us have been intimidated into apologizing for being right!" he said. Of the party's shift to the right, he said, "Not only is it morally wrong and politically cheap, but it doesn't even work!" Loud cheering. "We're coming out of a war that we still don't know why we went in," he said. "Where are the weapons that the Secretary of State brought evidence of before the UN? ... If you could find the weapons before the war, how come you can't reveal the weapons now?" Laughter and cheering. He turned his full-throated scorn on President Bush: "He can't find [bin Laden]. He can't find [Saddam]. We have come out of a war with weapons we can't find. Everything Bush has gone after, he can't find. I shouldn't be surprised, because I can't find the votes in Florida that made him the President in the first place." Wild cheering and laughter. There are "too many leaders of the party who have been elephants running around with donkey jackets on," he said. "And they think we don't know what they are!" Laughter and applause. His speech jumped lightly from topic to topic, punch line to punch line, all stand-up comedy and no substance, but well honed and full of tested material. "Don't get confused; they may be the Christian right, but we're right Christians." Laughter and applause. "George Bush is talking about Iraq being our fifty-first state; well, I say, what about the fifty states that you already occupy?" Cheers. Sharpton summarized his vision for his campaign: "I'm not asking for your help now; I've always been there. We can't win unless we build a movement. We've got to go to the streets, go door-to-door, get the disaffected, the disenfranchised. We've got to get America back so we can take America back!" Then his voice suddenly dropped to a hoarse whisper. "My grandmother is from Alabama. And one time I asked her how to handle a donkey. She said, 'Well, a donkey is stubborn ... but if you slap the donkey, you can make the donkey respond' ... I'm not here being divisive; I'm trying to slap this donkey!" More laughter and cheering. "If I can wake this donkey up, it will kick George Bush out of the White House!"
The finish left them still standing and cheering wildly. But instead of staying to shake hands, to move from table to table, to take names and phone numbers, to marshal some of this excitement for that "door-to-door" movement he had envisioned, Sharpton abruptly strode from the ballroom and the hotel. Those inspired to support his candidacy were left to fend for themselves. There was no Sharpton campaign outreach or follow-up. Lloyd Hart, an effusive and somewhat easily impressed activist from Martha's Vineyard, who had been swept off his feet by the speech ("I was amazed by his substantive grasp of policy!"), chased after the candidate. He wanted to corral him for a TV interview and to share an idea he had for raising money. Watkins tried to shoo him away, but Hart was persistent: he got his interview and he managed to leave his name and phone number. He was the only one who did. Sharpton was gone minutes after finishing his speech. He had enlivened, entertained, and even inspired some people, but when he left, all of the energy went with him.
The Take Back America conference was in Washington for three days, but Sharpton's appearance was the only effort there from his campaign.
As colorful, quotable, and provocative as he is, Sharpton is a lousy campaigner. A self-proclaimed man of the people, he doesn't appear to have much time for actual human beings. Writers enjoy writing about him because he's fun, unpredictable, and unafraid of being flamboyantly wrong. Cameras and crowds respond to him because he comes fully to life before an audience, his low growl blossoming into an orotund baritone. He lives for his moments on stage. But one-on-one it's as if he isn't there. A skillful politician working a crowd will make each three-second handshake seem like a deep and permanent connection. When Sharpton meets people, he tends to stare off into space. If his cell phone rings in the middle of a conversation, he'll abruptly walk away and take the call—more-important business. When strangers approach, Sharpton's first instinct is to escape.
He is disorganized and inconsiderate. It is not unusual for him to simply not show up for a scheduled event. In Los Angeles in July he failed to appear after scores of people had gathered for a planned campaign stop at a soul-food restaurant. In Denver in August he stood up a panel discussion titled "Blacks in Government." He abandoned two scheduled events in Wilmington, Delaware, one morning in September when he decided at the last minute, and without informing anyone, to travel to Tennessee instead. About a thousand people were gathered to see him last fall at Friendship United Methodist Church, in Nesmith, South Carolina, a state where in February he would face his most critical primary test. He never appeared. In the spirit of Christian forgiveness, Pastor Leonard Huggins rescheduled the event, and this time the candidate came; but the crowd was only about a tenth the size it had been before. Sharpton pulled out all the stops in his speech anyway. Afterward, according to the Washington Post reporter Hanna Rosin, he accepted donations (a "love offering") from the audience but stayed aloof from the people who had come to see him, eating lunch on a dais with the pastor and church elders, speaking briefly to reporters, and then exiting "out the side door."
At rallies and picnics Sharpton will stick to his own small entourage—usually Marjorie Harris-Smikle, the head of his National Action Network; Eddie Harris, a filmmaker (and Marjorie's brother); and one or two local contacts. No socializing, no pressing the flesh, no dialogue with actual voters. His campaign workers have asked him if he's afraid of people, or whether he even likes them. Sharpton dismisses such questions as criticism, which he does not take well. A veil of scorn descends over his face, and he turns away.
"It's just not in my personality construct to worry about others' reactions," he told The Christian Science Monitor last year. "It's kind of hard when you've been marching to your own drummer all your life, to start listening to other beats now."
Sharpton has been somebody since he was a child. At the 1964 New York World's Fair, he earned small-time fame as a wunderkind preacher. After his father, Alfred Sr., walked out on the family that same year, Sharpton started aggressively seeking father figures or mentors—some of whom, including Jesse Jackson, have on occasion resisted his embrace. On the list are his childhood pastor, Bishop Frederick Douglass Washington; the soul singer James Brown (whose hair inspired Sharpton's startling do); the boxing promoter Don King; and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a skirt-chasing, high-living former Harlem minister and Democratic congressman—who, Sharpton says admiringly, once told the interviewer David Frost, "I'm the only man in America, black or white, who doesn't give a damn about what people think." Of all his acknowledged role models, Powell is the one about whom Sharpton is most enthusiastic.
It's an old loyalty, and reveals Sharpton as what few people recognize him to be: an anachronism. Powell was one himself. Even at his height, during the 1950s and 1960s, he was more like a character from the glamorous Harlem Renaissance of the Roaring Twenties, with his fine suits and immaculately groomed straightened hair. He certainly did his part for racial empowerment and social reform, but with Powell there was always the sense—which he encouraged—that ultimately he was in the game for himself. He was slick in an era of moral piety, an individualist during a broad awakening of racial identity, an establishment figure (albeit a rakish one) at a time of social rebellion. Sharpton attached himself to Powell when other young black men were drawn to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
"Adam had a defiance and self-confidence that were very appealing," Sharpton told me that day in June, before launching happily into the story of how, as a boy, he had gone with his sister to hear Powell preach. He was so taken with Powell that he dragged his sister with him back to the pastor's office, and demanded to be seen.
"Who should I tell the pastor is calling?" Powell's secretary asked.
"Reverend Alfred Sharpton," the boy said.
It turned out that Powell had heard about the World's Fair boy preacher. "He said, 'Let the kid ride with us,'" Sharpton recalled. "We went to Times Square and Sardi's Restaurant. I remember sitting at Sardi's with Lucille Ball at the next table. I felt like I was in a different world."
Latching on to Powell may have been a bold political move for Sharpton (his first mentor, Bishop Washington, was a Republican), but to the budding black revolutionaries in the schoolyard, Sharpton was a joke.
"This was in the days of the Black Panthers," he said. "We would have debates over tactics for the movement. I was always into nonviolence and integration. They used to call me Booker T. Bellbottoms."
His schoolmates saw him as a throwback then, and despite all the changes in the world and in him since then, he remains one today. He is a man with a megaphone, standing on a street corner and trying to whip up enthusiasm for a protest march that ended thirty years ago. His pitch is pure nostalgia. His campaigns against police brutality have scored some important points in the struggle against the abuse of power, and have illuminated the risks inherent in arming some men and giving them the right to arrest and subdue others; but they no longer strike a deep racial chord in a country where the police chiefs of major cities are as likely to be black as white, and where the officers accused are often the same color as their victims. In 2003 Sharpton embarked on an ultimately futile "mission" to war-torn Liberia that echoed the naively romantic pan-African dreams of the sixties; he got only as far as Ghana before belatedly (and wisely) realizing how dangerous Monrovia was (and besides, no pilot would take him). His goal of uniting the fractious leftist fragments of social discontent in this country into a coherent political movement is the old pipe dream of post-Vietnam social revolutionaries, abandoned as impractical by the Democratic Party twenty years ago. Sharpton's political program is a fairly straightforward call for the redistribution of wealth, right out of the socialist movements of the early twentieth century. His five-year, $250 billion federal plan to "rebuild the nation's infrastructure," and his national health-care system, ignore ballooning deficits and widespread public disenchantment with huge federal spending programs—not to mention the disastrous history of such socialist schemes worldwide.
Rip van Sharpton is fighting wars already won. He said that he was running so that the voices of black Americans would be heard; but today—compared with 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed—there are four times as many African-Americans in Congress, three times as many in state offices, and twice as many in local positions. And those numbers don't include blacks in appointive office. When Sharpton piously hopes that his candidacy will show black children that they can imagine themselves in the White House someday, he forgets that black candidates have been running for President in every election cycle for the past twenty years; that the Secretary of State, fourth in line for succession to the Oval Office, is Colin Powell, a black man; and that President Bush's National Security Adviser, one of the most influential figures in America, is Condoleezza Rice, a black woman. America has a long way to go before it is color-blind, but some of the important battles have been won.
As Sharpton hurried away from his rousing speech at the Take Back America conference that day last June, I tried to put my finger on what impression he had made. The words that came to mind were "blast from the past."
The Race Man
Lloyd Hart, the spellbound Martha's Vineyard activist, had a good idea for how to raise campaign funds. He knew that among the well-to-do who summer on Martha's Vineyard are a large number of successful African-Americans from all walks of life, including the film director Spike Lee, the Harvard professor and author Henry Louis Gates Jr., the NAACP chairman Julian Bond, and the former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan.
On August 8 Hart threw a party for Sharpton at Spike Lee's summer house and invited all the prominent black vacationers on the island.
"I mean, I figured if Al could crack this nut, it could be huge," Hart said. "This group that summers here is significant. They have the means, and the clout. So I approached Spike, and he agreed to host it." But the plan proved harder than Hart had imagined.
"Getting these people to turn out for Al was like pulling teeth," he said. "People were very skeptical about his run."
Interviews: "Street Life" (August 18, 1999)
Elijah Anderson talks about his new book, Code of the Street, and the importance of looking honestly at life in the inner city.
Among those who attended that evening was Elijah Anderson, a noted sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Streetwise and other books about black urban culture. "I had never met Sharpton before that night," Anderson told me. "Previously I was not a fan, but I went because I was curious. Cornel West was supposed to be there, and a lot of other interesting people. They asked me to go on TV, to in effect be one of his sponsors, but I declined. I went because I wanted to see who else would turn up and support him. It was a mixed crowd, mainly white liberals, but there were a significant number of black people ... people who were down with the community, but well-heeled."
Sharpton had high hopes for the party. These were people with deep pockets. Even if they gave only halfheartedly, he figured, it ought to add up to as much as $50,000, which his already debt-ridden campaign badly needed. After Sharpton gave his pitch on the lawn outside Lee's house, arguing that he could inject issues into the 2004 campaign that white candidates would not, people did pull out their checkbooks and wallets.
"This guy was not going to get a lot of support," Anderson said. "But most of us there decided he deserved to get some. I was surprised at how articulate he was, and who else was going to raise issues of importance to black Americans, such as the overwhelming number of young blacks in prison? This was an argument even those uncomfortable with Sharpton could buy—that and the fact that he was not going to be even close to a serious candidate. So most people kicked in something for his campaign."
Hart considered the party a rousing success. Watkins was disappointed. They'd raised a total of $8,000.
Sharpton's fatal problems as a presidential candidate, which became more apparent in the following months, are both general and specific. The general problem is that he is seeking a role in American life that is long gone; call it the Negro Spokesman—about which more in a moment. The specific problem boils down to the sad case of Tawana Brawley.
This is the incident that first gave Sharpton notoriety as an adult, and one that he will never live down. Brawley was a fifteen-year-old girl who in 1987 was found smeared with dog feces and wrapped in a garbage bag. She claimed that she had been kidnapped by a group of two to six white men, who tortured and raped her for four days in the woods near her home in Wappingers Falls, New York. She said that one of the men had worn a badge, which seemed to implicate local law enforcement. Sharpton embraced Brawley's case, and even as evidence mounted that her story was a hoax, his accusations on her behalf grew more and more grandiose, until he had accused virtually the entire state law-enforcement system of complicity. He specifically named Steven Pagones, a Dutchess County assistant district attorney, as one of the rapists.
The charges quickly fell apart in every detail. There was no physical evidence to support them; in fact, the evidence provided a surprisingly clear contradictory account of Brawley's lost four days. As for Pagones, there was no evidence that he had been involved in an assault, and (as one might expect of a man with a very public job) he could account for his whereabouts on the days in question very nearly minute by minute, with scores of witnesses, documents, and even photographs. A grand jury carefully weighed the evidence in the case and issued a report debunking Brawley's story so convincingly that a civil jury subsequently assessed a $345,000 defamation judgment against those who had publicly accused Pagones. Nevertheless, Sharpton has steadfastly refused to back down from his support of Brawley or to pay his $65,000 share of the defamation judgment. By 2001 it had reportedly been paid by a group of wealthy supporters. But the issue hasn't been defused; Sharpton is asked about the Brawley case everywhere, and every time he gives basically the same answer.
"I stood up on her behalf," Sharpton told an interviewer at the Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP last June. "I stand up for people all the time. I disagreed with that jury ... You take a position based on your firm beliefs and the evidence presented to you. We do believe that young lady, and I have a right to believe the young lady."
This puts a noble spin on the episode, but Sharpton did considerably more than "stand up" for Brawley. Without his intervention the case would most likely have been examined and quietly dismissed. Sharpton trumpeted the grotesque charges worldwide and enlarged the incident into a bruising racial issue that harmed everyone involved—particularly the innocent accused. He did this apparently without subjecting Brawley's story to the slightest scrutiny. And he refuses to admit he was wrong. He often says, "I will not say something just to please somebody else," which makes him sound like a man of unswerving conviction, admirable and true. When he says he "disagrees" with the grand jury, that, too, sounds reasonable enough. Sharpton points out that he was ultimately vindicated in his support for the young men accused in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, who, years after a jury declared them guilty of rape and battery, were found to be innocent. He cleverly turns doubts about O.J. Simpson's famous acquittal against his critics, asking why, if they feel free to disagree with a jury, he isn't entitled to do the same in Tawana Brawley's case.
All this makes it sound as though the Brawley matter is one over which reasonable people still differ. It isn't. To anyone who has read the grand jury's calm, devastatingly thorough report, believing Brawley is like believing that the moon is made of cheese. Sharpton has flailed around in his efforts to explain himself, at one point telling a reporter from The Nation that he often refuses to back down because he found it so humiliating when his father backed down before a white restaurateur who refused to serve the family—as though stubbornness when wronged, which we admire, somehow equates with stubbornness when wronging someone else. Sharpton's posture is more than stubborn; it is arrogant. It speaks to both his judgment and his intentions.
Debra J. Dickerson, the author of The End of Blackness (2004), a discussion of the changing meaning of race in America, thinks that Sharpton epitomizes a certain kind of black mindset. "It believes Tawana Brawley, long past the point when any child gives up on Santa Claus," she writes. "Why? Because she accused whites of hideous acts, the kind of thing they 'would do' ... Anything 'black,' however odious, must be defended or denied, and anything 'white' attacked or dismissed. George Washington's slave-mongering matters, but O.J. Simpson's wife-beating doesn't. David Duke's racism signifies, but not the Nation of Islam's. Racial profiling of blacks is wrong, but feel free to throw Arab Americans up against the wall. Tawana Brawley's inconsistencies mean nothing, those of a testifying cop, everything. Why? Because whites got away with gang-raping and torturing nigger gals for centuries—big deal, they finally had to pay for one ... It's Kabuki. It's a stylized acting out of unresolved trauma and revenge fantasies. It's neurotic. It's pointless. It's counterproductive. It's demeaning. It keeps blacks from looking in the mirror or finding better uses of their civic time."
So why would anyone—other than those so steeped in historical anger that they embrace this Kabuki—want to vote for Al Sharpton as President of the United States?
"Mongrel America" (January/February 2003)
The most important long-term social fact in America may be the rising rates of intermarriage among members of ethnic and racial groups. A glimpse into our mestizo future. By Gregory Rodriguez.
This brings us to Sharpton's broader problem: the death of the Negro Spokesman. I use this antiquated term because the concept itself is so dated. Throughout our history white America has recognized a certain few figures as "leaders" of the black community—a pattern that Michael Eric Dyson, a writer and a humanities professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has called "an old, abiding problem." They alone were considered able to speak for the whole race. This was true on a local level and also nationally, as prominent African-Americans from Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to serve as spokesmen for people otherwise excluded from public life. Sometimes, as with King, these figures had the enthusiastic support of black Americans; sometimes, as with Washington, they did not. In a country that increasingly accepts itself as multiracial, where blacks are no longer even the largest minority, the role of the Negro Spokesman is as outmoded as the Victrola. Most black intellectuals, particularly younger ones, are glad to be rid of it.
With the success of the twentieth-century civil-rights movement and the rise of a strong black middle class, anyone looking for a "black leader" in this country needn't look far: blacks in most states have elected representatives of their own race, and academia now boasts many black scholars. Jesse Jackson, who actively sought the mantle of the Negro Spokesman after King's assassination (much as Sharpton is seeking it now), actually closed the door on this phenomenon himself by running for President in 1984 and 1988, and doing surprisingly well. In effect, Jackson's candidacy carried the traditionally nonpolitical role of black leadership into electoral politics.
Dickerson believes that Sharpton doesn't get this. Although she feels that he deserves a lot of credit for some of the work he has done against police brutality in New York, she told me, "Reverend Al is not very visionary or forward-looking. His presidential run seems predicated on the proposition that the civil-rights movement wasn't that successful. It was quite successful. Racism is still there, but it is much more subtle and organic; it plays itself out as interest-group politics today. The fight is no longer a fight for our race but a fight for justice ... Black people are much more plugged in to the system today. The progress of the movement had made it very clear to all that it cannot be Us versus Them. Blacks today are more concerned about outcomes than color."
Mat Johnson, a novelist and a professor at Bard College, agrees. He told me, "Black people are way past the point where they think they will further their agenda just by voting for someone black. Voters today are more sophisticated than that. In that sense Sharpton is a dinosaur; he's a white liberal's idea of what a black leader is."
Civil-rights progress has desimplified black politics. African-American voters no longer come in one flavor. Today they find common cause in a yearning for continued racial progress, but they increasingly disagree—just as white voters disagree—over how to achieve it. There are still radical black activists, but there are also Clarence Thomas, the arch-conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice; J. C. Watts, the conservative former congressman from Oklahoma; and many others who defy the old model of black leadership. There are similar divisions in the ranks of black intellectuals, who publicly debate the advantages and disadvantages of social-welfare programs and affirmative action, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the implications of gangsta rap, and the call for slavery reparations. The rise of an educated, ambitious black middle class has begun to alter the formerly predictable patterns of black voting. Young blacks are increasingly unimpressed by the choices the Democratic Party offers. A New York Times article by Lynette Clemetson last August reported that whereas 74 percent of AfricanAmericans had called themselves Democrats four years ago, only 63 percent did so in 2003.
John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Losing the Race (2000) and Authentically Black (2003), believes that Sharpton is part of a culture of victimology. Like Dickerson, McWhorter sees traditional black protest politics as a kind of theater in which all blacks, under pain of being labeled a race traitor (as he has been), must play along.
McWhorter sees Sharpton as an "inveterate liar" and an "opportunistic cartoon" who sits, with Congressman Charles Rangel, "at the gates of Harlem like the lions at the library on Forty-second Street, more interested in trying to steer development efforts in the old Big City Boss style than in lifting Harlem out of its misery at all costs." Sharpton's politics and even his goals are as anachronistic as his straightened hair, and—here's the farce—he appears oblivious. He has chosen to define himself as the Negro Spokesman, and by God, the rest of the world will have to come around. He proceeds on the principle that if you insist loudly enough that the broomstick between your legs is a pony, eventually the thing will whinny and gallop.
The Virtual Campaign
"Fundraising is going badly," Frank Watkins said when I visited him at "Sharpton national campaign headquarters," just weeks after the disappointing Spike Lee event. "The campaign is going to hell."
Watkins is a serious fellow. A lifelong Christian activist who has worked in left-wing politics ever since his hopes of playing for the Philadelphia Phillies fell through, he helped manage both of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns. I traveled briefly with Jackson in Texas during the 1984 campaign, and saw the excitement he generated everywhere. Jackson is a born politician. On the road he attracted crowds wherever he stopped, and usually spent time warmly meeting and greeting. He would stop at the local high school and work out in the gym with the basketball team—he still had a mean baseline jumper, and when he moved to the paint, few schoolboys dared get in his way.
Watkins is the one who encouraged Jackson to run. If anybody knew how to sell a black candidate with somewhat mixed appeal to the political mainstream, he was that man. The strategy now was specific: If Sharpton could win the District primary in January (Jackson had won it with 80 percent of the vote in 1988), it might bump his numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire enough to surprise people. That would position him to possibly win the primary in South Carolina, where more than half the voters were black, and where polls then showed Sharpton running strong. And that would crown him a serious candidate, and put him in the game right up to the convention.
But nothing was playing out according to the script. The money raised so far was well short of that needed for federal matching funds: at least $100,000 in contributions of no more than $250 apiece, and from a total of twenty states. The target for each state was twenty contributors and $5,000. In Alabama the campaign had raised only $45.
Watkins sat in his shorts and slippers in front of a computer in his living room, notepads and folders scattered at his feet, wearing a telephone headset, answering my questions, and fielding two or three calls a minute. It was hard to tell when he was talking to me. He would be telling me about his failure to secure a church after graduating from divinity school (the church elders objected to his activist methods) and then, without segue, would answer a question from someone on the phone; then he'd slide right back in where he had left off with me. He did this with ease. At that point he was campaign manager, speechwriter, researcher, receptionist, scheduler, chief fundraiser, accountant, strategist ... "You name it," he said, and took another phone call.
"Al is doing great in one sense," Watkins said, his attention focused on me again. "People love him in the debates—he's a terrific speaker. None of the other candidates can touch him. But we've raised about two hundred thousand [nearly all of it in a few contributions too large to meet the FEC requirements], which is next to nothing. It's already spent. We need a campaign structure, an organization in each of the states. We need a political director, a press person, someone to coordinate fundraising, a research-andissues person. I told Al when we started that we would need at least three million dollars for 2003, and double that for 2004." He considered those figures to be modest. Jackson had raised $11 million in 1984, and $21 million in 1988. But not even Watkins's low goals had been met.
"He should be spending three hours a day on the telephone," Watkins said. "He ought to have one hundred prospects lined up, and he should just move on down the list, one call at a time, asking for contributions. Every day. But he doesn't like to ask people for money. Who does? But you can't campaign without it."
He took another phone call. I noticed that he still had a large album collection from the sixties and seventies, and a turntable.
"I identify with people who identify with the left out," he said, to me again. "And Sharpton identifies with the left out. He polls highest in the black community, and I understood when I joined up that he wouldn't get a lot of pull beyond it. But my religious background says that God can take a crooked stick and hit a straight lick."
Watkins had big plans. He wanted to run a real campaign. The office he had wanted to rent over the Greek restaurant would have cost $11,000 a month—a bargain. He had envisioned a staff of twenty-five, although he could have managed with just twenty. He has a computer program to help him do targeted fundraising and build an organization on the Internet, but without funds—perhaps $2,500 a month—he hadn't been able to make use of it. He wanted to prepare a fifteen-minute videotape, something that campaign workers could use as the centerpiece for small gatherings or rallies. He envisioned twenty or thirty such gatherings around the country after each debate, raising maybe $1,000 per event. But he didn't have the money to prepare, copy, and distribute the tapes, or a list of people to receive them. He wanted to do a direct-mail campaign, soliciting donations from Black Enterprise and Jet and from thousands of elected black officials, but ...
His biggest frustration was Sharpton's idiosyncratic schedule.
"I tell him, 'Rev, every day counts,'" Watkins said. "'You are doing the schedule, and the schedule should be doing you.' His appearances should make political sense."
Strategy, he told me, "is my strong suit." A yellow legal pad on the floor charted the number of days left until the District primary—139. Watkins had calculated how many days Sharpton needed to spend in the city and in each important state. The most important state was South Carolina. On his computer he showed me a graphic display of the state; using voting records from 2000, he had broken it down county by county. After fielding another phone call, he explained the color coding, which showed the counties where Sharpton could hope to run strong, those where he didn't have a prayer, and those where he might still make progress. With the days counting down rapidly now, Watkins thought his candidate ought to be working South Carolina the way a catcher breaks in his mitt, pounding it again and again. Instead ... "He's off in California, preaching in Oakland and meeting with the mayor of San Francisco, speaking about the [Gray Davis] recall campaign."
Sharpton is irresistibly drawn to cameras and lights, and few of those were to be found along the hot, dusty back roads of rural South Carolina. Yet if he hoped to make an impact, a real impact, something more meaningful than those fleeting moments of TV time, that's where he needed to be.
Except ... Sharpton was not actually campaigning in the real world. His run existed only on TV and radio, in newspapers, and on the Internet. Watkins never got that, or never accepted it. When he left, on the last day of September, along with Kevin Gray, the South Carolina coordinator (the only paid coordinator in any state), the last vestige of real campaigning vanished. The wheels had entirely left the road. Sharpton's run had become an idea of a campaign. It had gone virtual.
A Rollicking Good Time With Al
Early in the morning on Tuesday, January 13, the day of the District primary, Pastor Melvin G. Brown was standing by himself, cradling a cup of steaming coffee from 7-Eleven, looking out expectantly toward the entrance to the Fort Totten Metro-station parking lot. According to Sharpton's daily agenda, the one posted on his cool Web site (www.sharpton2004.org), Rev was to have begun this important day greeting commuters before dawn at the busy station, the first event in a projected day of classic get-out-the-vote campaigning. Brown had showed up on time. The sun was just a dull orange glow over the treetops when I met him there, about a half hour after Sharpton was supposed to have arrived. The pastor, a broad-beamed man with salt-and-pepper hair and a big jeweled cross of gold hanging around his neck, looked peeved but hopeful.
"He should be here in about fifteen minutes," he said.
Commuters streamed past us and through the subway turnstiles, hundreds of unshaken hands per minute.
Brown, too, had worked for both of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns. He had been asked days earlier by a local radio personality, Mark Thompson, to help with Sharpton's primary push. So far he seemed only marginally impressed.
"Jackson had a few more connections," Brown said. "He was able to attract a little more enthusiasm and excitement. He also had more financial resources."
And he tended to show up. In the months since I visited Watkins, things had continued to go badly for the campaign. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. had decided to endorse Howard Dean, then the front-runner—a decision that the congressman would most likely not have made without his father's approval. This was a blow. Sharpton had campaigned in Chicago for Jesse Jr.'s successful congressional run, and had long depicted himself as a political heir to the elder Jackson. His whole campaign had been conceived in that spirit. Sharpton lashed back with a bitter public statement to the effect that Jesse Sr. was over the hill and Jesse Jr. was an Uncle Tom. "You are not doing nothing but playing with yourself," he said, addressing the Illinois congressman. "These people are not discussing you; they need a few cosmetic pictures to add to their profile. I'm ready to put out ads telling all Uncle Toms, At least send me part of the money you get from selling out, because if I wasn't in the race they wouldn't be offering you nothing. I put a whole new generation of Toms in business." In the midst of this spat Jesse Sr. called Sharpton "over the top," "mostly inaccurate," and "ridiculous." There had been embarrassing stories just that week about how his penniless campaign was paying for him to stay at four-star hotels all over the country—a practice that Sharpton defended ("We're holding fundraisers. Do they expect us to host them in a dump?") but nevertheless promised to curtail.
Sharpton had shone in a December appearance on Saturday Night Live, in which he demonstrated a strong singing voice, a willingness to poke fun at himself, and some mean dance moves. But an hour in the comedy spotlight was a far cry from having his candidacy taken seriously.
He was the only candidate whose strategy turned on doing well in this District beauty contest, and he was the only one in town for it. He had replaced Watkins with Charles Halloran, a veteran political manager, and claimed to have raised sufficient money to qualify for federal matching funds, although the Federal Election Commission had not approved his application. Wesley Clark had received $7.5 million, John Edwards $6 million; even Lyndon LaRouche had qualified for more than a million. Sharpton had borrowed $150,000 in anticipation of getting the funding. (Eventually the FEC would give Sharpton $100,000, and would then initiate an investigation with an eye toward taking it back, claiming that the candidate might not have played entirely by the rules.) He had finally opened a proper campaign office in the District, with much fanfare, just over a month earlier. The excitement was mostly manufactured. Michael Doyle, of the Sacramento Bee, noted the striking paucity of Sharpton supporters at the event, and quoted a drum major with the 120-piece marching band from nearby Bowie State University as saying, "To be honest with you, this is just a performance for us." The headquarters was a small room on the second floor of a brown brick building in Anacostia, over a hair salon and adjacent to a dentist's office.
A win or a big showing in the District was critical. Washington voters are 70 percent minority, 60 percent African-American. Five of the nine candidates had decided not to run there; with Sharpton, only Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, and Carol Moseley Braun were on the ballot, along with seven obscure hopefuls. It was a chance—one of the only chances—for Sharpton to win something, to show that he could rally and inspire black voters as Jesse Sr. had.
A young woman entering the Fort Totten station eyed the waiting group of reporters and cameras and approached Pastor Brown. "What's going on?" she asked.
"Reverend Al Sharpton is going to be here," he said. "He's running a little late."
The woman waited for a few minutes and then pushed on through the turnstile to catch a train. A half hour later there was still no sign of the candidate. "His schedule is kind of fluid," Brown said.
Eventually we got word that he wasn't coming. Brown made a few calls on his cell phone and determined that Sharpton's campaign day was actually going to begin about two hours later than planned, at a nearby polling place. So we all drove over there.
There weren't many voters at the Bertie Backus Middle School. "Most everybody has come and gone before they went off to work," said an elderly gentleman guarding an invisible line atop the steps leading down to the playground and polling place, which campaign workers dared not cross. A small group of reporters, some of the same ones who had been at the Metro stop, waited, bouncing from foot to foot and trying to keep warm. Mark Thompson, Sharpton's point man for the day, arrived with a megaphone. He was a young man with a basketball-size knot of dreadlocked hair bundled behind his head. Using the megaphone, he belted out a few amplified words to the empty alleyway behind the school.
"Come meet Reverend Al Sharpton, the only man to campaign in D.C.!"
The candidate finally arrived in a gigantic tan Lincoln Navigator. He stepped out into the cold and paced around for a few moments, scowling. This absence of voters to greet was evidently confirming his worst suspicions about the wisdom of visiting polling places early on a winter morning. With nobody around except a Dean volunteer, it was looking like an unfortunate TV photo op. He huddled with Thompson, strategizing. When a radio reporter approached to ask a question, the candidate growled, "We're talking!" She backed off.
A solution to the photo-op difficulty materialized when a herd of middle school students appeared below, walking across the playground. Thompson was after them like a border collie.
"All you students who want to meet Reverend Al Sharpton, come on up!" the megaphone barked.
None of the students stopped walking.
Again, the megaphone: "Y'all want to meet Reverend Sharpton?"
"No!" one of the students, a boy, shouted back.
Undeterred, Thompson and the eager candidate barreled right past the elderly guardian at the top of the steps and chased down the somewhat bewildered-looking students, most of whom got away. One or two submitted to having their hands shaken for the TV cameras, and then quickly scampered.
It was a little better at the next polling place, where Sharpton chatted with two voters. Then he moved on to Anacostia Senior High School for a pre-arranged meeting with Fredericka Freeman, an eighteen-year-old senior about to cast her first vote. Freeman was the only voter in sight. There was a little problem with getting all the cameras past the guards and metal detectors at the front doors, but (in brazen violation of polling-place rules) Sharpton accompanied the newly hatched voter down the aisle of the school auditorium and stood proudly by for the cameras as she filled in her ballot and deposited it.
"This is what my campaign is about," he said.
After that Sharpton broke for breakfast. When he got out of the Navigator at the restaurant, he gestured for me to join him.
Like many men used to being at the center of an entourage, Sharpton has a way of being with you without fully acknowledging that you are there. As I hovered in his space, he chatted on the phone, shook hands with the restaurant staff, picked out a table, huddled with Marjorie Harris-Smikle, and placed his order (eggs, turkey bacon, and grits). Not until his plate had been delivered and he had taken his seat did he turn his attention to me. There is something pugilistic about the way Sharpton sits for an interview. He squares himself in his chair, shoulders back, head up, gazing off into the middle distance, the heavy lids of his big eyes drooping. (His wife calls him "Eyes.") He rolled them balefully to me, as if to say, Okay, I'm ready—give me your best shot.
I asked him about Watkins's departure, and about Jesse Jackson Jr.'s decision to endorse Howard Dean.
He regarded them as the same betrayal. "I think the fact is, the day after Frank resigned, Junior went with Dean," he said. "I think that maybe Frank's leaving had something to do with them deciding to go with Dean ... I was disappointed [about Junior's decision] more for him than for me, because Illinois is way down the road on the list of primaries. I would have thought that he would have wanted to continue the tradition that gave his name the validity it did in the first place. So I was disappointed for him ... Politically, it meant very little to me."
Politically, it had been disastrous for him, actually. I asked him whether he thought black politics in America had changed since the civil-rights years, and he said no, in so many words. He felt it was still about young leaders' operating outside the system and battling the more entrenched mainstream blacks. The one difference he did see was that certain young elected black officials from the North (he did not actually mention Jesse Jackson Jr. by name here), who have had no experience with the movement, overestimate the significance of their "enfranchisement." He told me, "So they keep saying, 'Black politicians, it's a new day.' But their status is no different than those before them. So the question becomes, Is it their illusion or is it their reality? And I think in the gap between illusion and reality, a lot of times, they lose their constituents, and I think that's the problem ... It wasn't about new. It was about whether they were 'establishment' party politicians."
He still seemed genuinely enthusiastic about his prospects.
"We'll do well in South Carolina ... Let me just put it this way: If forty to forty-five percent of the voters in South Carolina are African-American, you have nine candidates. Let's say, theoretically, I get fifty percent of the black vote. If there's not a major go for one of the white candidates, you win just with that. I don't think anyone is looking at that ... The next primary is the Michigan caucus, which is the same week. Then that Saturday is Virginia, where I'm the only person of color on the ballot. If we do the scientific delegateprocessing that we intend, I could come into Super Tuesday with as many delegates or more than the front-runner ... and when you get to the convention, he who has the delegates has the leverage."
Sharpton won just 34 percent of the vote in the District primary that day, finishing second to Howard Dean (43 percent) and ahead of Carol Moseley Braun (12 percent). He could boast about finishing second, but it did not bode well for a man trading on the color of his skin to be bested on what might be called his own turf by a white former governor of Vermont—especially considering that Dean hadn't even bothered to campaign in D.C.
The "victory party" that night was an anemic affair at a nightclub. Notably absent were any of the "grassroots" supporters Sharpton was always talking about. Most of those present were from the press, waiting for the candidate to make a statement. In contrast, 150 Dean supporters were packed into another D.C. bar awaiting their candidate's victory phone call.
When Sharpton swept in, the TV lights switched on. He arranged his paltry entourage around him in a corner, which made the event seem crowded.
"The fact that I won one third of the vote where there were only four major candidates on the ballot speaks volumes about what we can do in South Carolina, Delaware, Missouri, and Virginia in the coming weeks with nine in the race," Sharpton said. "I am quite sure that the candidates not on the D.C. ballot will take away many more votes from the front-runner in the upcoming primaries in states with heavy minority populations. Our grassroots efforts and progressive message will continue to be a decisive factor in communities of color across the nation."
I was on the other side of the cameras, in a thin semicircle of reporters, aware that the real audience for this moment was millions of Americans at home—who were no doubt thinking they were missing a rollicking good time with Al in downtown D.C.
I was surprised to see a pretty good crowd of poll workers gathered around Sharpton's campaign office in Columbia, South Carolina, early on February 3, a chilly gray morning. It was the day of truth for Sharpton's campaign, whose bankruptcy few could fully comprehend. Where had poll workers come from?
With mounting debts (they would total nearly half a million dollars by spring), without a campaign staff, without an organization, without funding, and without any real popular support, Sharpton had, in effect, struck a deal with the devil. In a remarkable story that would run a week later, the Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett documented how the candidate had increasingly leaned on Roger Stone, a notorious Republican Party operative. Stone and Sharpton were kindred spirits on different ends of the political spectrum, in that neither man was a stranger to public outrage. Stone had been scheming for Republicans since the days of Watergate, when as a young functionary allied with Richard Nixon's "plumbers" he made a donation to the New Hampshire primary campaign of Nixon's rival Pete McCloskey in the name of the "Young Socialist Alliance." More recently he had been a leader of the effort that shut down the Miami-Dade County recount, a step on the path to George W. Bush's being awarded the presidency. Everyone has heard of politics and strange bedfellows, but why would Sharpton, who rails against Bush at every opportunity, be in league with a man who helped put Bush in the White House?
There would be plenty of speculation in the coming weeks that Sharpton had planned it all along. He certainly was not above playing spoiler, and his antipathy for the current national leadership of the Democratic Party was well known. He had feuded with the party chairman, Terry McAuliffe, and had bragged about using his influence in New York to undermine the Democratic mayoral bid of Mark Green. But the timing of his alliance with Stone, who had been quietly bailing out the sinking ship of Sharpton's campaign, suggested that it had less to do with strategy than with desperation. Sharpton was flailing. He was accepting support wherever he could find it. At first he had just accepted Stone's advice. The old Republican prankster is said to have suggested the now infamous debate challenge to Dean about the dearth of African-Americans in Vermont's gubernatorial cabinet, and to have furnished Sharpton with an ax handle to wield as a prop in the July NAACP debate, when the candidate accused the party of harboring the old segregationist mentality of the former Georgia governor Lester Maddox, who had used an ax handle to roust blacks from his restaurant. The candidate had gone from accepting debating tips to, reportedly, accepting $200,000 from Stone to keep his campaign afloat. He still owed Frank Watkins just under $60,000, and Kevin Gray $38,000. Charles Halloran, Watkins's replacement, had managed the Stone-run independent New York gubernatorial campaign of the billionaire Tom Golisano in 2002. There could be only one plausible reason for Stone's helping Sharpton, and that was to undermine the mainstream appeal of the Democratic Party by forcing whoever became the front-runner to deal with Sharpton's ostentatiously leftist agenda. There was no plot—just a marriage of convenience, albeit one of the more bizarre in modern politics. Stone simply wanted Sharpton to be Sharpton, which coincided perfectly with the candidate's own plans. But the alliance would pay off for neither man unless the candidate could deliver votes on this day in South Carolina.
The crowd of poll workers at Sharpton's campaign office was bigger than any I had seen at his rallies. So I started asking questions. A tall, toothless man with gray hair and a week's worth of gray stubble over a sallow complexion explained that he and others had been approached the night before at a homeless shelter and promised $75 each for a day's work handing out Sharpton pamphlets. Another man nearby said the same. They were a little disgruntled to learn on arriving that the amount would be only $50, but they were undeterred.
"Are you Sharpton supporters?" I asked.
Both men rolled their eyes and laughed. "Hey, fifty bucks for ten hours, that's five bucks an hour," the toothless man said. "I'd hand out pamphlets for anybody for five bucks an hour. That'll buy me cigarettes and a good meal."
"I got no political interests," the second man said.
With the others was a group of young women from Benedict College, where Sharpton had visited the previous Friday. They, too, had been promised $50 to $75 for the day. One of them said that the candidate "came to our school and ... spoke about issues important to the black community"—but clearly the money was the draw. Eddie Harris, the filmmaker who is part of Sharpton's traveling entourage, was shuttling cars full of these workers out to various districts around the city.
It didn't look good. Sharpton had been bragging about his "grassroots" strategy in this state for months, about the enthusiastic support he had been finding here, especially in black communities, and this was supposed to be the one place where he had a measure of organization. "I fully expect to win primaries in the coming weeks," he had said in the South Carolina primary debate, just days earlier. There was little evidence of momentum.
The night before, he had held an impressive gospel rally at Reid Chapel AME, a simple clapboard house of worship with a congregation of about five hundred. The church was packed and rocking. The church's own Voices of Unity choir put on a magnificent performance, swaying, clapping, and electrifying the overflow audience with cascading, rhythmic choruses of infectious hymns. It was followed by the University of South Carolina's Touch of Faith choir, and then by the main attraction, the gospel singing star John P. Kee. Kee was the man most people had come to see, so Sharpton took over before bringing him out.
"We decided to end this campaign right where we started, in church, the black church in South Carolina," he said, rocking back and forth. "Tomorrow we're going to make history! I believe in taking the possible out of the impossible. I started this morning at a slave market in Charleston, and I stood there in a place where a few hundred years ago black men stood to be assessed as slaves, and this morning I stood there to be assessed as a candidate for President of the United States. We're going from property to President!"
"Amen," said a voice in the congregation.
"Disgrace to Amazing Grace!"
"You tell it!"
"They can't poll us because they can't find us. To just vote for who they tell you to vote for is to waste your vote! ... You know, I've been black all my life. I've been black three times. I've been a black baby, I've been a black boy, and now I'm a black man! I've been black three times!"
And on he went, warmly received. Then Sharpton asked for a show of hands. "How many of you all are going to vote tomorrow?"
About two thirds of the hands in the audience went up.
"Okay, now how many of you are going to vote for me?"
A much smaller number of hands went up, about a third of the earlier showing.
"Be honest now," Sharpton said.
It looked to me as though the congregation was being painfully honest. A clipboard was being passed around the church for people to sign up to work the polls the next day. When it had made the trip down every pew, two names were on it. Two.
"I was contacted about setting all that up only a week ago," said the church's pastor, the Reverend James R. Glover. "I think most people came out to hear the music."
The next evening, after the polls closed, I sat with Sharpton's South Carolina public-information coordinator, Cheryl Washington, at the bar of the Sheraton Inn during Sharpton's "victory" party, waiting for the early returns. Washington seemed tired, and was disappointed that the band that was supposed to come had not showed up. Most of the people at the party were reporters. A few camera crews were setting up in one corner for the ritual postprimary speech. The large room was mostly empty.
"There really was just a few of us volunteering," she said. "I would love to get a job at the U.S. Capitol. I did an internship there with Congressman [James] Clyburn's office, and worked there for a few years. I'm impressed with the way Reverend Sharpton handles the press. They are always trying to trip him up and they can't ever do it."
The returns were not good. Sharpton had won only nine percent of the vote. The estimate on various TV channels kept swaying between nine percent and 10 percent, but eventually settled down to the single digit. John Edwards had won 45 percent of the vote, John Kerry 30 percent. Sharpton's hopes—that white candidates would split the white vote at least four ways and he would carry half of the black vote, or more—were dashed. I thought of the paltry show of hands at the church the night before. That crowd had demonstrated about the same level of support as South Carolina's blacks as a whole. Sharpton had received only one of every five votes cast by African-Americans. He had won exactly one of South Carolina's fifty-five delegates. It wasn't just a loss—it was a repudiation.
I called up Lloyd Hart on Martha's Vineyard.
"This is a great victory for us!" he said. Then he said some other things, but I confess I was too astonished to take notes. (Hart abruptly switched his support to Ralph Nader three weeks later.)
The defeat was so resounding that the New York papers speculated about Sharpton's having hurt his standing as a black power broker in the city—something no one (certainly not Sharpton) would have imagined when he dreamed up this campaign. He had been fond of saying to black audiences, "We can't lose!" Well, maybe they couldn't lose, but he could. The revelations of his ties to Stone broke a week later, and people all over the country began questioning his motives.
In the following weeks Lieberman, Clark, and Dean bowed out. By the end of the month the Democratic race was a contest between Kerry and Edwards, with Sharpton and Kucinich flapping like scraps of colorful cloth on the tail of their kite. The FEC had still not awarded Sharpton any matching funds (there were suspicions about some of the reported donations), and the campaign was reportedly $500,000 in debt. Sharpton had still not paid Watkins or Gray. Less than a month earlier he had outlined for me his strategy of arriving at Super Tuesday, March 2, with "as many delegates or more than the front-runner." When Super Tuesday rolled around, he had just sixteen delegates, compared with 754 for John Kerry and 220 for John Edwards. Even under the terms Sharpton had set for himself, South Carolina was the end.
Or so it seemed. The crowd at the Sheraton Inn victory bash never filled out that night. Sharpton made his appearance in time for the eleven o'clock news, strutting in with his usual small entourage, resplendent, smiling, light gleaming off the sheen of his slicked-back hair. He squared himself in front of the array of microphones, and to the small clump of reporters and cameras declared, "Tonight we started a movement that will transform the Democratic Party ... This is an astonishing boost in the arm for the Sharpton campaign."