If you were able to watch the memorial Monday for Michael Brown, the unarmed young black man slain by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., you would have seen the Rev. Al Sharpton at his very best.
Sharpton was the final speaker at the service in St. Louis’ Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church. They definitely saved the best for last. The Rev, as he's often called, was compassionate, godly, scolding and wry -- qualities that have served him well as he has transformed himself from a cartoonish promoter of racial justice (the track suits, the medallions, the giant paunch, the Tawana Brawley debacle) into a respectable leader with a pipeline to the president.
Many times over the years, I’ve heard people snicker at the mention of Sharpton’s name. Often, they expect me to be in on the joke. But I don’t laugh at Al Sharpton. I can't help but respect him, warts and all.
He is a flawed man, for sure, but if you want to trot out Tawana Brawley, I will trot out the Central Park Five, black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping and nearly killing a white jogger in 1989, when New York City was a more dangerous place and paranoia about racial crime was easy to inflame. Sharpton was one of their few defenders. His critics have never given him credit for that.
In 2004, I covered Sharpton when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, sharing a debate stage with the likes of John Kerry and John Edwards. He had no shot at winning, didn’t have to thread any needles and so was free to speak passionately -- and refreshingly -- about poverty and social justice, even as he was accused of being a GOP puppet, sent to frighten Democrats into Republican arms.
Sharpton simply cannot be laughed out of the room. As Politico reporter Glenn Thrush wrote last week in a terrific and nuanced profile of Sharpton, he has become the “the national black leader Obama leans on most.”
On Monday, as Sharpton eulogized Brown, he showed why he’s been able to transcend so much of the baggage that his critics find unforgivable -- the race-baiting, the financial chicanery, the failure to be contrite enough about his sometimes incendiary past.
As he told the New York Times, which also profiled him, "I always knew under those 300 pounds and track suits was a refined, slim, dignified man."
And that's exactly how he appeared Monday, as he hit all the right notes about why so much of what happened in Ferguson was wrong and offensive, what elected officials owe their citizens and, perhaps most powerfully, what the African American community owes itself.
With just the right amount of indignation and sadness, Sharpton spoke about how awful it was for Brown’s body to be left on the street for four hours after he was killed (“dogs sniffing his body … like nobody cared about him, like he didn’t have any loved ones”) and how terrible it was for Brown’s parents to have to interrupt their mourning to plead for peace. “Can you imagine?” he asked. “They’re heartbroken, their son taken -- discarded and marginalized -- and they have to stop mourning to get you to control your anger, like you’re more angry than they are.”
Sharpton left no one off the hook -- not the overarmed police, not the handful of protesters who responded with violence, not the politicians, not the black folks “sitting around having ghetto pity parties rather than organizing and strategizing.”
“Blackness was never about being a gangster or thug,” he said. “Blackness was about how no matter how low we was pushed down, we rose up anyhow. Blackness was never surrendering our pursuit of excellence. When it was against the law to go to some schools, we built black colleges and learned anyhow, when we couldn’t go downtown to church, we built our own AME church and our own Church of God in Christ. We never surrendered, we never gave up.
"And now we get to the 21st century, we get to where we got some positions of power. And you decide it ain't black no more to be successful. Now you wanna be a nigga and call your woman a ho. You lost where you come from. We got to clean up our community so we can clean up the United States of America.”
“This is not about you,” he told the mourners, nearly all of whom were black. “This is about justice. This is about fairness and how America is gonna have to come to terms when there’s something wrong, that we have money to give military equipment to police forces, but we don’t have money for training and money for public education. … America, how do you think we look when the world can see you can’t come up with a police reporter but you can find a video? How do you think we look when young people marched nonviolently asking for the land of the free and the home of the brave to hear their cry and you put snipers on the roof and pointed guns at them?”
He even criticized his fellow clergy: “Some of the preachers was mad that some of the other preachers was in town. … All this backstabbing and backbiting, folks more worried about getting on the program than developing a program.”
You might think that's a rich comment coming from a man who usually thrusts himself to the head of the outrage line when a racially charged event makes headlines.
After all, he was on the scene in Staten Island after Eric Garner, an unarmed black man selling loose cigarettes died after police put him in a chokehold. He was on the scene in Sanford, Fla., after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by George Zimmerman.
But, as Sharpton pointed out, he had never even heard of Ferguson until Brown's grandfather called Sharpton's organization, the National Action Network, to ask for help.
In any case, some people have earned a spot at the head of the outrage line. Sharpton happens to be one of them.