Back in spotlight, Sharpton seizes the moment

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Rev. Al Sharpton back in the spotlight
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Back in spotlight, Sharpton seizes the moment
Reverend Al Sharpton attends the Easter Prayer Breakfast in the East Room of the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Christian leaders from across the country join Obama at the breakfast to pray and reflect on Holy Week and Easter. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 08: Reverend Al Sharpton speaks at the National Action Network (NAN) national convention on April 8, 2015 in New York City. Sharpton founded NAN in 1991; the convention hosted various politicians, organizers and religious leaders to talk about the nation's most pressing issues. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
SELMA, AL - MARCH 07: Al Sharpton attends 50th Anniversary Of Selma March For African American Voting Rights on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. (Photo by Nicole Craine/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 30: At NBC headquarters, Reverend Al Sharpton records his daily TV show called Politics Nation on Friday, January 30, 2015, in New York, NY. Sharpton has become a fixture of the American news cycle. He has a national radio show, a nightly TV show, a nonprofit social justice organization with active chapters in 38 states and a dozen visits each year to the White House. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, UNITED STATES - AUGUST 24: Michael Brown Sr. (L2), father of slain teenager Michael Brown Jr., and Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (R2) speak to the crowd during Peacefest, hosted by Better Family Life and the Trayvon Martin Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri on August 24, 2014. The festival is held in support for the family of Michael Brown, the 18 year-old unarmed teenager shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. (Photo by Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, UNITED STATES - AUGUST 24: Michael Brown Sr. (L), father of slain teenager Michael Brown Jr., and Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (R) speak to the crowd during Peacefest, hosted by Better Family Life and the Trayvon Martin Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri on August 24, 2014. The festival is held in support for the family of Michael Brown, the 18 year-old unarmed teenager shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. (Photo by Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, UNITED STATES - AUGUST 24: Michael Brown Sr. (centerL), father of slain teenager Michael Brown Jr., and Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (centerR) speak to the crowd during Peacefest, hosted by Better Family Life and the Trayvon Martin Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri on August 24, 2014. The festival is held in support for the family of Michael Brown, the 18 year-old unarmed teenager shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. (Photo by Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, UNITED STATES - AUGUST 24: Michael Brown Sr. (L3), father of slain teenager Michael Brown Jr. and Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (C) speak to the crowd during Peacefest, hosted by Better Family Life and the Trayvon Martin Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri on August 24, 2014. The festival is held in support for the family of Michael Brown, the 18 year-old unarmed teenager shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. (Photo by Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, UNITED STATES - AUGUST 24: Michael Brown Sr. (R2), father of slain teenager Michael Brown Jr., and Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (R) speak to the crowd during Peacefest, hosted by Better Family Life and the Trayvon Martin Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri on August 24, 2014. The festival is held in support for the family of Michael Brown, the 18 year-old unarmed teenager shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. (Photo by Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, UNITED STATES - AUGUST 24: Michael Brown Sr. (R2), father of slain teenager Michael Brown Jr., and Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (R) speak to the crowd during Peacefest, hosted by Better Family Life and the Trayvon Martin Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri on August 24, 2014. The festival is held in support for the family of Michael Brown, the 18 year-old unarmed teenager shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. (Photo by Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The Reverend Al Sharpton (C), speaks to the crowd during a Peacefest, a festival hosted by Better Family Life and the Trayvon Martin Foundation, in St. Louis, Missouri on August 24, 2014 in support for the family of Michael Brown, the 18 year-old teenager shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. AFP PHOTO / Michael B. THOMAS (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 24: In unison, a concert crowd raises their hands as they chant 'Hands down, don't shoot' as Lesley McSpadden, accompanied by family, her attorney Benjamin Crump, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, appears before a concert crowd in honor of her son at PeaceFest 2014 at Forest Park on Sunday, August 24, 2014, in St. Louis, MO. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American male, was fatally gunned down by a White police officer, Darren Wilson, on August 9. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 24: Lesley McSpadden, accompanied by family, her attorney Benjamin Crump, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, sheds a tear as she raises her hands as the crowd yells 'hands up, don't shoot' as she appears before a concert crowd in honor of her son at PeaceFest 2014 at Forest Park on Sunday, August 24, 2014, in St. Louis, MO. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American male, was fatally gunned down by a White police officer, Darren Wilson, on August 9. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 24: Michael Brown Sr. (L) and Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton speak at Peace Fest music festival in Forest Park on August 24, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Brown is the father of Michael Brown who was shot and killed by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. Michael will be buried tomorrow. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 24: Michael Brown Sr. (L) and Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (2nd from left) hold up their hands as attorny Benjamin Crump (R) speaks at Peace Fest music festival in Forest Park on August 24, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Brown is the father of Michael Brown who was shot and killed by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. Michael will be buried tomorrow. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 24: Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton attends Peace Fest music festival in Forest Park on August 24, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Sharpton will deliver the eulogy tomorrow at the funeral of Michael Brown who was shot and killed by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri on August 9. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 08: President and founder of the National Action Network Reverend Al Sharpton speaks on day 1 of the National Action Network 2015 Convention at Sheraton New York Times Square on April 8, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by J. Countess/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 21: Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during a press conference denouncing the shooting deaths of two New York Police Department (NYPD) officers at the National Action Network on December 21, 2014 in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. The press conference follows the execution style shooting of officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in Brooklyn on December 20, 2014 where the suspect was apparently motivated by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. (Photo by Michael Graae/Getty Images)
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Stepping to the pulpit at Greater Grace Church - minutes from where a suburban St. Louis police officer shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old - the Rev. Al Sharpton wielded the fiery words that have marked his long, often notorious career.

"These parents are not going to cry alone," he preached to the crowd that packed the pews last Sunday in Ferguson, Missouri. "We have had enough!" But when Sharpton sat down days later with New York's mayor to discuss the response to a Staten Island man's death in a police officer's chokehold, he recalibrated his rhetoric. "We don't have to agree on everything, but we don't have to be disagreeable," Sharpton said, facing the city's police commissioner.

Plenty has been said in recent years about Sharpton's "reinvention," as he shed nearly 170 pounds, traded warmup outfits for tailored suits, took to the camera for a daily cable television show, and built relationships with the White House and New York's city hall. But to allies and critics who have watched him parachute into racially charged crises for more than three decades, recent weeks are just testament to Sharpton's unflagging ability to seize the moment, regardless of setbacks and no matter how the opening presents itself.

"He always seems to be in the right places and seems to be able to absorb and overcome some devastating blows," said the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, 84, who has known Sharpton since he was a boy preacher at Brooklyn's Washington Temple and has marched alongside him time and again. "I don't see that he's changed. The core of Rev. Sharpton is the same ... the root is the same, the substance is the same."

Sharpton returns to Ferguson on Monday to speak at the funeral for Michael Brown, following a weekend protest march in New York, cementing his place at the intersection of advocacy and controversy.

He first commanded national attention in 1987 as the medallioned 305-pound spitfire demanding justice for an upstate New York teen, Tawana Brawley, in the uproar surrounding what turned out to be a made-up rape.

He was widely derided for his incendiary rhetoric, but his doggedness earned credibility with some blacks as the voice of the street, says David Bositis, an analyst specializing in African-American politics who counseled Sharpton before his 2004 run for president. The activist's change in tone since then is no accident, he said.

"He knows what it's like when you're judged outside," Bositis said. "I think ... in his own way, this is a calculation about being effective, being influential."

Michael Brown's Father Calls for Calm and Peace

Now 59, Sharpton was raised by his mother after his father left home when he was in grade school. By age 4, he was delivering "eloquently precocious" sermons in Brooklyn churches, Daughtry said. When he was just 15, local activists pointed him out to Jesse Jackson, who named Sharpton youth director of Operation Breadbasket, the New York branch of an effort to improve economics in black neighborhoods.

Still in his teens, Sharpton went on the road with soul idol James Brown, whose role as surrogate father inspired his prominent perm, since tamed. In 1984, Sharpton led protests demanding the prosecution of Bernhard Goetz, a white man who opened fire on four black teens in the New York subway.

In crisis after crisis, Sharpton begged controversy. In 1995, he lambasted the Jewish owner of a store in Harlem, labeling him a "white interloper." Soon after, a protester set fire to the store, killing eight people.

At the 1991 funeral for a black boy struck and killed by the car of an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section, Sharpton railed against the neighborhood's "diamond merchants."

"There was an anti-Semitic tide running through that neighborhood and he fueled it," said Wayne Barrett, a former investigative reporter for New York's Village Voice who covered the aftermath.

In recent years, Sharpton has acknowledged "mistakes." Critics say he can't undo the damage. But many African-Americans, agreeing with the core of Sharpton's insistent message, have looked past the errors, said Mary Frances Berry, a scholar of black American history and politics at the University of Pennsylvania.

"What he did was to keep on moving," she said.

The setbacks, though, went beyond rhetorical missteps. In the 1990s, Sharpton was acquitted of tax fraud and stealing from one of his charities. He later pleaded guilty to failing to file a state tax return. In 2008, he filed long overdue returns that showed he owned nearly $1.5 million in taxes, and negotiated a repayment plan with the government. This spring, he faced tough questions after reports he served as an FBI informant in the 1980s.

Undeterred, Sharpton has moved to fill the void left by Jackson, who has been far less visible in recent years.

"Who on the national scene was going to play that role?" Berry said. "If Al Sharpton didn't exist we'd have to invent him, where he's invented himself several times."

Like Jackson, Sharpton has a knack for showing up, whether to demand justice for Sean Bell, a black man shot to death by New York police in 2006 just hours before his wedding, or to protest "Stand Your Ground" laws in Florida after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

More than just sticking around, though, supporters say Sharpton has matured.

He is "no longer the jumpsuit-wearing, obese, long-locks guy, up and down the streets and in the hallways screaming," Daughtry said. "If you're going to be a man of the world you've got to be able to relate to all these kinds of people."

After combative relationships with a series of New York mayors, Sharpton and Michael Bloomberg shook hands before cameras during Bloomberg's first days in office in 2002. He speaks regularly with new Mayor Bill DeBlasio, although the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island has led to tense moments between the men, as Sharpton has questioned the tactics of Police Commissioner William Bratton. And he has cultivated a relationship with President Barack Obama, who spoke to Sharpton's National Action Network earlier this year.

Sharpton has also benefited from changes in cable news, which now routinely fills airtime with commentators with clearly political agendas. He has his own show and is a frequent guest on others' on MSNBC.

"He is this kind of modern American construct," said Syracuse University's Robert Thompson, an expert on television and popular culture. "He's in the middle of the story and then he comes back ... and he talks about the story."

That's likely to be the case again this week, when Sharpton returns to the airwaves following Brown's funeral.

It's proof, those who know Sharpton say, of his dexterity at manufacturing opportunity from adversity. Barrett recalls about 20 years ago, when he invited Sharpton to the bachelor party for a fellow reporter who had dug hard into the activist's checkered past.

"He shows up in a white suit, I'll never forget the day," Barrett recalls. "And I'm telling you that's because to him, yesterday's enemy is today's ally ... To The Rev, every day is a new day, and I can make myself anybody I want to make myself into and tomorrow only people like Barrett will remember."

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