Second thoughts about the Rev. Al Sharpton

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While boarding a flight early Thursday morning, the Rev. Al Sharpton learned of the death of his 87-year-old mother. "My mother, Ada Sharpton passed in the early hours of this morning," Rev. Al tweeted. "She was my all. I hope God will giver her now, PEACE. I love you, Mom."

Rev. Al followed that tweet with another a few minutes later: "I am on the flight to Florida and will move forward with our plans to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. My MOM would have wanted me to."

Mika Brzezinski read the tweet during "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, prompting a round of condolences from the table. "We love you, Rev. Al," Willie Geist and Ms. Brzezinski said with genuine affection. Whatever their differences on a myriad of issues, it was obvious that they were more than just colleagues. They were trying to comfort a member of the family.

Rev. Al's decision to carry on with the day's scheduled rally in Sanford, Fla., instead of rushing to Alabama to make burial arrangements for his mother was oddly moving. It reminded me of that Gospel passage where Jesus commends those who refuse to look back or let go after putting their hands to the plow. Rev. Al was committed to fulfilling his role as the chief stirrer of the national conscience. The loss of his mother, although sad, paled in comparison to the loss that Trayvon Martin's parents experienced last month when their 17-year-old son was murdered.

I was filled with admiration for Rev. Al Sharpton at that moment. That would surprise many who remember that I've been a consistent critic over the years. One of the very first opinion pieces I ever wrote for this newspaper was about Rev. Al. As a recent transplant from New York, I was still fuming over his shenanigans during the Tawana Brawley affair.

It was the late 1980s and everything about Rev. Al at that time reminded me a little too much of Rev. Reginald Bacon, Tom Wolfe's devastating caricature of him in "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

My references to Rev. Al over the years have ranged from disparaging to contemptuous. Long before the Crown Heights riot, the Freddie's Fashion Mart fiasco or the 1998 Million Youth March in Harlem in which he shared the stage with the diabolical Khalid Abdul Muhammad minutes before that late demagogue exhorted the crowd to attack the cops, I'd written off Rev. Al as someone who was beyond redemption.

I mocked his senatorial and presidential bids while using his name as shorthand for the least imaginative brand of race hustling. Even though he'd undergone a remarkable metamorphosis over the years, my depictions didn't keep pace. Until very recently, Rev. Al was always somewhat suspect in this column.

When MSNBC unveiled "Politics Nation with Al Sharpton" last year, it looked like the worst kind of pandering to lure black viewers. I cringed when he mangled the names of his guests or appeared incapable of reading a script in a teleprompter without stumbling. As formidable a debater as he'd proven himself as a guest, he was not a seasoned enough journalist to host his own show or conduct a decent interview. Every day at 6 p.m. was destined to be amateur hour on MSNBC until the powers-that-be got around to quietly replacing Rev. Al with a "real" journalist.

Then a funny thing happened. I never got around to writing that scathing review. Suddenly, Rev. Al began pronouncing his guests' names correctly and his interviews got better. Although he still isn't as polished a teleprompter reader as his colleagues, "Politics Nation" is among the boldest and most interesting shows on MSNBC.

Rev. Al isn't afraid of raising his voice or mixing it up. He's also a surprisingly nimble debater when he clashes with conservative Joe Scarborough on those mornings when no one else will take him on. What makes him a rarity is his consistency in voicing unflagging support for the poor and the powerless. He's not a limousine liberal like I suspect many of the progressives are on that network. Rev. Al hasn't stopped marching just because he has a program on MSNBC.

There are far more informative programs on that network. There isn't a better policy analysis show on all of cable television than "Up with Chris Hayes." Melissa Harris-Perry's new MSNBC show is getting better by the week, as well. But as good as those shows are, they don't pack the same moral authority as Rev. Al's show, especially this week.

I've gone from being one of Rev. Al Sharpton's harshest critics to being one of his biggest admirers. He's shown the courage to play a prophetic role in a medium that avoids mixing morality and politics. Who else could've made Trayvon Martin a household name?


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1631, www.Twitter.com/TonyNormanPG


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