When he finally arrives at the church on Merrick Boulevard in Queens, it is 9:15; he's more than an hour and a half late. There are some 750 people inside waiting for him, and Sharpton proceeds directly but calmly to the pulpit, sits down, and begins tapping his foot in time to the gospel music.
He is a gifted preacher, and when he finally takes the microphone, the gift is on full display. His sermon is part Bible-thumping evangelism, part history lesson, part morality tale, and part pure entertainment. He is honest with the crowd in the kind of way that black leaders so rarely are right now. There is no effort to blame the system, no spinning of conspiracies, no double standard. This is not the itinerant troublemaker, the glowering gasbag of old. Instead, Sharpton sounds like a responsible black politician:
"What's the point of talkin' about how good we were if we're nothin' now?" Sharpton asked a crowd of blacks.
"What's the point of talkin' about how good we were if we're nothin' now? Go to the library and look at magazines from the sixties and seventies and eighties. Who did we have on the cover? Martin Luther King. Medgar Evers. Malcolm X. Carl Stokes. Jesse Jackson. Who we got representing us on the covers today? Snoop Doggy Dogg. Is that how you want to be remembered? It's not enough to be angry, it's what you do with it. Martin was angry, but he organized boycotts. He could've pulled his pants down and turned his hat backwards, but Miss Rosa Parks would still be riding in the back of the bus. Pregnant women were fire-hosed in the streets of Birmingham. People spent cold, lonely nights in jail. Medgar Evers got his brains blown out and had three children he would never see grow up, and our generation is too busy being angry to be useful."
Back in the car, wearing a fresh shirt and showing no signs of exhilaration from his performance, he's ready to go at it again. All leadership, he says, fills a void: that's the only way anyone ever emerges. The issue for the younger blacks, says Sharpton, on his best behavior, is not should they fill it but how well can they fill it. His driver and personal assistant, Carl Redding, turns the car onto Roosevelt Avenue, and through the windshield the whole Manhattan skyline is suddenly and glitteringly visible. Sharpton doesn't seem to notice. "There's gonna come a time when we're gonna be the old guys," he says softly. "In the end, everybody's gonna have to be judged by what they accomplish."
And as the car plunges into the Midtown Tunnel, it is clear that by Sharpton's own measure, he and the rest of his generation still have a long way to go.