The Agitator

Say It Loud: Sharpton reinvented the role of the city activist.Photo: AP/ Wide World Photo

If someone called you an agitator, what would you say?

Thank you very much. You know, Frederick Douglass said, “Agitate, agitate, agitate.” And I’m very proud to do that. I think that in the short run, you get criticized – “Aw, you just self-promoting,” “Aw, you just exacerbating” – but history will say had we not done that, there probably never would have been review of police-community affairs. There would have never been special prosecutors with Howard Beach.

Howard Beach propelled you into history – and literature. Did you like The Bonfire of the Vanities?

I didn’t read it. And the reason I never read it was that I felt that if they were going to loosely try to have a preacher activist around me, they could at least have Mr. Wolfe send me a free copy. I always resented that.

You like to say that your brand of self-promotion is no different from, say, Donald Trump’s. Is this kind of horn-blowing a New York thing?

I always say, though I studied under Dr. King, and more directly under Reverend Jackson, in New York you compete with more people than in Atlanta and Chicago. Eight million people, Broadway lights – how do you get their attention?

Was there a New Yorker like you before you?

Adam Clayton Powell. It all started with Adam, the quintessential black New Yorker of the first part of the twentieth century.

Which makes you the quintessential black New Yorker of the …

Late twentieth, early twenty-first century? I would think I approach that, if I’m not that. In order to understand Al Sharpton, you have to understand Adam Clayton Powell. Here was this tall, black, controversial minister-politician that even movie stars respected. I remember he went to do The David Frost Show, and Adam had on a black turtleneck and medallion – in fact, I got the medallion thing from Powell! But anyway, David Frost said, “How would Adam Clayton Powell describe Adam Clayton Powell?” And he looked at him, he says, “I’m the only man in America, black or white, that just doesn’t give a damn about what people think.” I remember I was backstage. I said, Man, I’d like to be like that! I mean, totally. The flamboyance, the cockiness, the effectiveness. Knowing when to play what role. All New York.

You’re going national now, running for president. Haven’t you benefited from the city’s economic boom in the nineties?

Yeah. I think that is an irony – though I am known for protest, I also benefit from the success of some of the people I protested. And I’m also happy about it!

You and Rudy ought to talk about that one day.

I don’t know. I mean, I’ve lived to break bread with Ed Koch – and even work on a program. I don’t know if Rudy and I will ever live long enough.

The Agitator