With the Rev. Al Sharpton leading a march in Staten Island Saturday following the death of a black NYC resident as a result of a white NYPD officer’s chokehold, the venerable Christian Science Monitor calls Sharpton “today’s most influential civil rights leader.” That the charismatic Sharpton has endured seems to be his main claim on the title. Sheer endurance is probably at least as important as having succeeded–especially in an arena like race relations where success seems to come only in frustratingly small increments.
Sharpton is not just persistent but smart–he’s an agile debater. The Rev. is also the definition of opportunistic, which both his detractors and supporters are quick to point out. For every Tawana Brawley case–a fabricated 1980s assault about which Sharpton has admitted his advocacy was a mistake–he has been a tireless worker for minorities in real tragedies. He has been a voice where voices have been difficult to find–or at least difficult to hear. After Sharpton leads his Staten Island march, he will fly to Missouri to give the eulogy for the tragically slain Ferguson teen Michael Brown. And he will keep going. The Monitor quotes NYC police chief William Bratton on Sharpton’s influence: “Whether you like Al Sharpton or not, he clearly is a spokesperson, particularly for African-Americans, and that is reality.”