King Al: How Sharpton Took the Throne,” is a biography by Ron Howell, a longtime New York tabloids reporte rand foreign correspondent. (Courtesy photo)

By Wayne Dawkins
Special to the AFRO

This infamous Black pastor agreed to serve as an FBI informant. Worse, he falsely alleged in 1988 that a 15-year-old Black girl was raped by a gang of White law enforcement people in upstate New York. The sexual assault story was a hoax, and the minister had an $345,000 defamation settlement paid to an injured county prosecutor.

The pastor, who does not have a church home, was vilified and scrutinized in the New York metropolitan area media during the 1980s and 1990s, but two decades into this century, his three toughest critics have died, and the minister who would have been silenced had he been another man is possibly the most visible and influential Black communicator on TV.

Introducing the Rev. Al Sharpton, host of “Politics Nation” on MSNBC and the inspiration for “King Al: How Sharpton Took the Throne,” a biography by Ron Howell, longtime New York tabloids reporter and foreign correspondent .

Howell does not come to bury or praise Sharpton. Through interviews, keen analysis and the public record, he tries to understand how the pastor beat journalists at their game. Sharpton is effectively the last man standing.

Sharpton apparently recognized the seismic media shift that the scribes ignored. Between 2008 and 2019, reported the Pew Center, newspaper newsroom employers declined 51% but the other mediums, television, radio, cable and digital native, remained stable and grew from 43,000 to 53,000 employees. Count Sharpton in that latter group. He signed with Comcast-owned MSNBC a decade ago, despite howls of protest from members of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Sharpton has other critics, including two Black lawyers, his teammates, who were disbarred because of their tactics during the Tawana Brawley false rape allegations of 1987-1988 .

There were the Black militants who suspected that Sharpton was a government spy trying to get them to out Assata Shakur who managed to escape from a U.S. prison and take refuge in Cuba. 

Depending on the sources Howell spoke to, maybe Sharpton was never serious about delivering Shakur to the feds. The minister just played along to keep the heat off him because authorities tried to link him to criminal activities in the music and entertainment industries, the other fields where Sharpton played because of his associations with James Brown, Don King and Michael Jackson.

Too be clear, nothing nefarious stuck to the pastor.

To call “King Al” a biography is misleading. In this slim [160-page], yet well-sourced book. Sharpton is about one third of the story. The rest is about the media that made Sharpton a star, then largely collapsed, leaving the pastor on the throne as king.

Howell singles out Newsday journalist Mike McAlary, among the writers of the Sharpton-wore-a-wire story. He died from cancer in 1997. 

Village Voice writer Wayne Barrett revealed Sharpton’s connection to political dirty trickster Roger Stone, who supported Sharpton’s 2004 U.S. presidential run as a Democrat. Could it be that the GOP operative assisted Sharpton because he was still radioactive to moderate, mostly White voters, and would sap strength from the Democratic Party, Barrett wondered. He died in 2017 just before Donald Trump, another Barrett target, was sworn in as president.

Stone went on to be a Trump operative who was convicted of perjury and witness tampering, and then pardoned by the 45th president. 

Furthermore, Newsday editor Les Payne, who broke the Brawley hoax story, died in 2018, two years before his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm X was published. 

Wayne Dawkins is a writer, and a professor of professional practice at Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication.

Sharpton meanwhile stands lean and mean. The former rotund man lost half of his weight and traded in the jumpsuits and sneakers for tailored suits and wing-tip shoes. Instead of operating as an activist outsider, he is now a kingmaker, an adviser to Barack Obama during his 2009-2017 presidency. Also, the pastor was a go-to power broker when it was time and vet and choose the eventual 2020 presidential winner, Democrat Joe Biden.

Ron Howell tells a remarkable story of survival, cunning and gamesmanship.                   

The writer is a professor of professional practice at Morgan State School of Global Communication.

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