The recent news reports that the Rev. Al Sharpton spent four years as a confidential informant for the federal government attracted a good deal of attention while also prompting the civil rights leader and MSNBC television host to discuss this chapter of his life. In the long run, it seems to amount to less than more.
The reports from the website, The Smoking Gun, stated that Sharpton served as an informant for the FBI while working with his mentor, the singer James Brown. During that time, years ago, Sharpton conducted nearly a dozen in-person conversations with a member of the well-known Gambino crime family.
After the information appeared in various national publications, Sharpton wasted no time to address the issue, holding a press conference within hours after the stories began circulating.
“Thirty-one years ago, I contacted the FBI after being threatened by mobsters for demanding that Black concert promoters be given major contracts,” Sharpton said, addressing the media. “My hope was that the FBI would deal with the threats we were receiving. This situation is. This is not new information at all,” he added, explaining that he had addressed the matter in his autobiography in 1996.
“I did what I was supposed to do for our community to protect the rights of the Black concert promoters I was working with at the time and to protect my life,” he said. “I would do the same thing today, I am not a rat, I am a cat. A cat chases bad rats.”
While the media has focused a good deal of attention on Sharpton’s FBI experiences, many public figures and others seem to embrace the perspective of the civil rights leader. To those who have followed Sharpton, his role as an informant is hardly an earth shattering revelation.
One prominent defender has been New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who offered a strong defense for Sharpton, a political ally.
The disclosures, the mayor said, “doesn’t change the relationship one bit,” he said. “I’m very proud to be his friend. I think he has done a lot of good for the city of New York and for the country.”
The fact is that most people have long ago reached their own conclusions about how they feel about Sharpton. Some look at him as the voice of the marginalized and the disenfranchised. They point to his work in such national cases as the Trayvon Martin death as evidence that he speaks for those who are largely voiceless.
On the other hand, many consider Sharpton to be little more than an ambulance-chasing presence in civil rights cases. These critics still harken back to the case of Tawana Brawley, who gained notoriety in the late 1980s for falsely accusing six white men of having raped her.
If nothing else, Sharpton has proven himself adept at shifting his public persona. He has now achieved significant bona fides as a mainstream voice with his role as host of a daily news program on MSNBC. Still, he has maintained a position in grass-roots civil rights activism. It is unlikely that the disclosures of his role as a government informant decades will change anyone’s view of him.
Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan
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(Photo: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)