The Rev. Al Sharpton rode down West Washington Street on Thursday night in the back seat of a shiny black Navigator SUV, with a hired driver at the wheel and his dutiful assistant in the front passenger seat scrambling to stay on top of the activist’s rapidly fluctuating schedule.
At the end of an event-packed day in which he crisscrossed the city, Sharpton was on his way home to a two-bedroom apartment in West Garfield Park, where he will spend one night a week for three months to bring attention to Chicago’s violence. Along the way, he got a close-up look at life after dark in the West Side neighborhood, where gang members have been killing each other over drug turf.
“What’s that?” Sharpton asked as the SUV passed a police car pulled to the side with its blue lights flashing and three or four young black men standing beside it with their hands behind their backs.
Boarded-up buildings, people loitering in parking lots and houses with iron bars over the doors and windows were all part of the scenery. But that’s not what the New York civil rights activist is looking for in Chicago. He’s searching for the hidden, overlooked neighborhood warriors who are trying to do something about it.
Over the next 90 days, Sharpton said he plans to put the city in a spotlight, using his nationally syndicated radio program, his cable TV show “PoliticsNation” and his grass-roots civil rights organization National Action Network to focus on Chicago, where hardly a night goes by when someone isn’t shot.
“I’m the only African-American with a national radio show, a network TV show and a civil rights organization to bring about action,” said Sharpton, 59. “If I can bring some spotlight, some unity, some activism to Chicago, that’s what I want to do.”
He insists that he is not coming to Chicago to put the city in a negative light.
“I want to show the other side,” Sharpton said. “Yes, there are problems, but there are also problem solvers. I didn’t come with solutions, but I want to highlight the folks who are working on solutions.”
But Sharpton’s foray to Chicago has not been without controversy. Some community activists are skeptical about his visits. Others are taking a wait-and-see position. Two of Chicago’s most prominent activists, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Michael Pfleger, did not respond to Tribune requests for comment about the visitor from New York.
Sharpton has gained a reputation for rolling into towns, rallying troops on the ground and shining a spotlight on issues he determines to be racial injustices that have gone unnoticed. Over the years, his role as an activist has evolved from a polarizing street preacher to a respected civil rights icon who has the ear of President Barack Obama.
Still, he continues to draw the ire of social conservatives who see him as a divisive figure drawn to publicity. At the same time, he has garnered the respect of a growing following of supporters who hail him as the voice of the silent minority. With his radio show, “Keeping It Real,” heard in 42 markets and his TV show seen by 700,000 to 1 million viewers each night, he is a powerful political voice who provides a gateway into the African-American community.
“People respond to people they feel will deal with the issues they are concerned about. Do people think I walk on water? No. But they know I care about their issues,” he said. “What I talk about, I will go into the streets and do. I’m not a studio activist.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been careful not to comment about Sharpton’s visits. He recently avoided reporters’ questions on the subject. But before setting foot in Chicago, Sharpton said, he called the mayor, whom he knows personally from Emanuel’s time in Washington as Obama’s chief of staff.
“Did he say he was going to give me the key to the city and place rose petals down the streets of the West Side? No,” said Sharpton. “But for him not to attack me, I’ll take that.”
Sharpton said he also talked to Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. One thing he doesn’t want to do, he said, is get caught up in Chicago political issues, such as school closings. He said he put a call in to Jackson.
“I’m not naive enough to think there won’t be talk and insecurities,” Sharpton said. “People come to New York every day, but I can’t come to their town? I’ve been accused of many things, but stupid is not one of them.”
Sharpton was credited with bringing national attention to last year’s shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. After pressure from Sharpton and others, authorities brought charges against Zimmerman, but he was acquitted at trial.
But solving Chicago’s violence problem, he said, is a different kind of challenge. His people on the ground in Chicago told him that the violence is multifaceted. It is rooted in long-standing social inadequacies, such as poverty and unemployment. It is also a result of the easy flow of illegal guns to the city. Ending the violence, they said, is about changing a culture where young people have grown accustomed to hopelessness.
Unlike the 1970s and ’80s, when Chicago had a wealth of African-American leaders, such as Jackson, the Rev. Clay Evans, Bishop Arthur Brazier and Mayor Harold Washington, there is no unifying voice in Chicago for African-Americans, they told him.
“When I started coming here in 1969, Chicago was the capital of black business. To see it now known for gun violence is sad,” Sharpton said. “For me, this is personal.”
Sharpton is quick to acknowledge that that he doesn’t have the answers. He admits that it’s not enough for him to spend one night a week on the West Side and make plans to bring in big names like rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, director Spike Lee and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
But he has ambitious goals. He wants to visit schools in Roseland and Englewood and hold town hall meetings in violent neighborhoods. He wants to talk to gang members as well as students who are striving to succeed in life. He wants to bring religious leaders together, people like Jackson, Pfleger and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, to talk about programs that work.
He wants to organize a coalition of local groups and people who are willing to work together to find solutions. And, he said, he will solicit private donations from corporate America to be distributed among those who are showing success.
At the end of the day, Sharpton sat in the living room of his sparsely furnished, $1,200-a-month apartment, joined by five ministers from across the city. Each had ideas about what needs to be done, but they were all looking to Sharpton to help make it happen.
“Chicago was once a major epicenter of black culture in America,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park and one of the ministers who invited Sharpton to town. “If we can turn the violence around in Chicago, it can provide a template for the rest of the country.”