A Reasonable Man: How Track-Suited Firebrand Al Sharpton Became the Most Thoughtful Voice on Cable

Mr. Sharpton’s office is decorated with blown-up covers of Newsweek and The New York Post bearing his image, and a smaller frame containing three separately matted photos, portraits of the reverend as a younger man. One shows him preaching at age seven. One has him posing with James Brown. The third is of Mr. Brown and Mr. Sharpton meeting a young Michael and Janet Jackson.

Asked what the biggest misconception about him is, Mr. Sharpton cited the notion that he craves media attention and fame for its own sake. He left his role as James Brown’s tour manager in order to focus full-time on organizing and activism. “If you had a young guy out of Brooklyn, out of welfare, dead broke, who starts flying around the world with Jay-Z, then tells Jay-Z, ‘I know I ain’t got no money but I’m committed to social justice’—that defines him! If I had wanted money, I could’ve stayed with James Brown. You can disagree with me, but at least give me credit for having sacrificed. Because there was no guarantee that when I went to Howard Beach that it was going to be a national issue. Or Bensonhurst. Or whatever! Or that one day I would get MSNBC and radio and all that.”

James Brown, he added, thought his young protégé was crazy.

Mr. Sharpton came to prominence during a period of extreme racial enmity in the city, speaking out on one notorious case after another, fulminating before the news cameras and leading crowds of protesters with his now-familiar rallying cry: “No justice, no peace!”

His reference to Howard Beach recalled the 1986 death of Michael Griffith, who was struck by traffic after being chased by a white mob in Queens (Mr. Sharpton’s activism resulted in the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case). In the Bensonhurst incident, in 1989, a mob of white residents beat four black teenagers, killing one, Yusef Hawkins. Mr. Sharpton’s outspokenness in that case resulted in an attempt on his life.

After a few decades of dancing on the city’s racial fault lines, jousting with guests on basic cable must seem like a pretty low-key gig.

Mr. Sharpton’s 2011 television debut occurred as MSNBC was finding its footing as a liberal answer to right-leaning juggernaut Fox News. Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times recently referred to the network’s mission as “counterprogramming, not coverage,” and counted Mr. Sharpton as part of “a growing cast of anchor-bloviators.” At his party, the host didn’t deny that MSNBC and Fox had similarities: “We’re people with opinions,” he said.

“People don’t watch Bill O’Reilly or me for the weather report,” he went on. “They know we have an opinion. We said in the beginning I wasn’t objective. No one who watches my show thinks I’m objective. Fox is not objective.”

A Reasonable Man: How Track-Suited Firebrand Al Sharpton Became the Most Thoughtful Voice on Cable