The Rev. Al Sharpton, host of MSNBC's "PoliticsNation," remains one of the most divisive forces in U.S. race relations, a reputation he is only enhancing with his current role in the murder trial of George Zimmerman.
Mr. Sharpton has become a virtual publicist for the family of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who died in 2012 in Sanford, Fla. Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, is charged with second-degree murder after Mr. Sharpton and others called for his arrest. Mr. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense.
Simply put, Mr. Sharpton's role with Trayvon's family violates the standards and practices code of NBC News, which prohibits involvement in politics. Others have been suspended for such actions, but an MSNBC representative stated the reverend has been given a rare exemption because of his previous activism. (Full disclosure: As noted here last week, I am an expert witness in a lawsuit by Mr. Zimmerman against NBC and MSNBC.)
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Sharpton, 58, has his detractors — myself included — who recall his many racially divisive campaigns, particularly one in upstate New York and another in New York City before moving yet again to divide the nation.
In 1987, Mr. Sharpton created a media frenzy in the case of Tawana Brawley — a black teenager who claimed she was raped by a group of white men, including police officers. A grand jury found Ms. Brawley had lied about the incident in Wappinger Falls, N.Y., and the case was dropped. But Mr. Sharpton's false allegations left some badly tarnished reputations throughout the area about 90 miles north of New York City.
In 1991, Mr. Sharpton was at it again, exacerbating tensions between blacks and Orthodox Jews in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. A three-day riot, fueled by Mr. Sharpton's statements, erupted when a Guyanese boy died after being struck by a car driven by a Jewish man. At the boy's funeral, Mr. Sharpton complained about "diamond cutters" in the neighborhood in what a Brandeis University historian described as the most anti-Semitic incident in U.S. history. Two men died and three were critically injured before order was restored.
The reverend has failed in political campaigns for the New York state legislature, the mayor of New York, the U.S. Senate and even president of the United States. Yet somehow he stays on the A-list of celebrity guests, attending last weekend's wedding of film mogul George Lucas and conducting an interview with President Obama before the president left for Africa.
In Mr. Zimmerman's case, Mr. Sharpton has stood beside Trayvon's family and has used his MSNBC program to promote his views that the defendant is guilty.
"Trayvon Martin committed no crime," he said shortly after the incident. "He had no weapon, and he had every legal right to be where he was. The rush to judgment was those that moved against him, said he was suspicious and took his life."
After listening to nearly two weeks of testimony in the trial, I can say the only "rush to judgment" occurred when it came to the actual evidence against Mr. Zimmerman. The prosecution's case repeatedly has bolstered the defense's arguments of innocence rather than proving guilt.
Mr. Sharpton joined other apologists for Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon's friend who was talking with him on a cellphone during the incident and testified for two days at the trial last week.
"To castigate her, to characterize her, to stereotype her and use all kind of attacks, I think, is something that does an injustice to the criminal justice system," he said on his television program.
Yet Mr. Sharpton failed to address a variety of problems Ms. Jeantel had during her testimony: using slang some court observers couldn't understand or found offensive, indicating displeasure bordering on disrespect for one of the defense attorneys, and changing her story.
But that's what Mr. Sharpton has done for years. He divides in his attempt to conquer. It's time people stop listening.
•Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at email@example.com. Twitter: @charper51.