Al Sharpton will be marching on Washington on Martin Luther King Day, just five days before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. It may be a lonely walk.
Two key organizers of the Women’s March are former executive directors of National Action Network, the civil-rights nonprofit Sharpton founded in 1991. Led almost exclusively by women of color, the Women’s March is expected to draw a diverse crowd, which will include much of the same black audience Sharpton has long dominated.
The Women’s March, itself, will be held on Jan. 21– a week after Sharpton’s event. That essentially forces out-of-town activists to choose which inaugural protest to attend.
If Facebook’s numbers are any indication, they’re abandoning Sharpton by a ratio of at least 175 to one. A source close to Sharpton says the Rev is hoping to draw at least 5,000 people. But even that would be a small showing compared to the Women’s March’s expected attendance.
In addition to drawing a large, diverse crowd, the Women’s March has also secured the partnership of more than 150 organizations– including several groups that have, in the past, partnered with National Action Network, including sponsoring Sharpton’s March on Washington last year.
In contrast, official materials for Sharpton’s march, published on Dec. 28, listed only the endorsements of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation and the National Urban League. Since this article’s publication, National Action Network published a news release listing a total of 16 partners. This afternoon, Sharpton’s reps sent Heat Street materials showing 29 partners, many of whom are also sponsoring the Women’s March.
Earlier, a spokeswoman for Sharpton had vaguely said his march is getting support from “labor organizations, clergy, civil liberty groups and activists.” She added the march has also sparked the interest of college students, pointing specifically to Howard University and Spelman College. But a rep from Spelman College recently told Heat Street the university is not sending any students to the march.
In an emailed comment on Jan. 10, after this article’s publication, Sharpton’s spokeswoman disputed this article’s premise and told Heat Street, “There are over a 100 buses and people coming from all around the country including 21 buses coming from Harlem alone.” The average school bus fits about 50 adults, which would put the number close to the 5,000 Heat Street hears Sharpton is hoping will attend.
Sharpton’s inaugural humiliation accompanies his dramatic reversal of fortunes. Over the past eight years, the Rev visited the White House at least 115 times, attending intimate meetings with President Obama and Valerie Jarrett. He also hosted a prime-time weekday show on MSNBC.
But in 2015, MSNBC bumped the Rev to a sleepy 8 a.m. Sunday slot. Sharpton continues to host a syndicated radio show during the week, but his prospects for White House visitations look scant after 2016. His prestige has faded, especially among young blacks, who have instead rallied behind leaders from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Cornel West to the organizers of Black Lives Matter. A Quinnipiac poll last year found Sharpton’s favorability rating was just 29 percent in New York City, his lowest score ever.
Sharpton remains president of National Action Network, where he has drawn a six-figure salary for years, even as the nonprofit grappled with massive tax liabilities and negative net assets. In 2015, the latest year disclosures are available, Sharpton drew a $256,00 salary; the nonprofit ended the same year with just $212 in net assets, though it has finally managed to pay off that pesky tax debt.
Tamika Mallory and Janaye Ingram were both former executive directors of National Action Network. Both are now on the Women’s March National Committee and have tacitly barred Sharpton from joining their event, adding insult to injury as Sharpton’s influence diminishes.
Sharpton was unavailable for an interview by deadline, though during the five days before this article’s publication, Heat Street sent repeated requests for a phone conversation with the Rev. His spokeswoman said Sharpton was busy “mobilizing for next week’s King March & events.”
But a source close to the Rev said: “Sharpton’s very worried, because obviously, it would be a big embarrassment if no one shows up. Publicly, they say, ‘We’re all getting along.’ Behind the scenes, they’re fighting like cats and dogs, and Sharpton was trying to get them not to hold the rally until March.”
The betrayal by Mallory may prove especially painful for Sharpton, her longtime mentor.
Mallory first joined the staff of National Action Network when she was just 15 years old, as a secretary to Sharpton, and worked her way up to executive director of the organization in 2008.
But Frank Mercado-Valdes, an entrepreneur who used to advise Sharpton on business matters, says Mallory’s career advancement was hindered by the Rev’s ego.
“People devote their careers to the Rev because they want to be like him, and he encourages it, says, ‘I’ll help you be like me,’” Mercado-Valdes says. “But in reality, he means, ‘I’ll never let that happen, because the movement is about me, what’s good for Al Sharpton, personally.’ Tamika ran up against that glass ceiling, spent her whole life with him telling her, ‘I want to build you up.’ And she’s not the only one.”
Sharpton’s professional slights against Mallory may be coupled with a personal one.
For about a decade, Mallory has been romantically linked to Don Coleman, a wealthy former NFL player and advertising magnate. A close friend of Sharpton, Coleman sat on the National Action Network board of directors; he also paid many of Sharpton’s personal expenses, said two sources with knowledge of the situation.
Former Sharpton staffers attest to the Rev’s legendary temper, and apparently, Mallory was not spared. One day in 2013, Sharpton again screamed at Mallory in front of staffers. This time, she quit.
“Tamika’s long-time relationship with Coleman gave her the physical comfort and strength to leave where others have not been able to,” said Mercado-Valdes. “If you’re asking me my opinion– and she might deny it– at that point in her life, having a wealthy partner and living in a multi-million dollar townhouse instead of the projects where she grew up? Put yourself in that situation. How much more could she put up with?”
Janaye Ingram replaced Mallory at National Action Network, departing in 2015 for reasons less clear. Throughout Obama’s last term in office, Mallory’s frustration with Sharpton grew, according to sources close to the Rev. As she engaged in her own activism, Sharpton turned a cold shoulder, they say.
Meanwhile, Mallory’s boyfriend ran into bad luck. Coleman’s ad agency, Global Hue, lost several of its biggest accounts last year. And in August, several of its employees sued Coleman and his company, claiming they hadn’t been paid in months.
Coleman did not respond to Heat Street’s request for an interview, sent over both email and LinkedIn. The GlobalHue website is no longer up, and no one answered the phone number once listed for Coleman’s business.
As Coleman’s finances grew imperiled, his relationship with Sharpton also grew chillier, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation. One source says Coleman has stopped attending meetings for National Action Network, where he has long sat on the board. By deadline, Sharpton’s reps failed to respond to repeated inquires about Coleman’s status on the board.
In its latest tax filings, Education for a Better America, a questionable nonprofit run by Sharpton’s daughter Dominique, also listed Coleman on its board. But Marcus Bright, EBA’s executive director, refused to tell Heat Street whether Coleman still held the position.
For Mallory, Trump’s election and the subsequent backlash created the opportunity to humiliate Sharpton with the marches.
Mallory adamantly denies that she’s setting Sharpton up for failure. “People who are speculating about that need to know that Sharpton is family,” she told Heat Street, adding that the Rev is her son’s godfather.
But Mallory also said: “If Rev. Sharpton wants to participate in the Women’s March on Washington, he’s more than welcome. … [But] in terms of leadership of this march, the leadership is women. It’s a women-centered effort.”
But in December, the march named civil-rights activist Harry Belafonte as its honorary co-chair. The executive director of Belafonte’s nonprofit, Carmen Perez, is the other national co-chair of the march, serving beside Mallory, who did not secure the same position for Sharpton.
In a letter from Mallory to Sharpton, reviewed by Heat Street, she asked NAN to sponsor her march as “a key partner,” offering to list Sharpton’s nonprofit as an official supporter on the Women’s March website. Essentially, Mallory was asking Sharpton to financially contribute to her march without allowing him a speaking slot, said one source close to the Rev.
“If she is deliberately keeping Sharpton from speaking at that march, it’s an act of outright revenge because Sharpton has kept her isolated from his events over two years, and she couldn’t do anything about it as long as he had the power of the White House,” says Mercado-Valdes, who adds that he has not spoken directly with Mallory.
With the Women’s March, Mallory is also positioning herself for a new place in the movement. “Women’s rights are human rights,” she herself wrote in the letter to Sharpton.
Just as Black Lives Matter has risen to prominence with the support of women of color, Mallory is seeking a new, broader feminist audience under a Trump administration—one not limited to a black constituency alone. Perhaps history will repeat itself. After all, Sharpton’s own rise came as he engineered the decline of his former mentor, Jesse Jackson.