Today, I hit the dozens.
With the publication of “The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership,” the book I wrote with Rev. Al Sharpton, I am witnessing my 12th book hit the shelves (and the e-commerce websites).
It is a humbling and somewhat scary experience to have one of your babies released into the world. After months of staring at the words on your computer screen, fighting with them, stroking and massaging them, trying to infuse them with some act-right, they are now out of my hands. The world now decides whether I have spun some magic with the incredible, mind-blowing, head-shaking life of Al Sharpton, one of the most remarkable, controversial, magnetic leaders of our time.
As a newspaper reporter in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly an African-American reporter, you couldn’t avoid Rev. Sharpton even if you wanted to. He was everywhere, angrily pointing a finger at the racial injustices that popped up in his hometown of New York seemingly every month. Many white people despised him, the media crucified him and some black people were embarrassed by him, with his sweat suits, medallions and processed hair—but no one could deny that Rev. Al was a fearless fighter for his people.
After I was chosen to help him write his third book, his first in more than a decade, he and I bonded and enjoyed some laughs recounting some of the crazy scenes we both lived through in New York over the years, through the mayoral administrations of Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani. I left New York during the Giuliani years, but Rev. Al never went anywhere, even as he grew in stature and influence, becoming the nation’s most important civil rights leader. We were working on this book last year during the presidential election campaign, with Al often being called away at a moment’s notice for meetings at the White House.
As we dove into his story, I was shocked to discover that Al was a star even before his 10th birthday: He was a wunderkind boy preacher, going on the road with the fabulous Mahalia Jackson at age 9, coming across some of the biggest stars in the black world in the 1960s. This was a part of his story that the newspaper reporters never bothered to explore.
Speaking of stories, Sharpton has dozens of them, pulled from the unbelievable characters he has gotten to know throughout his life. He was adopted as a mascot of sorts by the inimitable preacher and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who had a major influence on the young Al. Muhammad Ali invited Al to hang out and even train with him whenever he came to New York—a teenage Al once tried to keep up with Muhammad as he jogged around the Central Park Reservoir. Michael Jackson became one of his best friends, the two of them bonding over their lack of a normal childhood. And of course James Brown became a surrogate father, replacing the father who walked out of Al’s life when he was 9—under shocking circumstances.
In his later years, he became a mentor and father figure to P. Diddy, a confidant to Rev. Jesse Jackson and a close friend to the man in the White House, Barack Obama. On the pages of this book, we hear Al struggling with how to handle the unique position of being a civil rights leader at the same time that he’s a friend to the president—something that Dr. King and Rev. Jackson never had to contend with. If I disagree with the president, and of course at times I will, how far do I go in attacking him? Rev. Sharpton has no manual to help him figure that one out.
There are thrilling, exciting stories in every chapter of this book. One of my favorite moments occurred when Al was living with James Brown in Augusta, Georgia. They were driving down a dark street one night—driving too fast because James was at the wheel (as a lifelong New Yorker, Al never learned to drive)—when James came to a screeching halt outside of a brightly lit church.
It was the Augusta chapter of the famous Daddy Grace’s church, The United House of Prayer for All People.
“You hear that band?” James asked Al, pointing up at the church.
Smiling, James told Al that was where he learned the half-beat, from listening to the drummer in Daddy Grace’s band.
In the book, Al says, “James took that half beat out of the church and changed the course of music history.”
Pick up a copy of “The Rejected Stone” and truly understand what continues to drive this man, making him wake up at 5 every morning, gearing up for the next fight—and what pushed him to lose 150 lbs., to bring discipline to every area of his life. It is an entertaining, inspiring, educational, insightful tale that will stay with you long after you read it.
As Sharpton says on the book’s cover, “I hope when you put down this book, that you don’t see Al Sharpton differently but that you instead see yourself differently.”
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.