The Rev. Al Sharpton Jr. speaks March 9 at the 47th anniversary reenactment… (Associated Press / Montgomery…)
The Rev. Al Sharpton awoke on Thursday morning to learn that his 87-year-old mother, Ada Sharpton, had lost her battle with Alzheimer's disease and dementia in Dothan, Ala. But the civil rights activist and MSNBC host had little time to privately grieve her passing.
He was soon on a plane to Florida, where he'll be leading a rally Thursday night to protest police handling of the case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old shot to death by a volunteer neighborhood watch captain carrying a 9-millimeter weapon.
The rally will be a coronation of sorts for Sharpton when he steps in front of the cameras. Many politicians and celebrities have lent their voices and tweets to the call for justice in the Martin case. But love him or hate him, Sharpton has become the most recognizable figure fighting -- boots on the ground -- on behalf of Martin and his bereaved parents.
The 7 p.m. rally was originally scheduled to be held at First Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. But the venue was changed to Fort Mellon Park to accommodate a crowd that was amassing early in anticipation. Those already in attendance erupted in cheers earlier in the day when word spread that public pressure had led Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. to "temporarily" step aside while the case is investigated.
The civil rights arm of the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI are reviewing the case, and a Seminole County grand jury is scheduled to convene April 10 to hear evidence. But Sharpton and others say that the wheels of justice are moving too slowly, and they demand to know why the neighborhood watch volunteer in the case remains free.
"We wanted to come out and say we did not come here for a temporary leave of absence, we came for permanent justice," Sharpton said before the rally began Thursday. "Arrest Zimmerman now! That's what this rally is about," he said, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Martin was walking inside a gated community on Feb. 26 when he was followed and then shot by George Zimmerman, who told police he was acting in self-defense. Police have described Zimmerman as white. His family says he is Hispanic and insist that race had nothing to do with the case.
When Sharpton, 57, looks out on the crowd Thursday night, and his image is carried on TV live across the country, he will be preaching to the choir -- an audience made up of men and women of all races and ages and religions who stand with Sharpton in demanding justice on behalf of Martin and his family.
Asked whether Sharpton's role in the case grants him standing as the nation's reigning civil rights leader, professor Leland Ware, a civil rights expert at the University of Delaware, cautioned against overstating Sharpton's profile amid many champions of the cause.
"Al Sharpton is merely one of many civil rights leaders," Ware said to The Times in an e-mail. "There are leaders of organizations such as the NAACP, Urban League, as well as a host of black elected officials. Sharpton is highly visible but he is not the 'reigning' civil rights leader. There is no single individual who could claim that title."
Nonetheless, the rally undoubtedly boosts Sharpton's national profile and is a far cry from the days when he was known for wearing colorful tracksuits and a bouffant hairdo, playing the firebrand in the still-controversial case of Tawana Brawley. There was also that 2004 run for president.
"I am on the flight to Florida and will move forward with our plans to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin," he tweeted earlier. "My MOM would have wanted me to."
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