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Al Sharpton aims to raise profiles of local activists — if he can steer clear of city politics

The Rev. Al SharptSankofCultural Arts   Business Center South Austneighborhood talks Sunday about his plans spend time Chicago put

The Rev. Al Sharpton, at the Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center in the South Austin neighborhood, talks Sunday about his plans to spend time in Chicago to put a spotlight on people who are helping to reduce violence in the city. U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (second from right) listens to Sharpton's remarks. | Jon Seidel~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 23, 2013 6:26AM

The Rev. Al Sharpton picked up the keys to his West Garfield Park apartment on Sunday afternoon, keeping a vow he made months ago.

But unlike the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s move to a slum building in 1966 to put the spotlight on Chicago’s poverty and segregation, Sharpton isn’t roughing it.

The six-unit building is on historic Washington Boulevard and it’s part of the housing constructed and renovated by Pilgrim Development Corp.

Many of Sharpton’s neighbors are members at the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, the entity that runs the nonprofit development corporation.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Marshall Hatch, along with the Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church, was instrumental in getting Sharpton set up in Chicago.

He’s expected to be here for only two to three months.

“First thing, we’re going to have to get some furniture in here,” Sharpton told an assistant after touring the empty apartment.

In two weeks, the founder of the New York-based National Action Network plans to start sleeping in the apartment at least one night a week.

One of the first things he wants to do is convince hip-hop greats Puffy Combs and Cash Money to come out and spend the night.

“If I can get some of those artists to come and spend a night here, I think it would make it bold and hip for young people to understand that gun violence is not just some old guys talking,” he said.

The move was originally linked to the national celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which took place in August.

Now, the publicity stunt has drifted from the historical to the practical.

On Sunday, Sharpton juggled back-to-back sermons and book signings for his new book, “The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership,” before making his way to a press conference at Austin’s Sankofa Cultural Arts Center.

By the time the civil rights activist arrived, he was wearing his media hat.

“We need to tell the other stories about the churches, the groups of parents and those that have been ex-gang leaders and others that have turned some of this around,” he said, acknowledging that the city’s homicide rate is on pace to be lower than it was in 2012.

After much speculation about why Sharpton is coming to Chicago, he wanted to make clear that he had no hidden agenda.

“I am not here for political reasons. The agenda is really trying to put a spotlight on those that are in the trenches,” he said.

Sharpton also said he wants to use his powerful media platform to raise the profiles of certain local activists.

He certainly did that on Sunday. His status drew hordes of media to an area in the city with the highest homicide rate for something other than to report another shooting.

“I’m keeping a commitment because I think there are people that are doing things in the trenches, that if they had a little more limelight they could maybe encourage a lot of city officials and others to do something,” Sharpton said.

Still, in Chicago everything is about turf.

Sharpton is getting such a lukewarm reception from some local activists, he admonished them for acting like “gangbangers.”

On Saturday, he met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who, of course, has an interest in protecting his own turf.

With the temperatures dropping, the city has likely seen the worst of the gun violence. And after enduring a year of bad national press, Emanuel isn’t going to appreciate more negative coverage.

And I’m not convinced that Sharpton is going to be able to avoid getting caught up in the city’s politics.

If he does, Sharpton’s limited residency in a city divided by class and race could turn out to be a humbling experience.


Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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