Rev. Al Sharpton, the "refined agitator"

Lesley Stahl profiles the outspoken civil rights leader, who has made his way into the establishment

Say "Al Sharpton" and most people probably think loud mouth activist and provocateur. That certainly was his image in the 1980s and 90s.

Well, the Reverend Al has gone through something of a metamorphosis: today he's down right tame. So much so, that he has made his way into the establishment.

It's been quite a trajectory: from street-protest agitator, to candidate for president in 2004, to now a trusted White House adviser who has become the president's go-to black leader campaigning around the country for President Obama and his agenda.

Today, Sharpton looks and sounds like a totally different person.

But 20 years ago in New York, Sharpton, hot-headed in his jogging suits and larger than life in every way, was spreading hate and dividing the city. "No justice, no peace!" he shouted at one protest.

But today, Sharpton - 83 pounds slimmer and looking stately in his tailored suits - is commanding a national stage.

Not only does Sharpton travel to see the president, the president travels to see him.

In April, President Obama was a keynote speaker at Sharpton's civil rights organization, the National Action Network's 20th anniversary fundraiser in New York

This presidential endorsement -- this validation -- is acknowledgement of Sharpton's influence with the president's African American base.

"I think that America and Al Sharpton has transformed. I think it's a different country and I think that therefore I've become a different person in that context," Sharpton told correspondent Lesley Stahl.

"And are we a different country because there's a black president there?" Stahl asked.

"We started doin' a lot of things that we - black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. I think America grew. And I grew," Sharpton replied.

Sharpton told us that having a black president is a challenge: if he finds fault with Mr. Obama, he'd be aiding those who want to destroy him. So he has decided not to criticize the president about anything - even about black unemployment, which is twice the national rate.

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"Have you told other blacks not to criticize him publically?" Stahl asked.

"What I've told them is to be genuine about it. There are some blacks that say he needs to go with a black agenda. He needs to do this. He said when he was running he wasn't gonna do that. Duh. Surprise," Sharpton said.

"But just because he didn't campaign on improving unemployment in black areas, why aren't you out there saying, 'We need more done?'" Stahl asked.

"What I don't want to see is because he's black that we act like he's not the real president. 'He ought to be leading the black cause or the labor cause,' He's the president. To minimize who he is, I think is an insult to the achievement of having him there," Sharpton said.

Given his loyalty and his change from confrontational to accommodating, the administration is rewarding him with access and assignments, like making him a spokesman for their education policy and sending him on the road with Newt Gingrich, of all people, to build support for hiring better teachers.

Sharpton says 15, 20 years ago he would've been looking for a fight with a guy like Gingrich. In those days, he was brawling all over the place, even on television.

"I've learned to pick my fights and also to be more strategic about my fight plan. Doesn't mean it's not the same fight, but it means I'm a different and I'm a more seasoned fighter," Sharpton said.

"So if someone were to put a couple of adjectives in front of your name today, 'agitator' should not be one of those names?" Stahl asked.

"Say 'refined agitator,'" he replied.

Produced by Ira Rosen

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