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Rev. Al Sharpton, the "refined agitator"

Al Sharpton, the "refined" agitator 12:33

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 RosenThe "refined agitator" took part in a candle-light march in Arizona, expanding his portfolio with Latinos, standing up against the state's immigration law.

"A lot of positions I take now, no one would've thought I would've taken. Who would have thought 20 years ago I'd be leading a march for immigration? Or that I would support same-sex marriage, which most black church people don't. So I think that a lot of people are stuck in time. Thankfully, I'm not," Sharpton said.

The new Sharpton has evolved in some ways that surprised us. For instance, one of his favorite haunts is the Havana Room, a fancy private midtown cigar club, whose other members are mostly white Wall Street bankers and the city's elite.

"You're a civil rights leader, representing all that that suggests, implies. And then there's this other side of you. You live in the Upper East Side, fancy place. You come here, fancy place," Stahl pointed out.

"I don't see that as a contradiction," he replied. "This idea that we have to only be in one area: we fought for access. So why wouldn't we use access? Civil rights has nothing to do just with poor people. Civil rights, everybody has a problem. Racial profiling, one of the things that I became known for, came to me from people who had huge multi-million homes in New Jersey, 'cause blacks were being stopped in their Mercedes-Benz," Sharpton said.

He smokes cigars at the club during the week; on many weekends, he's preaching.

He doesn't have his own congregation, so like Martin Luther King Jr, he told us he preaches at a different black church almost every Sunday.

Sharpton actually started preaching when he was just four. He was raised in a middle class section of Brooklyn. When he was 10 his life was turned upside down when his father abandoned the family.

Sharpton's dad fathered a child with his half sister. "My mother's child," he told Stahl.

When his father left, he and his mother were forced onto welfare.

"We became a laughing stock. Every kid on the block used to point at us, laughing. 'Their lights are out, his father's gone. They repossessed the Cadillac.' It was a haunting experience. And, it made me have a lifelong search for fathers," Sharpton remembered.

And for attention, he said. He made his mark as a civil rights leader in New York in the 1980s by leading angry marches. They led to change, but one nearly caused a race riot.

"People have said that you're a hate monger, a racial ambulance chaser, a shakedown artist, a race baiter. Did you go too far?" Stahl asked.

"No," Sharpton replied.

"You don't regret anything you said back then?" she asked.

"If you want to say that I use language sometimes that I shouldn't, yes. If you want to say that I had more vanity than I should've, yes. But don't say that I was a hater and violent. 'Cause I was never that," Sharpton said.

When Sharpton was in his 20s and 30s, there were allegations of mob ties, never proved; and charges he used his civil rights organization to shake down businesses for contributions, which he denies.

"I think he has been a hustler all of his career," Wayne Barrett, an investigative reporter with The Daily Beast, told Stahl.

Barrett has written about Sharpton for more than 20 years. "I think he's in the civil rights business, I don't think he's a civil rights leader. I think he's in the business. He has an organization called the National Action Network; nobody knows what has happens to all that money," he told Stahl.

At one point, Sharpton claimed he was entirely without assets. An IRS audit showed that he and his organization failed to pay $2.8 million in taxes and then there was the issue he's most known for: in 1987, Tawana Brawley was a 15-year-old who claimed she was raped by six white men in law enforcement. And Sharpton took up her cause.

But there was no forensic evidence of any sexual attack; and there was evidence Tawana made up the whole story. The case - labeled a hoax - was dismissed and Sharpton was forced to pay $65,000 to those he had named. But in all this time, he has never voiced any regret.

"You have gone back and looked at things with such a clear eye. You've apologized. You've asked for forgiveness, except on Tawana Brawley. I don't get it," Stahl said.

"I'll be honest with you. I have thought about that a million times. I just don't believe they treated that case fair," Sharpton said.

"If I knew that I had in any way contributed to falsely accusing someone, I think I would feel an obligation to say I'm sorry," Stahl pointed out.

"I think you're right. I think the operative word is: if you knew that. I don't know that," Sharpton replied.

"If they didn't do it, if they didn't do it...," Stahl said.

"But suppose they did," Sharpton replied. "Suppose they did."

"But they didn't. They didn't," Stahl pointed out.

"He's not going to apologize because to him this is playing to that core constituency, however small it is of his: that white America wants him to apologize, and he's not going to apologize," Wayne Barrett told Stahl. "If you add up Brawley, federal tax liens, you put all these things together, would anybody else be able to transcend that and be this larger-than-life figure?"

"He has," Stahl said.

"Only because we let him," Barrett argued.

The new Sharpton has a nationally syndicated radio talk show. On the air three hours every weekday, he reaches a large, mainly black audience.

Sharpton is still dealing with the question of how he makes his money. He now earns over $1 million a year at his radio show, plus paid speeches and he's paid off the $2.8 million he owes in back taxes.

He says that perhaps his most transforming moment of his personal evolution came when he picked up the phone and spoke to his father for the first time in 45 years.

Asked why he called him, Sharpton said, "I had a chip on my shoulder, I guess. Why did he leave me behind? And I went through school and graduations and all, and he wasn't there. And I resented him. But I didn't realize how much I resented it until I reached out and realized that all of that I was carrying in me."

He told us that he used to think about getting in the newspapers. Now older, more comfortable with himself, he's thinking about history. "History is not made by guys than can just make the headline the next day. History is made by people that can make change happen," he explained.

"And stay in the game," Stahl said.

"And change the game," he said. "I've been everything good, that my friends say and mostly everything bad my enemies say. But right now, I think I'm on the right time to make a difference."

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