NEW YORK – A few hours before renowned neurosurgeon and potential GOP presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson arrived at the Al Sharpton-led National Action Network's annual convention in New York City on Wednesday morning, people were reacting to the mere mention of his name, like a foul odor in a locked and crowded room.
By the time Carson, 63, was finished speaking to the same crowd later that evening, however, many were clamoring to shake his hand.
The country will have to wait until early May to find out whether or not Carson will run for presidential office in 2016, but until then, Carson has been quietly making the rounds, whittling away at public misconceptions about who he is, to define the man he wants America to see — the patriot, the Christian, the family man who believes in hard work, common sense and diversity.
In introducing Carson to the crowd Wednesday evening, A.R. Bernard, a political kingmaker in New York City and senior pastor and founder of the Christian Cultural Center megachurch in Brooklyn, called him "a leader."
"After 36 years of pastoring in New York City, I discovered there are four things God wants from a man: maturity, decisiveness, consistency and strength. After 43 years of marriage, I've discovered there are four things women want from a man: maturity, decisiveness, consistency and strength. I also discovered that the four things that men struggle with in life are: maturity, decisiveness, consistency and strength," Bernard said to laughter.
"But what I really discovered is that these are the qualities that people look for in a leader. Dr. Carson is one of those leaders," he said.
At the end of his soaring, sober and inspiring oratory, Carson had convinced at least one man in the crowd that he was worthy of his vote if he should ask him for it.
"He's got my vote," New Jersey resident Clayton Young said after hearing Carson speak Wednesday.
Young's reaction was a far cry from the mood the crowd was in at the event on Wednesday morning inside the Metropolitan Ballroom at the Sheraton Times Square Hotel where the very idea of Carson being president of the United States seemed anathema.
That morning, in his opening statements at the convention, Sharpton had slowly eased in the mention of Carson's pending appearance in a conversation about the day's events like a disdained cousin. He explained that he disagreed with the conservative star on many issues and even quipped that he didn't believe that they agreed that "today is Wednesday." He urged his followers, however, to respectfully listen to what the retired neurosurgeon had to say.
"We had Newt Gingrich here one year. So we're going to hear [what Carson has to say,] and they want us to heckle and boo. Everyone is wondering: Why is he going to get booed? We're going to show him we can listen. And we make intelligent decisions. … You cannot deal with putting things on the agenda in 2016 elections unless those that are running can be heard and then have to hear us. Is that alright?" asked Sharpton.
The crowd groaned reluctantly in the affirmative on having to listen to a man many had come to view as an "Uncle Tom."
But as Carson strolled in along with Sharpton and Bernard that evening, the room filled up and a palpable sense of curiosity enveloped the air.
"Dr. Ben Carson and I don't agree on a lot. We probably don't even agree that today is Wednesday," said Sharpton as the crowd waited to hear from the doctor. "I have always respected and admired what he did in the medical field. He is truly someone that I respect, and I respect the fact that even though we disagree on politics and on the president and other things that I believe, he was sincere in what he said. … I do expect people to say what they believe and be sincere."
When he was done, everyone was laughing and seemed at ease until pastor Bernard got up to introduce Carson. As Bernard relayed Carson's rags to riches narrative the audience hung on to every detail in surprising reverence, punctuating it with only cheers when his inspiring story moved them to do so.
Then Carson got up and assured Sharpton that he wasn't going to say anything bad and went right into what he had come to say with the precision of a surgeon in the operating room.
"You know America remains a place of dreams. You have a lot of people with dreams who are trying to get into this country. Not too many people trying to get out of here, so that means it's still a pretty good place," he began.
"As a youngster I dreamed to become a physician. And that was perhaps a lofty dream considering where I was coming from. But still one that I was able to accomplish. And one that I think young people today can still accomplish if they believe that they can do it and not that they are different," Carson said.
He then relayed the rest of his message intricately stitched in his impressive narrative and assured the crowd that he understood what it's like to struggle — something considered a staple experience in many black and minority communities across America.
"Typical tenement. Large multi-family dwelling. Boarded up windows and doors ... gangs, you walk into a dark room and turned the light on it looked like the walls were moving there were so many roaches. Big rats, water rats … and a tremendous amount of violence," said Carson, about the house he and his mother and brother shared with his aunt after his mother divorced his bigamist father.
"I remember seeing people lying in the street with bullet holes. Both my older cousins who we adored were killed. I remember both my older cousins being beat severely because they would get into trouble with the police a lot," he said.
"And you know, speaking of police, this situation with Walter Scott in South Carolina. You know I viewed that video with the same horror as I'm sure everyone here did. I was aghast that an execution could have occurred without a trial in the streets of America," he said to cheers.
On Public Assistance
Further highlighting his kinship bona fides with the community, Carson explained that while his mother, who was a domestic worker, accepted public assistance, she was able to stay off it for the most part.
"Some people have criticized me, saying, 'Carson grew up poor he must have had some public assistance and now wants to [withdraw] all the safety nets.' Let me tell you something: that is a blatant lie that's not anything I would want to do or have ever said. What I would like to do, however, is create a system that allows people to move from a state of dependency to a state of independence." The crowd cheered.
"And I think the policies we enact, need to do exactly that. If you look at Mohammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for his micro lending program, [it] lifted millions of people out of poverty in Bangladesh and that part of the world. Ninety-seven plus percent of those people have paid their loans back and have become independent. Now, we're smart people in this country, and we need to learn how to invest in our fellow man because it's those relationships and those investments that raise people out of a state of dependency. And that is something that we all can get involved in," he explained.
"We need to stop listening to all the people who try to engender division and class warfare. You know what we have right now? People in this world, random folk, Islamic terrorists who want to destroy us and our way of life. We don't need to aid them by fighting each other and trying to destroy each other," he said to continued cheers.
Carson added that the growth of the U.S. economy is not good enough at the moment and criticized a lot of the jobs being created as "chicken jobs."
"What we really need to be concentrating on is our economy and how do we get a robust economy. From 1850 to 2000 our economy grew at a rate of 3.3 percent, on average. From 2001 until 2014, 1.8 percent. The long term forecast by the fed now is for 2.4 percent … but I don't believe that is good enough," Carson asserted.
"[We have to] create a situation where we have good jobs again in this country. Right now, [we have] a lot of part-time jobs, a lot of what I call chicken jobs, where you don't make enough money to really sustain yourself. What we need is a robust economy," he continued.
"Only after people have real options should we start talking about entitlement reforms. If we do that before that time it's really cruel and unusual punishment. We have the ability to make those kinds of changes. Also, in the black community, we don't need to wait for other people to help us," he said as the crowd cheered again.
"You know, the fact of the matter is there is over $1 trillion worth of assets in the black community, and what we need to learn how to do is to turn our dollars two or three times in our own community before we send it out."
And to those in the community who create wealth, he said: "We must reach back and pull the next person up, we can't just turn our backs and win the lottery. That's how many other communities have done it. That's what we must do. We don't have to be dependent, quite frankly, on anybody."
Carson, who is a practicing Christian, also appealed to the conservative values of the group and urged the audience to respect and defend the Christian faith traditions that helped black Americans weather the scourge of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation.
"We can't allow the movement that has denigrated faith and people of faith in God to also destroy our communities. If people like that want to destroy themselves, let them, but don't allow them to take us with them, because I think the relationship with God is a great relationship," he said.
The neurosurgeon who majored in psychology in his undergraduate years also challenged critics who mock him for not believing in evolution.
"Now some people would say, 'Carson is a strange guy; he's supposed to be a doctor but doesn't believe in science.' That's completely a bunch of crap," he said to laughter.
"You know, how can you become a renowned neurosurgeon without believing in science?" he asked matter-of-factly.
"It's just that I don't believe some of the stuff that people say is [fact]. That something came from nothing. I don't believe that. I don't believe that there could be a big bang and everything suddenly comes into perfect work all by itself," he said.
"And people say, 'Well, you believe the earth is 6,000 years old.' I didn't say I believe the earth is 6,000 years old. I do believe in the Bible though. The Bible says 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth,' period. Now we don't know how long lapsed between that period and the next sentence. It could have been five years, it could have been 50 billion years. We don't know the answer to that," he continued. "But I tell you something else: God is God, and He can create the world any age He wants to. It is very arrogant for any scientist to say, just because they can't explain it, it doesn't exist."
In discussing the issue of personal responsibility, Carson said he used to be called names like "nerd" and "Uncle Tom" and critics accused him of trying to be white when he was growing up.
He said he sometimes responded: "If being smart is being white, what is being black?"
Finding himself through education, he said, was a really "empowering thing" and "I want all of our young people to be empowered like that." And it's one of the reasons he's working to empower children with reading rooms through the Carson Scholars Fund.
On Black Men
Carson, who's the father of three sons, also touched on the issue of young black men being described as an "endangered species."
He explained that in kindergarten and elementary school black males are good students like everyone else, but noted that stereotypical images of black men being successful in the areas of sports and entertainment have become the most pervasive role models of success for many young black males. And it is a distorted and limited view of the vast potential reflected in the community.
"By the time they (young black men) realize they are not going to be the next Michael Jordan, or Puffy Daddy (audience erupts in laughter) … what's left?" he asked.
He explained that black youth need to be taught about the many black men who've contributed much to the development of American society and went on to list quite a few, like Booker T. Washington.
"That young man has no reason to doubt that his ancestors played an important role in the establishment of this nation, and he should feel fully a part of this nation and should work very hard to strengthen the fabric of this nation," Carson said.
On America's Strength in Diversity
"But you know, I can take that same walk down the street for any nationality and point out the same contribution. You see, that's one of the things that made America into a great nation. Because we had so many people with so much talent from so many different places and our diversity is not a problem, it is a blessing. And we need to understand that we are all in the same boat, and if the boat sinks the rest of us are going down too," he said after sharing his list of influential black men who helped to make America great.
Carson then took the opportunity to address what he sees as misconceptions about statements he's made on controversial issues, such as slavery and homosexuality.
"Some people think I don't know how horrible slavery was because I said the Affordable Care Act was the worst thing since slavery. Well let me tell you something. There is nothing that even slightly compares to slavery in this country. I said since slavery, there are a lot of things that happened since then and nothing even becomes remotely similar to slavery. You know, I've had my roots traced back all the way to my great, great, great, great, great grandfather who came from the Turkana tribe, which is a migratory tribe even today in Tanzania and Kenya," he said.
"I know about two of my ancestors, a brother and sister who were sold to separate owners as children and it broke their hearts," he said, pausing to maintain his composure as the audience paused along with him.
"They swore that they would find each other and after the Emancipation, they were in their 60s and they found each other. But you know the pain and the heartache associated with that era, there is nothing that compares to it. And when people say that Carson is comparing it, they are simply trying to create a wedge. That is not what I said, that is not what I meant, he said."
On his views about healthcare, he explained: "I want poor people and everybody to have healthcare. Is healthcare a right? No, but it is the responsibility of a compassionate society, and we are a compassionate society and we have the ability to do it."
He explained that America spends twice as much on healthcare than the next closest nation in the world but the system has horrible access problems and two-tiered medicine which creates a lot of disparities. He proposes having health savings accounts for everybody who is working and taking healthcare out of the political arena.
On Homosexuality and Racism
"People say that I hate gay people. I don't hate gay people I just happen to believe that marriage is between one man and one woman," he said, as many in the crowd interjected "thank you" and cheered.
"Some people believe you can't handle one without the other. If you don't want them to be married then you hate them. Absolutely not true. And I will tell you, I really don't care what any man has to say. I care what God has to say," he said, as the crowd cheered even more.
"Some people say, 'He doesn't like black people. He hates his race.' What a piece of crap that is. I love black people; my wife is a black person," Carson continued.
"And then there are some who say, I say there is no racism. Of course there is racism. There'll be racism as long as there are people with small minds and evil forces to stimulate them. But I'll tell you [what my mother taught me]. She says, if you go into an auditorium full of racist, bigoted people, you don't have a problem, they have a problem; because you see, they're all gonna cringe and wonder if you're gonna sit next to them, whereas you can go sit anywhere you want," he said to more cheers.
After telling an inspiring story about successfully performing a difficult operation in South Africa in 1997 with limited resources and the grace of God, Carson delivered his parting shot: "True success is using the talents that God has given you to elevate other people."
Listen to Ben Carson's complete speech below: