By ALLISON KUGEL
For many Black Americans, he is next to a Messiah. For many non-Black Americans, he is thought to be an agitator, riling up already uncomfortable societal quagmires that are better left swept under the rug. Media image aside, Reverend Al Sharpton is neither of these things. The boy raised by a single mother in working class Queens, New York, developed a passion for civil rights activism as a pre-teen. He began marching alongside Reverend Jesse Jackson and other prominent civil rights activists at the tender age of 13, seeking to progress the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s message of civil disobedience and taking the high road to equal rights under the law for Black Americans.
As the years progressed, though the American civil rights movement has remained something of a moving target, much of the fight has landed at Sharpton’s doorstep. Families of victims of police brutality, fatal racial discrimination and other hate crimes come to him in their quest to gain the media attention they need to enact criminal justice and legislative reform on behalf of their loved ones. The powerless and voiceless look to him to get their voices heard. As Sharpton himself puts it: “People have called me an ambulance chaser, but we are the ambulance.” He is referring to victims’ families who have been helped by Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN), providing everything from the media attention these families need to pressure prosecutors to take action towards justice, to gaining the attention of congress for policy reform, as well as emotional and financial support in some instances.
Now, with his new book, Rise Up: Confronting A Country At The Crossroads, Sharpton outlines his position on the weightiest political and societal issues of our time, recounts some hard lessons learned, and offers an inside glimpse into the mentors who shaped the man we see today.
Many people believe that you just show up wherever the action and media attention is. It’s important for people to know that you and NAN are the ones who work to bring national attention to these cases in the first place. For example, it was NAN that brought national attention to Trayvon Martin’s murder and to George Floyd’s murder. Without your hard work, the world wouldn’t know the names Trayvon Martin or George Floyd. Why isn’t this common knowledge?
A lot of the media just doesn’t say it. Ben Crump [attorney for the Floyd family] and the families have said it. In fact, Breonna Taylor’s mother’s first interview was on my show [MSNBC’s PoliticsNation]. They couldn’t get a national show before my show. Sybrina Fulton [Trayvon Martin’s mother] wrote about it her book on Trayvon. Ben Crump brought them to New York to ask me to blow up Trayvon [in the media]. Trayvon had been buried for two weeks. I didn’t even know about Trayvon until they came and met with me in my office. We made it an issue and called the first rally and had about 10,000 people out there. It ended up being the day my mother died, and I went ahead with the rally anyway. I said in the eulogy to George Floyd that people call me to blow things up, and I have an infrastructure with NAN where we support the family, we help them get legal advice and media advice, and we stay with them. Sometimes people can’t cover their expenses if they need to do a rally. Some of them need to pay their rent, and NAN helps with that. They call us because they know we’ll come.
Who is your heir apparent once you reach a certain age and you are no longer able to do this work?
That would come up through the ranks of NAN. We have a lot of young people in our youth and college division, and some of them have a lot of potential. It is not up to me to choose who it will be, but I think it will come up from the ranks of the movement. That is why I built an organisation. I could have just resigned from NAN several years ago, not worried about raising five to ten million dollars a year, and just done radio and TV and been a personality. I built a structure because I wanted to go way beyond my viability. I came out of that kind of structure, but nobody anointed me. The point person before me was Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was one of my mentors, but he didn’t choose me. You’re going to take a lot of scrutiny. You’re going to take a lot of attacks. I’ve been stabbed and done time in jail for marching. There is a downside to this, and not everybody is built for that.
What you are saying is actually a great life lesson. Nobody anoints you. Nobody taps you on the head and says, “You are the chosen one.” It has to come from within, and a person takes it upon themselves to take the ball and run with it. That applies to anything in life.
Absolutely, and you will only do it if it comes from inside. If I sat down and asked somebody if they would go through what I went through – I’ve done 90 days in jail at one time! Who would apply for that? But if it is in you, you take it as it comes because your commitment and your beliefs are bigger than whatever it is you are going to face. But this is not a career move. I started to write when I was 12; I started preaching before that; and I became youth director under Jesse and Reverend William Jones when I was 13. When I was 13 years old, I didn’t sit down and say, “If I do this, one day I’ll have a show on MSNBC.” When I started, there was no MSNBC. There was no radio show syndication owned by blacks. You do things out of commitment and things result from that, but your critics will act like you just figured out this will make you famous. How would I know at 13 years old where this was going to go?
After reading your book, I went to sleep and woke up with this thought: We are supposed to be the smartest, most sophisticated species on the planet. However, we have trillions of dollars in circulation on this planet, and millions of people are broke. We have more than enough food, to the point that we throw out ridiculous amounts of food every day, and millions of people are starving. So, we can’t be that smart.
You are absolutely right. It’s a matter of will and a matter of using the intelligence we claim to have to distribute things more wisely, and to make people the priority rather than greed and ego. It’s a decision that we throw out food and not feed everybody. There is enough food for everybody. It is a decision to allow the water and the air to be polluted for people’s profit. We can clean up the air and the water. That is part of why I’m saying we need to “Rise Up”, and this is not a book that just deals with blacks. I deal with climate change. I deal with LGBTQ rights. I’m saying, across the board, we could be better than this, but we are not rising up and demanding these things.
In your book, you illustrate a parallel between The Great Depression and The New Deal put in place by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and our current economic crisis due to COVID-19 and the potential solution of a Green New Deal. Have you had the chance to speak with Kamala Harris or Joe Biden about this?
During the [primary] campaign, yes. There was the meeting when Kamala came to Harlem and went with me to Sylvia’s soul food restaurant. I’ve talked to them separately. I’ve not talked to them at length since they were nominated. Obviously, we’ve talked on the phone, but this is something that I’m pushing out and I’m encouraging them to do. With COVID-19, this country is going to go through a tremendous economic challenge. We need a Marshall Plan and government involvement to bring the country back. If we don’t have that kind of engagement, we are going to have a very difficult next few years.
With the worldwide protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd, what do you ultimately see resulting from all the protesting?
The legislation is one thing, but the overall result should be how we as a culture redefine policing and move past police being above the law while questioning the actions of some police is thought to be anti-police. I think legislation can enforce this, or we need a cultural shift. One of the reasons the Floyd case caught on the way it did is that it happened in the middle of a pandemic and everyone was in lockdown. There were no sports, so people were watching the news to see what was happening with the lockdown. They kept seeing this footage over and over again, and they couldn’t turn to sports as a distraction. There was no distraction with George Floyd, and I think that caused an eruption. How could somebody press their weight with their knee on someone’s neck for more than eight minutes unless there was some venom there?
I believe everything happens for a reason. I love how you said that God chooses the most unlikely people to make the biggest impact on the world. George Floyd’s story and his likeness will be passed down for generations to come. Has the Floyd family grasped the enormity of that?
Yes, we talk about it all the time. His brother, Philonise, who does a lot of speaking for the family – he and I talk almost every day. I think they understand the impact. Their immediate reaction was they didn’t understand it, because they were suddenly thrust into something [public] and were also mourning. As time has gone on and they see people responding to George and his image, they understand that maybe God used him as an instrument. I told them God absolutely used him as an instrument. Nothing but God could have brought it to this level, and you have to be at peace with that and also set your responsibility in that.
As a Jewish American, this next question is more personal. There is a faction of the Black American movement that has become antisemitic as of late. It’s confounding to me based on our shared history and a lot of our shared activism. How can we clear up some of these misconceptions?
We need to stand and walk together and go back to the history. When I was a kid, I will never forget, Reverend Jackson brought me to the Jewish Theological Seminary, and I met Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr King. Rabbi Heschel gave me a collection of his books and I still have some, like God And Man, and some others. There are people like Heschel, who were part of the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. I tell a lot of people today that when we talk about voting rights, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, were three Jews who died to get us the right to vote. I don’t think enough of us talk about that in the Black community. And yes, we may have had our disagreements, but the history of it is not put out enough and we have to deliberately deal with the misnomer that we have not come together and suffered together. I remember when 9/11 happened. I went to Mort Zuckerman, who was then the head of the Conference of Jewish Organizations, and I said I want to go to Israel and identify with the fact that they live under this kind of terrorism all the time, and we just went through it in New York. [Former Israeli President] Shimon Peres invited me as his guest to Israel and I went and met with him. He asked me to take that message to [Yasser] Arafat. He set up a meeting with [Yasser] Arafat (late Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization), and I went and worked with them. There are people on both sides that don’t want to let certain things go, but we have to keep standing up and represent the facts of history. We’ve suffered together, we’ve fought together, and at this time we cannot afford to be separate. We are fighting the same enemy. Most people that are racist are also antisemitic, and those who are antisemitic are mostly racist. We are connected and we need to stop acting like we are not.
Rise Up: Confronting A Country At The Crossroads by Reverend Al Sharpton is out now. Visit www.alsharptonbooks.com for links to purchase. Follow Reverend Sharpton on Instagram @real_sharpton and on Twitter @thereval. To learn more about the National Action Network (NAN), visit www.nationalactionnetwork.net.
Photo of Reverend Al Sharpton Courtesy of Michael Frost. Book Cover Art, Courtesy of Hanover Square Press
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture columnist and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A Memoir Of A Life Unhinged And On The Record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.