Alfred Charles Sharpton, Jr. was born in Brooklyn, NY on October 3, 1954 to Ada and Alfred, Sr., a descendant of slaves owned by the ancestors of segregationist U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond. Called to the ministry at an early age, young Al started preaching at the age of 4, was ordained at 9, and went on tour as a child with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
In 1971, he took a job as James Brown’s tour manager, forging an enduring friendship with the ’Hardest Working Man in Show Business.’ Rev Al took that work ethic with him when he decided to dedicate his life to civil rights activism. A tireless advocate of the poor and underprivileged, he founded the Harlem-based National Action Network, an organization aimed at alleviating social injustice.
Al’s most recent cause, lobbying the Supreme Court on behalf of the Death Row inmate Troy Davis, resulted in an 11th hour stay of execution. Here, he reflects not only on that triumph, but on everything from his voter registration drive to Barack Obama to the Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell cases. Plus, he talks about his new television show, Murder in Black and White, directed by documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, which is set to premiere on Sunday October 5th, with episodes airing on four consecutive evenings at 10 PM EST on TV One Network. (Check local listings) Learn More about Al Sharpton and his books.
Reverend Al Sharpton
The Murder in Black and White Interview with Kam Williams
KW: Hey, Reverend Sharpton, thanks for the time. I’m honored to be speaking with you.
AS: No problem.
KW: Congratulations on the Troy Davis stay of execution.
AS: Thank you.
KW: What will you be working on next?
AS: Well, the National Action Network is working on several things. Following up on the Troy Davis case’ I’ve also been doing a national bus tour doing voter registration and voter protection rallies. We did Kansas City, Missouri, three cities in North Carolina, and Philadelphia, a city a day last week. This coming week, I’m doing Charlotte, Cleveland and Prince George County in Maryland. So, we're all over the country.
KW: You were on the fence about the election for awhile. Have you come out in support of a presidential candidate yet?
AS: Yeah, I’m supporting Senator Obama, but the National Action Network tour is non-partisan. You can't do voter registration and be partisan. But I’ve personally endorsed Barack Obama,
KW: What did you think of the first presidential debate?
AS: I thought it went well. I thought Senator Obama held his own.
KW: Let’s talk about your new TV show. What interested you in hosting Murder in Black and White?
AS: A lot of people know the story of Emmett Till. A lot of people know about Medgar Evers. But many don't understand that there were many other lynchings. These were the prices that were paid for folks like me, and Obama, and [New York State Governor] David Patterson, and [Massachusetts Governor] Deval Patrick to do what we do. I think that by bringing these cases to light, it gives people an understanding of the culture of racial violence, as well as the fact that some of these cases are still unsolved. So, it’s a matter of teaching history in a dramatic way, because this is not the kind of documentary series that puts you to sleep. It’s been done very well. It’s not only riveting but it reminds you that we're just a generation or two away from lynchings, and that some of the perpetrators are still alive and at large.
KW: I was born in 1952 and raised in the North, but my parents subscribed to black papers like the Pittsburgh Courier which covered all the lynchings and mysterious disappearances in the South ignored by the mainstream press. So, I grew up with a sense that there was a different energy and danger for black folks in the South.
AS: Exactly right. And I was born in ’54 and raised in the North, but I would hear horror stories from my mother. I know what it did for me, a generation removed, to now see it in these episodes. I hope it touches the generation behind me and others, so they can understand the gravity of what the Civil Rights Movement and challenging Jim Crow segregation was all about.
KW: What do you think is the best way for the elders of the Civil Rights Movement to come together with members of the Hip-Hop Generation?
AS: I think in many ways, because of the major media, we're not looking at this correctly. You have the elders of the Civil Rights Generation, the Joe Lowery to Jesse Jackson group. But then you have a group in between those generations, which includes Martin Luther King III, myself and others in their 40s and 50s. Barack is in this generation. Then you have the Hip-Hop Generation. See, I think the white media acts like we went straight from 1960 to 2008. That’s not true. Those in that middle generation that I’m in understand the elders because we were raised by them. And we understand some of the younger people because they’re our little sisters and brothers. The way we come together is on the civil rights and human rights issues. The other thing the media has done wrongly is confuse hip-hop activism, the term you used in the question, with hip-hop entertainers. The leaders of the Hip-Hop Generation in terms of activism are the students who worked with us on the Martin Lee Anderson case in Florida, the Jena Six case in Louisiana, or the Genarlow Wilson case in Georgia. They’re not the hip-hop artists doing shows and talking about how they want to be new leaders when they’re not involved in any activism, any more than The Temptations and The Supremes led the Selma march, or Luther Vandross led the Amadou Diallo march. I think the white media has very cynically tried to act like the leaders of the Hip-Hop Generation are the entertainers, and not credit the student leaders and others who have become activists and are acting with my generation and with the elders.
KW: Do you feel the same way about civil disobedience as a tactic in cases where cops kill innocent black men after the police were found not guilty in both the Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell cases?
AS: First of all, in the case of Amadou Diallo, we did civil disobedience prior to the indictments. That’s how we got the indictments. There was no civil disobedience after the verdict. Yes, it was effective in that case, because we wouldn’t have even gotten any indictments without it. And we used the same tactic with the Abner Louima case, which we won. With Sean Bell, we used civil disobedience afterwards, but the jury is still out on whether the Feds will come in. But you gotta remember, from the Howard Beach case, where people went to jail, to Bensonhurst case, where people went to jail, to Abner Louima to Jena, where we got Mychal Bell out of jail, you have wins and losses. Dr. King lost in Albany, Georgia, but won in Selma. Yeah, we lost Diallo, but look at all the others that we won. Not only is the tactic effective, but these would not be issues had we not performed civil disobedience. Part of activism lies in bringing attention to the issues, so that legislators and others have to respond. For example, we used civil disobedience and marching to dramatize the New Jersey 4 case. Well, that put the first profiling law on the books. Had it not been for our activism, profiling would not be part of American jurisprudence. Out of that came racial profiling legislation, including what Barack did in Illinois. If you remove all the protests, tell me if they’d even be addressing the issue of police brutality and racial profiling. There have been plenty of people martyred, but unfortunately the only ones you can name are the ones there have been movements around. Dr. King in his day never passed legislation. He demonstrated civil disobedience that led Adam Clayton Powell and others in Congress to pass legislation, and Thurgood Marshall making new law in the courts. We are trying to do in our day what King did. I think some people are confused about the process.
KW: What did you think about Jesse Jackson’s off-camera comments about Barack Obama’s Father’s Day speech?
AS: I thought he was wrong and I was very public in my criticism. I went on CNN and Fox. I have a lot of respect for Reverend Jackson, but he was wrong, and I couldn't justify his comments. I think that what Barack said about black men that day needed to be said. Barack was correct, Bill Cosby’s been correct. I didn't agree that Barack was talking down to blacks. And you cannot use the N-word, when you’ve been protesting its use. You must be consistent. Reverend Jackson was dead wrong in this case, but that won’t be his legacy.
KW: In 1991, someone tried to assassinate you because of your marching in Bensonhurst. Why did you ask for clemency of the racist who tried to kill you when if his knife had been an inch or so over, you would have died on the spot?
AS: My proposition was that this young man was troubled, and that this young man should be extended the same mercy that I ask for troubled people in my own community. Yeah, he almost killed me. It was the hardest thing in the world for me to ask for clemency for him, but I did it because I was trying to be consistent. It’s always interesting to me, that when people recount my story, especially the white media, they always bring up Tawana Brawley, do they will rarely bring up the fact that I forgave a white man for trying to kill me. And I not only went to court and asked the judge for clemency, but I visited him in jail. That doesn't fit the mainstream media’s stereotypical picture of an angry black man who doesn't like white folks.
KW: What’s it like to live your life in the public eye 24/7, and to have constant requests for help in terms of discrimination or oppression?
AS: It becomes burdensome at times, but it’s the life I’ve chosen. It’s what I felt I was called to do, and I do it. I don't think I could do anything else. When I was younger, I was very close to James Brown, and I tried for a time to be involved with entertainment, but I couldn't do it. People have to find their passion in life, and social activism is my passion. And I think in this era we need that kind of force which will continue to expose what’s wrong so that legislators will be challenged to change the laws. If you don't have that, the laws won’t change on their own. Which is why people call us. Sean Bell’s 22 year-old wife to be, Nicole, called us because she felt that we would make the world know what happened. And we did, because that’s what we do. Absent somebody dramatizing a case and making it public, politicians are not going to deal with it.
KW: You mentioned James Brown. When I was a kid, I lived a couple of blocks from him in St. Albans. Did you know him when he had that house on Linden Boulevard?
AS: No, I was a kid then, too. I got to know him after he had already moved back to Augusta, Georgia. I got close to him when his son, Teddy, a student who had joined my national youth movement in New York, was killed in a car accident.
KW: What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment to date?
AS: Being able, in this generation, to build a consistent movement that has been effective at raising public awareness about the remaining inequities in society. No one can deny that we’ve been successful in making racial profiling, police misconduct, and now, education reform, national issues. And without us, it wouldn’t have been that effective. We’ve remained on the cutting edge of making the conversation deal with the issues of inequality that had been taken off the table. If the generation behind us loses a dedication to raising public awareness, you will end up going backwards in terms of racial progress.
KW: What do you think sank the Diallo case?
AS: Once Johnnie Cochran was no longer on the case, it is my belief that the PBA, District Attorney Robert Johnson and others used that period of time as an opening to abuse the law, to come up with a scheme for the change of venue which I feel led to an injustice for the Diallo family and the community. I think that by the time the new attorneys got in place, D.A. Johnson, the PBA and one of the defendants’ attorneys, which was former Judge Burton Roberts, they had already made their deal, and I believe that that is what led to the injustice."
KW: How do you think an Obama presidency might change race relations in America?
AS: I think it could make things better, but again, and you know Senator Obama and I have a good relationship, there will still be those on the outside pushing the envelope. I think it’s unfair to have unrealistic expectations of Obama. As he always says, ’I’m going to need you all to raise issues to get my attention,’ because it’ll be competing with every other constituency. He can't look like he’s going to the White House as a crusader for black people. So, there must be an ongoing movement for him to respond to. So, I think he’s the best choice for the country, but he’s by no means a panacea.
KW: You ran for president just four years ago. Were you surprised by Obama’s success at landing the Democratic nomination?
AS: Not at all. My campaign and his were totally different. I ran in the tradition of a Jesse Jackson, to raise issues. He ran to win, in the tradition of an Ed Brooke or a Doug Wilder. We helped change the tone. But you can't compare our approaches. I think we do different things that hopefully complement each other.
KW: How do you feel about shaking things up, but not necessarily sharing the spotlight in victory?
AS: We do it all the time. Believe me, we fight a lot more cases than people hear about. I'll give you an example. When I went down to Georgia for the Troy Davis case. I'd spoken about it for a year on my syndicated radio show. They were the ones who asked me to come out stronger on his behalf. Many times, the victims want us to bring the spotlight, because they can't get any attention. Yet, people say, ’Oh, there’s Sharpton out there again,’ but that’s the point. Nobody calls you in to hide their issue. The publicity is exactly what they want. The point is, there have been a lot of other victims. The question is, why haven't we heard about them? And if the National Action Network has created the infrastructure to get the spotlight, then why are you begrudging us that, unless you don't really want those issues exposed, or unless you're envious and you want the spotlight yourself. In that case, you should do the work. Believe me, the end of the work is the spotlight.
KW: Did you feel that the Clinton campaign started ’racializing’ the campaign in January when they tried to pigeonhole Obama as the black candidate?
AS: Absolutely. I think it was very subtle on some levels, and very blatant on others. And I very publicly criticized it at the time.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
AS: No. When I came terms with death in ’91, I got passed fear. The only thing I fear now is that we won’t get all the work done before I die. I’m not afraid to die. I’m going to die. Death is certain. Living is uncertain. Once you have a close brush with death, you make up your mind. I could’ve walked away then to build a big church, and still had my place in history. But I believe in what I’m doing, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that it might cost me my life, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
AS: As happy as I could be!
KW: Bookworm Troy Johnson’s question: What was the last book you read?
The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Jonathan Rieder
Click to order via Amazon
AS: In fact, I’m reading a book right now by Jonathan Rieder called The Word of the Lord is upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I would highly recommend it because the author is very good.
KW: Is there a question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
AS: No, I’ve been asked just about everything I need to be asked
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What’s music are you listening to nowadays?
AS: I listen to Gospel and a lot of R&B. On my iPod there’s a lot of James Brown and Gospel. I love the song ’I Never Would Have Made It.’
KW: How long are you going to keep your hairstyle?
AS: As long as I live. That’s part of my personal bond with James Brown. You know James asked me to do that.
KW: Have you ever seen that duet of James Brown with Pavarotti doing It’s a Man’s World
AS: Yeah, I remember when he did it. It was very moving.
KW: You lost a lot of weight fasting while serving three months in jail for civil disobedience on Vieques, and kept it off.
AS: Yes, and that was another victory. You know, we did close that U.S. Naval base in the en
KW: How do you feel about Congressman Rangel’s recent legal woes?
AS: Clearly he has some things to correct, but I thought it was overblown. Come on, the kind of attention the press paid to that over what were relatively small amounts of money, you have read a political agenda into it.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
AS: I want to be remembered as the guy in his generation who helped keep the social justice movement going. I will not sit in the chamber of power, but be the person on the outside challenging the system. Somebody has to play that role in every generation, and I want to be remembered as being comfortable playing that role in mine.
KW: Well, thanks again for the time, Reverend Al. No justice, no peace.
AS: Take care, man, Bye-bye.
Video of Rev Al Sharpton & National Action Network hold a vigil outside of the prison as Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed.