Al Sharpton Talks Misconceptions About His Place at the Center of Civil Rights
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 thirteen, 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 Reverend Al 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 Reverend Sharpton to get their voices heard. As Sharpton, himself, put it to me during our conversation, "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, Reverend Al Sharpton outlines his unrelenting 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. Most importantly, Reverend Sharpton outlines his plan for an America at the crossroads.
Allison Kugel: In light of recent news in the Breonna Taylor case (no criminal charges were filed in her death), what was your first reaction when you heard that decision?
Reverend Al Sharpton: It was alarming, but not surprising. I didn’t have confidence in this investigation, because of the obvious policies of the prosecutor. The prosecutor guides the grand jury and there is nobody in there besides the prosecutor. This prosecutor is a protege of Mitch McConnell. I did not think that he was going to do anything. I did feel that the indictment of the other officer, [Brett] Hankison, for the endangerment of everybody but Breonna was just as offensive. What they are saying is that he was reckless in who he was shooting at and putting others at risk. What about who they shot, and her being at risk? It is one of the reasons why we do what we do, in saying there needs to be new laws. We just had a big march with tens of thousands of us, three weeks ago. Among two of the things we wanted are The George Floyd Policing and Justice Act that sat in the House, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up. It would strengthen the laws that would have eliminated the no knock laws and put this whole thing in a different perspective. That's one of the things I talk about that in this new book (Rise Up, Hanover Square Press).
Allison Kugel: 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 your National Action Network (NAN) are the ones who work to bring national attention to these cases in the first place. For example, it was your organization, 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?
Reverend Al Sharpton: 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 2 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.
Allison Kugel: Who is your heir apparent once you reach a certain age and you are no longer able to do this work?
Reverend Al Sharpton: That would come up through the ranks of NAN (Sharpton's National Action Network). 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 organization. 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. Cream rises to the top. 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.
Allison Kugel: 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.
Reverend Al Sharpton: 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?
Allison Kugel: After reading your book cover to cover I went to sleep and woke up the next morning 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.
Reverend Al Sharpton: I think you should be an activist. 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 (the title of Sharpton's new book, out 9/29), 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.
Allison Kugel: 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?
Reverend Al Sharpton: 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 2021 and 2022.
Allison Kugel: How do you see a Green New Deal rolling out despite the strong lobby for oil? How can a new administration circumvent that?
Reverend Al Sharpton: Rise up and vote in this election and put in office people that will not be in any way swayed by the lobbyists. We have to change the lawmakers. Lobbyists can only go as far as who they can influence. You currently have people in the Senate and the Congress that they can influence. They have to have that majority commit to it; the same way Roosevelt did with The New Deal. That is why I wanted this book out before the upcoming election, to lay all of this out.
Allison Kugel: With the worldwide protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd, what do you ultimately see resulting from all the protesting?
Reverend Al Sharpton: The legislation is one, as I said, 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?