John Lewis, Julian Bond and so many other leaders of the civil rights movement are dead; at 78, Jesse Jackson clearly is not the lion he once was.
But the Rev. Al Sharpton -- once dismissed by some as a fraud, a jester -- is still standing. This week, he will lead a commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, focusing on police and vigilante violence and its ever-expanding roll call of victims.
The man who helped popularize the 1980s cry, “No justice, no peace,” is putting himself at the center of a new wave of activism, in a new millennium.
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“I want to be able to show that the movement is not dead,” Sharpton said.
For more than three decades, Sharpton, 65, has been a go-to advocate for Black American families seeking justice and peace in the wake of violence and countless incidents that highlight systemic racism. He has a penchant for seizing the national spotlight and focusing the public on police brutality and acts of hatred against Black people, particularly at moments of heightened tensions and grief.
Born in 1954 in Brooklyn, Sharpton quickly showed promise as a preacher. At age 4, he delivered his first sermon; he was an ordained minister by age 10.
When he was just 13, Jesse Jackson appointed Sharpton youth director of New York’s Operation Breadbasket, an anti-poverty project of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The Al Sharpton who grabbed the spotlight in the 1980s was a rotund young man in a track suit, his neck garlanded by a chain and medallion and his hair in a pompadour -- a remnant of his days as James Brown’s tour manager.
Sharpton constantly courted controversy for using inflammatory language against his opponents. He reserved his most fiery rhetoric for elected officials and attorneys representing police officers and alleged assailants in case after case of racial violence.
There was the case of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old Black girl who in 1987 accused six white men, including police officers, of assault and rape in upstate New York. A grand jury later found evidence that Brawley had fabricated the story, after which Sharpton and two attorneys who joined in the case were ordered to pay damages to the prosecutor who sued over defamatory statements.
And in 1989, Sharpton’s attention was drawn to the death of Yusuf Hawkins, a Black teenager fatally shot after being confronted by a mob of white youths in Bensonhurst, a historically Italian-American neighborhood of Brooklyn.
As explored in the recent HBO documentary, “Storm Over Brooklyn,” Sharpton’s work on the Hawkins case was widely seen as the main cause of flared tensions between Black and white communities in New York City.
Asked if he had any regrets about that period of his life, Sharpton said he “would have looked into situations more deeply before getting involved. ... Sometimes your vanity outruns your sanity, and you do things for posture.”
Sharpton came to be known as a political strategist skilled at staging direct-action protests. Sharpton is the reason why Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima and Sean Bell, Black men killed or brutalized by police in New York City, became household names long before the advent of social media and hashtags.
Today, the track suits and chains are long gone, replaced by tailored suits over a frame that is less than half the size of what it once was. But the fire is still there.
At the first of the memorial services for Floyd, who died May 25 after a white police officer held his knee to the man’s neck for nearly eight minutes, Sharpton both announced and found the theme to Friday’s march commemoration.
“George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks,” he said. “Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be is you kept your knee on our neck.”
“It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks!’”
Sharpton has embraced the resonance of Black Lives Matter -- it’s now said to be the largest protest movement in U.S. history. But he takes issue with people who claim that the leaderless, decentralized nature of the emerging movement is an entirely new phenomenon.
“One of the follies of youth, including me when I was young, is you think you’re the first one to do what you do,” Sharpton said. “There ain’t nothing new. If you don’t have that kind of back and forward (over tactics), which Dr. King used to call creative tension, then you ain’t got no movement.”
Twenty-three-year-old Tylik McMillan started working for the National Action Network 10 years ago. Now the group’s national director of youth and college, McMillan said Sharpton prepared him to step in as a field organizer for Friday’s march.
“He has always been such a compassionate leader, a hard leader that builds character,” McMillan said. “He’s giving me an understanding of what it means to move from demonstration to legislation.”
Which is the point of the march on Washington: Sharpton has made passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act a central demand.
The reverend is a busy man, constantly organizing, protesting, consoling. He is host of “PoliticsNation” on MSNBC, which reaches about 2 million viewers every weekend, and he has a nationally syndicated daily radio show, “Keepin’ It Real,” that broadcasts on dozens of Sirius XM stations.
He says he draws inspiration from the birth of his grandson -- Marcus Al Sharpton Bright.
“In many ways, every time I see him, I know it’s a blessing God gave me that he didn’t give some of the civil rights leaders before me,” Sharpton said. “I’m hopeful and I’m challenged ... What kind of society am I leaving him where you can get shot by the cops and the robbers?"