As an outspoken activist in the fight against racism, Al Sharpton has been as widely loved as he has been reviled. Unveiling the injustices of the American justice system, opposing police brutality, and criticizing the staggering disparity between the poor and the rich was not easy. In addition to having his activism characterized as disingenuous, Sharpton's finances as well as his business and fraternal affiliations came under fire. Even so, among the New York community that he calls home, Sharpton is heralded as the champion of the underserved and the causes that matter to them. As an ordained minister, Sharpton has been making public appearances at age four. While his civic activism began when he was a teenager, Sharpton's political activism significantly enlarged after an attempt on his life in the early 1990s.
Albert Charles Sharpton Jr. was born on October 3, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York to Albert Sr., a contractor and landlord, and Ada Sharpton, a seamstress. As religious parents, the Sharptons regularly took young Sharpton to church from his infancy on. Even so, it was undoubtedly exceptional that the four-year-old was already addressing the congregation of the family's church. Ministering before Washington Temple Church of God in Christ's congregation of several thousand, the "Wonderboy," as he was nicknamed, was ordained as a minister at age ten in the Pentecostal Church by the Bishop F D. Washington. As such a young minister, Sharpton made famous his evangelical appearances across the New York area throughout his childhood and even was included on a tour with renown gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
However, the stability of the middle class enjoyed in their comfortable Queens home abruptly ended in 1963 when his father walked out on the family to marry Tina, who was his stepdaughter from Ada Sharpton's prior marriage. The shocking courtship as well as the subsequent separation of the family that it caused forced his mother, another sister, and young Al to move from their middle class home in Queens to the Crown Heights projects in Brownsville. Taking a job as a domestic, Ada Sharpton earned so little that the family qualified for welfare.
Shaping His Signature Personality
At age twelve, young Sharpton initiated a meeting with the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. after reading one of his books. As the first African American congressman from New York, the famous pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1945 (a position that he maintained until 1970). By the time Sharpton met with Powell, the politician was already beloved by black communities for his flamboyant charm but was despised by his opponents for his outspokenness. Long after the meeting, Powell exercised considerable influence on Sharpton. Many whites viewed Powell as a troublemaker, but Sharpton liked his mentor's independent, self-assured and even arrogant carriage. As if a precursor for his own troubled political career, Sharpton witnessed Powell's suffering through innumerable personal and professional attacks by government agencies throughout his career.
Sharpton also joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as a teenager. After meeting the Reverend Jesse Jackson at a rally to attract young people as recruits for his Operation Breadbasket program, the teen joined in protests and demonstrations for civil rights. In 1969, Jackson nominated fifteen-year-old Sharpton as the youth director of the New York branch of Operation Breadbasket, an activist organization that directed boycotts against unfair business practices in predominately black American neighborhoods. His weekly preaching appearances, his activist leanings, and his probable political ambition led Sharpton to intern in the New York City Human Resources Administration as a high school student.
Flamboyance Raises Questions over Controversial Alliances
Encouraged by the success of his early activism (including a substantial protest against the A&P, the country's largest grocery store chain), Sharpton founded the National Youth Movement (NYM) in 1971. Designed as an extension of his battle against discriminatory hiring and business practices, NYM also worked to combat police brutality and deter substance abuse. Through NYM's activities, he met the soul artist James Brown who agreed to perform a benefit concert for the organization. The meeting offered Sharpton the opportunity to tour as a bodyguard of the performer and provided useful contacts between Sharpton and important African American personalities such as Don King, with whom he worked to promote boxing events, and Michael Jackson, whom he worked with to increase job opportunities for African Americans in the entertainment industry.
Years later, when Brown and King went through a series of legal troubles, Sharpton found himself at the center of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attack on King. Although the FBI was convinced that the infamous fight promoter was linked to organized crime from which he profited, by the end of its investigation the bureau could only allege that Sharpton provided information about the Genoveses, New York's infamous crime family.
- Born in Brooklyn, New York on October 3
- Ordained as a minister in the Washington Temple Church of God in Christ at age ten
- Meets the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who becomes a lifelong mentor
- Nominated by the Reverend Jesse Jackson as the youth director of the New York branch of Operation Breadbasket
- Founds the National Youth Movement (NYM)
- Graduates from Tipton High School
- Attends Brooklyn College
- Runs as a candidate for State Senate
- Thrust to spotlight following two racial deaths in New York City
- Answers the call of a family seeking assistance in the racial killing of Michael Griffith
- Reputation suffers after he maintains his support to Tawana Brawley and her family despite a jury's conclusion
- Helps to bring attention to the murder of Yusuf Hawkins
- Attacked and stabbed by Michael Riccardi on January 12 during a protest rally in a Bensonhurst schoolyard; founds National Action Network (NAN) in Harlem, New York
- Runs as a candidate for the U.S. Senate
- Runs as a candidate for the U.S. Senate
- Vies for the Democratic nomination for president
After his 1972 graduation from Tipton High School, Sharpton attended Brooklyn College from 1973 to 1975. Despite his not serving his own church as pastor throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Reverend Al Sharpton remained a visible figure in New York City well into the 1990s. Regarded in some African American circles as a defender of black power traditions, Sharpton continued to appeal because of his speaking ability. His NYM activities and regular preaching appearances attracted considerable audiences who enjoyed his black preacher style. In the tradition of Afro-folk religion, his loud and sometimes raspy voice would methodically crescendo until its climax electrified audiences.
Successes and Challenges of the Grassroots Leader
Sharpton's attempt to win a seat in the New York legislature in 1978 was foiled when a judge ruled that he did not meet the Brooklyn district's residency requirements. In the mid-1980s Sharpton was suddenly on the chaotic stage of New York's racial politics. In 1985, Bernhard Goetz, a white subway rider, shot several young black men on a city subway. However, despite permanently paralyzing one of them, he was not even charged with having a firearm. The widely publicized incident and the lack of criminal action in its aftermath caused outrage in the black community. Assuming the role as its unofficial spokesman, Sharpton organized demonstrations and prayer vigils at Goetz's apartment as well as hosting interviews and attending the court proceedings. Sharpton's sustained protest almost certainly helped to see that Goetz was indicted, convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, and sentenced on the weapons charge.
Al Sharpton led other protests in high-profiled cases concerning the black community. In 1986, Sharpton answered the call of a family seeking assistance in the racial killing of Michael Griffith, a black teen who was chased by whites onto a highway when his car broke down in Brooklyn's still-segregated Howard Beach. Again, Sharpton pushed to keep the incident in the press, holding rallies, offering a cash reward for information, and leading a march of thousands of supporters. While other black political leaders and even mayor Ed Koch joined in the condemnation of the murder, Sharpton's leadership identified him as a leader of black causes in New York City.
Sharpton was pulled into the 1987 case of Tawana Brawley. Sensationalized in the press over several months, the controversial case was dismissed within a year after being investigated by a grand jury which concluded that Brawley had made-up the entire incident to explain her four-day disappearance from home. Al Sharpton continued to support Brawley and her family and continued to assert that district attorney Steven Pagones was somehow implicated in wrong doing. Finally, Pagones sued him for $395 million for defamation of character. After dragging on for ten additional years, the case ended with an eight-month trial in which Sharpton and his cohorts were found guilty of slander, and Sharpton was fined $65,000. Vilified in the press, Sharpton was soon accused of being an FBI informant and became the subject of state and federal tax inquiries. Also accused of tax evasion and embezzlement, Sharpton was acquitted of these charges and others that included established contacts with wanted felons and wiretapping his associates.
In the years that followed, Sharpton continued to be attacked in the media as a shady figure whose stout physical appearance, combined with his signature hair and jogging suits, made him the regular source of jokes. Despite his waning popularity, Sharpton maintained his NYM activities and interest in racial cases. The 1989 case of Yusuf Hawkins, a black sixteen-year-old, and three of his friends who were chased by a mob of white boys after getting off at the wrong subway stop, drew Sharpton in. The family of murdered Hawkins sought out Sharpton, who helped coordinate a series of marches to keep pressure on the justice system. A jury finally sentenced one of the boys to thirty-two years to life for the murder.
The Hawkins case illuminated existing racial tensions between African Americans and the predominately Italian American neighborhood where the attack took place. Similar tensions were building between blacks and Hasidic Jews in the Crown Heights community where the grand rebbe of the Lubavitcher accidentally killed Gavin Cato, a black teen, while swerving to avoid an oncoming car. Despite having peacefully lived together for decades, blacks and Jews were suddenly opposed. The incident caused outrage in Cato's neighborhood, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young rabbinical student, was allegedly stabbed to death by a black teenager. Led again by Sharpton, protest marches helped to urge the return of the car driver who fled to Israel, and in the end, a jury acquitted the black youth. Sharpton continued to labor with other black leaders to bridge the gap between the black and Jewish community left by the ordeal.
An Attempt on His Life Changes Sharpton
On January 12, 1991, Sharpton was stabbed by Michael Riccardi, a drunken white male, during a protest rally in a Bensonhurst schoolyard. While Riccardi attempted to flee on foot, Sharpton removed the five-inch knife from his chest before collapsing. Public figures such as New York City's first black mayor David Dinkins, who had long sought to distance themselves from his controversial reputation, publicly denounced the attack and pledged their support to Sharpton. The truce was only one benefit of the attack. While on his hospital bed, Sharpton was reunited with both his long-estranged father Albert Sharpton Sr. and his young mentor, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Despite Sharpton's plea for leniency during the case, Riccardi was sentenced to five to fifteen years in prison. However, Sharpton was not as forgiving of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), whom he claimed had promised him protection before the protest and subsequent stabbing. Over a decade later, in December 2003, Sharpton filed a civil suit against the department in which he alleged that the police did not protect him during the protest, nor did they make any real attempt to apprehend Riccardi after the attack. Although the city's spokesman maintained that the NYPD acted appropriately, the city paid Sharpton a $200,000 out-of-court settlement.
Sharpton declared the attack changed his life. In 1991, he founded his National Action Network (NAN) in Harlem. Dubbed the House of Justice, NAN's Harlem base served as the organization's national headquarters in the fight against racism in the business world, political arena, and criminal justice system. The activist organization prides itself on offering a cross-section of initiatives that empower the politically and economically underserved.
In 1992, Sharpton finished third in the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat. When Mayor Dinkins was succeeded by Rudolph Giuliani, Sharpton's support base broadened to include other African American New Yorkers. Despite losing in a 1994 bid as well, Sharpton remained active in civil rights activities, including organizing a march against poverty in 1995 and a vigil outside U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' home to protest the judge's opposition to affirmative action. In 1993 Sharpton served forty-five days in jail as a result of a 1987 protest march that shut down the Brooklyn Bridge.
In 1997, Sharpton ran in New York's Democratic mayoral primary, winning 32 percent of the vote and almost forcing a runoff. Despite some political success, Sharpton remained a grassroots organizer, who championed the causes of the underserved. He rallied politicians, entertainers, and members of the wider black community to pursue the police officer responsible for the 1999 arrest and sodomy of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant. In another case of police brutality, Sharpton helped to press the justice system to prosecute the officers responsible for shooting Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant.
Sharpton vied for the Democratic nomination for U.S. president in the 2004 general election. While his August 2001 announcement was initially received with indifference by some, it was received with welcomed excitement by others. Arguing that the Democrats and Republicans had become too similar on issues such as war, health care, business deregulation and taxes, Sharpton insisted that he was running a broad-based campaign. Using the line, "Keep the Dream Alive: Don't Waste Your Vote," Sharpton's 10-point platform emphasized four goals: the right to vote, the right to public education of equally high quality, the right to healthcare of equally high quality and women's equal rights. One of ten candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, Sharpton did not have the financial backing that his competitors enjoyed. However, monetary restraints were not Sharpton's only challenges. Even so, Sharpton's public showing helped to keep the issues of the underserved in the forefront of the race well beyond his March 2004 concession of defeat to Senator John Kerry.
In 1996 Al Sharpton wrote his autobiography Go and Tell Pharaoh, and in 2002 he published Al on America. Married to former James Brown back-up singer Kathy Jordan since the mid-1980s, the couple has two daughters Dominique and Ashley.
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Crystal A. deGregory