Sharpton, Al

views updated

Sharpton, Al

October 3, 1954

Born in Brooklyn, New York, political activist Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. began preaching as a Pentecostal minister at age four and soon began touring the preaching circuit as the "wonder boy preacher." In 1964, the year his father died, Sharpton was ordained as a minister and preached at the New York World's Fair and on tour with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. In the late 1960s he was attracted to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who became his political mentor. In 1969 he was appointed youth director of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Operation Breadbasket, where he arranged boycotts and led demonstrations to force employers to hire blacks.

In 1971 Sharpton formed the National Youth Movement, an outgrowth of his Operation Breadbasket activities. The next year he was the youngest delegate to attend the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. In 1973 he met soul singer James Brown and became involved in promoting him. During the next eight years Sharpton split his time among managing Brown's singing tours, trying to manage the growth and boycott activity of the National Youth Movement, and making political connections in New York's African-American community. In 1978 he ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Senate.

During the early 1980s Sharpton became a leading community activist and led marches for black political and economic empowerment. He first became widely known in 1987, when he led protests after the murder of blacks in Howard Beach, New York, and served as an "adviser" to Tawana Brawley, whose claim that she had been raped by white police sparked a major controversy. Sharpton was discredited by the discovery that Brawley had invented her story and by accusations that he had acted as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sharpton was also indicted on charges of financial improprieties in the National Youth Movement. (In 1990 he was acquitted on the fraud charges, and in 1993 he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to file a 1986 federal tax return.) He regained the spotlight when he led marches in Benson-hurst, New York, after the 1989 murder of a young African American, Yusef Hawkins.

During the early 1990s Sharpton, still a controversial figure, continued his protest activity on behalf of African Americans and other causes. In January 1991 he was stabbed in the chest just minutes before he was to lead a protest march in Brooklyn, but he quickly recovered. He also turned to mainstream electoral politics. In 1992 he ran in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate from New York. While he finished third in a bitter four-way race, he earned praise for his refusal to attack opponents personally. In 1993 he served a well-publicized forty-fiveday jail sentence that grew out of a 1988 protest march. In 1994 he ran for the state's other U.S. Senate seat. While badly beaten by the popular incumbent, Sharpton realized his own goal by attracting 25 percent of the primary vote.

In 1997, on the strength of a heavy black vote, Sharpton finished second in the Democratic primary race for mayor of New York City and narrowly missed qualifying for a runoff with the leading candidate, Ruth Messinger. However, Sharpton's efforts to moderate his image and reach out beyond blacks were set back in the 1990s. In 1996 he was blamed for inciting a gunman to burn down a Harlem store operated by a Jewish immigrant, where Sharpton had led an angry protest campaign. In 1998 he was drawn back into the Tawana Brawley controversy when Officer Steven Pagones won a judgment for libel against Sharpton and his partners, who had accused him of participation in the alleged rape.

Sharpton campaigned for nomination as the Democratic Party's candidate for president of the United States in 2004, later actively supporting eventual nominee John Kerry.

See also Brown, James; Jackson, Mahalia; Jackson, Jesse Louis; Politics in the United States


Klein, Michael. The Man Behind the Soundbite: The Real Story of Reverend Al Sharpton. New York: Castillo International, 1991.

Sharpton, Al, and Anthony Walton. Go and Tell Pharoah: The Autobiography of Al Sharpton. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Sharpton, Al, and Karen Hunter. Al on America. New York: Kensington Books, 2002.

greg robinson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005