The First Al Sharpton
It takes a stalwart champion to commit to a lifetime of hard work: relentlessly serving others and boosting social mobility for the least privileged among us. Heading steadily uphill, this kind of work is a bold yet thankless task, often considered life-threateningly dangerous, but countless marginalized voices rely on these leaders to stand up in their place. Incredibly impassioned and exceptionally resilient, Reverend Al Sharpton is that individual. It’s a chilly November morning in New York City and a day after David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, passed away. Reflecting on the life and legacy of his longtime friend as the forward-looking hero of Harlem, Sharpton keeps fighting the good fight. The civil-rights leader, Baptist minister, political activist, and TV and radio host has been the voice of the people and ever-outspoken advocate for justice, who has taken a stand against the racial injustices for decades already, but his work is not over.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1954, Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. grew up in the church, while the fight for equality was exploding in the 1960s, a galvanizing moment for the American civil-rights movement. In adolescence, when the cultural icons of the era sparked inspiration for him, Sharpton found his true calling. “As I got toward my teen years, I became mesmerized by watching the news and talk shows, seeing Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King,” he recalls. “But when I was growing up in the movement, I didn’t want to be the next Jesse Jackson, or the next Dr. King, I wanted to be the first Al Sharpton.” Even at a young age, his vision of his role in the revolution was broad and far-reaching; he didn’t just want to lead a church, he wanted to lead a movement. Little did he know that he would do just that and become a modern-day cultural icon – founding a non-profit, the National Action Network, hosting MSNBC’s PoliticsNation and his own radio show, Keepin' It Real, and releasing books, including Rise Up: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads.
The world is undoubtedly familiar with the impact and legacy of society’s movers and shakers, but often overlooked and underappreciated are the brave advocates, who take up the torch and keep marching – even after all of the hype dies down. “Part of what you must do is win things, but then also sustain them,” Sharpton asserts. “A lot of people talk about when Dr. King and John Lewis got the Voting Rights Act started, which was good, but then we had to maintain it, those of us who came behind them. And we did, and now that’s the fight.”
In today’s turbulent and uncertain social and political climate, the tremors of a revolution can be felt across almost every facet of life, but Sharpton believes that progress and healing can only happen when we harness that energy and convert it into real, tangible change. “Even if you can’t immediately change people’s hearts, you can change their behavior if you deal with laws, and that’s when the revolution comes. Revolution is when you change the boundaries of behavior in a society,” he adds. “The healing has to come through legislation and then reconciliation, but you cannot have healing while leaving the injured out of the healing process and leaving the poison in the wound. You need legislation to take the poison out of the wound – and then you need the injured and the injurer to be able to reconcile.”
Always keeping his finger on the pulse of society, Sharpton is fully aware of the historically precarious and often controversial space he occupies between religion and politics in America. More often than not, in a country founded on the principle of the separation of church and state, the two share the same sphere of influence, especially with topics like a woman’s right to choose and same-sex marriage. “I believe that my religion requires me to fight for justice, my religion requires me to seek fairness for everyone, and my religion also requires me to reconcile,” he shares. “But it also means that I don’t have the right to impose my religion on others. I can practice it through my activism, but part of my activism must be to give people the right to practice whatever religion they believe in. I think that’s where we’ve got to have a peaceful coexistence – that we accept people who operate out of religious passion, but we do not legislate based on religion, we legislate based on what is just and fair for everyone.”
As for the next generation of leaders that he hopes will rise from the proverbial ashes of this past year, Sharpton has a few pieces of advice for them: “There’s a difference between people that can galvanize and people that can organize. Find out exactly what it is that you’re going to organize around. You cannot have an arrival without a destination. Don’t be somebody’s imitator. Be someone that can emulate the principles you believe in and the message that you’ve learned from others, but be you. Because at the end of the day, that’s all you’re going to be anyway,” he affirms.
Writer: Summer Myatt
Photographer: Ron Contarsy (for Highmark Studios)
Photographer Assistant & Videographer: Brandon Young
Editor: Eiko Watanabe
Special thanks to MSNBC (@msnbc - www.msnbc.com) & EPK Media (@myepk & @epkmedia - epkmedia.com)