Reverend Al Sharpton
Internationally renowned civil rights leader, activist, and founder and President of National Action Network (NAN), the Rev. Al Sharpton has dedicated his life to the fight for justice and equality. For decades, he has turned the power of dissent and protest into tangible legislation impacting the lives of ordinary people. As former President Barack Obama once stated, Rev. Sharpton is a “voice for the voiceless” and a “champion for the downtrodden”.
As head of NAN, which currently operates over 125 chapters across the country including a Washington, D.C. bureau and headquarters in Harlem, NY, Rev. Sharpton has taken the teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and applied them to a modern civil rights agenda. He has been a tireless advocate for everything from police reform and accountability to protection of voting rights and education equality. A 2016 Vanity Fair profile described him as “arguably the country’s most influential civil rights leader.”
In March 2016, Rev. Sharpton was honored with the “Mandela Legacy Hope, Success & Empowerment Award” in recognition of his long history of achievements in advancing civil rights causes around the world. Connecting the dots between domestic challenges in a global context, Rev. Sharpton often addresses international audiences and issues impacting people around the globe. In 2015, he delivered a resounding speech on civil rights, race relations and more at the prestigious Oxford Union in England. At the end of his speech, he received a 10-minute standing ovation.
Incorporating Dr. King’s nonviolent teachings, Rev. Sharpton has organized strategic campaigns to challenge discriminatory policies in multiple facets of society. He has diligently fought to eliminate racial profiling laws in certain states across the country and was instrumental in getting an end to stop-and-frisk policing in New York City. He was the first to organize a rally to protest the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer as he walked home with a bag of skittles and an iced tea. He brought the case to national attention and stood alongside the family in their difficult quest for justice.
Rev. Sharpton has been on the frontlines advocating for people of color, immigrants, the LGBT community, women, the poor and all disenfranchised people. In fact, 2017 marks NAN’s 26th anniversary; 26 years of social justice work, activism and pushing for equality.
Rev. Sharpton’s passion and vigor for fairness and equality is just as active today as it’s ever been. Most recently, he has been a leading voice on the Flint water crisis, calling for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder and for greater accountability of all those responsible for the lead poisoning catastrophe. In February, he organized a protest against the Oscars and their lack of diversity just a few blocks away from the red carpet in Los Angeles, and NAN simultaneously held similar marches around the country. That same month, he met with both Democratic Presidential contenders to ensure that issues concerning the African American community and civil rights matters in general were front and center on their agendas.
In 2014, Rev. Sharpton received a call within hours of the tragic chokehold death of Eric Garner, and two days later, he had buses lined up outside NAN to transport thousands of people to protest in Staten Island. This case and others, along with extensive pressure from Rev. Sharpton and other civil rights groups eventually led to the appointment of a special prosecutor in New York City to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians. It set a precedent and standard for the rest of the nation to emulate.
When a White gunman murdered nine African Americans during Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, Rev. Sharpton went immediately to the area and spoke at some of the victim’s funerals. He delivered the eulogy for 31-year-old Corey Jones who was shot and killed by an off duty officer as he waited for assistance on Interstate 95 in Florida after his vehicle broke down. It was Rev. Sharpton who spearheaded the call for a special prosecutor after 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times in Chicago. And when 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, he organized a peaceful rally, delivered the eulogy at the young boy’s funeral, reaffirmed his continuous call for police reform and urged calm during the tense climate.
“I often say that we have progressed tremendously as a nation since the days of slavery,” says Rev. Sharpton. “But discrimination and inequality saturate society in modern ways. Though racism may be less blatant today, its existence is undeniable and our job is to keep pushing for justice and the truth.”
Rev. Sharpton does precisely that in all aspects of his life. From anchoring a weekly television broadcast on MSNBC titled “Politics Nation”, to hosting a daily, three-hour nationally syndicated radio show called “Keepin it Real”, as well as a national Sunday radio show called “The Hour of Power” and a Saturday rally which is broadcast live from his NAN headquarters, Rev. Sharpton utilizes his multiple platforms to highlight issues and stories that would otherwise fall under the radar. He holds leaders and power accountable, and provides in-depth analysis as to how and why political stories matter.
Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to former President Barack Obama, once described Rev. Sharpton as “a voice of reason” and said that he is “very constructive, direct and willing to take on tough issues and take heat for what he believes in”. For those who knew him as a child, none of this is surprising; you could almost say he was destined to spread his voice to the world.
Born on October 3, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York, Rev. Sharpton began his ministry at the tender age of four, preaching his first sermon at Washington Temple Church of God & Christ. Just five years later, the Washington Temple Church’s legendary Bishop F.D. Washington licensed his protégé, Rev. Sharpton, to be a Pentecostal Minister.
Rev. Sharpton’s civil rights career began almost as early as his ministry. At 13, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. William Jones appointed him Youth Director of New York’s SCLC Operation Breadbasket, an organization founded by Dr. King in 1971. Rev. Jackson says Rev. Sharpton was a boy prodigy who had a mind like a sponge – absorbing everything.
At the age of 16, Rev. Sharpton founded the National Youth Movement, Inc., which organized young people around the country to push for increased voter registration, cultural awareness and job training programs. It was at that time that he forged a friendship with Teddy Brown, the son of the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown. Tragically, Teddy was killed in a car accident and in the months that followed his passing, James Brown took Rev. Sharpton in as though he was his own and they developed an inexplicable bond. Rev. Sharpton was shaped by his surrogate father Mr. Brown who taught him, “You can’t set your sights on nothing little; you got to go for the whole hog”. Young Sharpton went on the road later with James Brown, and for several years, he also served as the Director of the Ministers Division for the Rainbow Push Coalition under Rev. Jackson.
In 1991, Rev. Sharpton founded NAN to promote a modern civil rights agenda that includes the fight for one standard of justice, decency and equal opportunities for all people regardless of race, religion, nationality or gender. NAN works within the spirit and tradition of Dr. King, and today the non-profit organization boasts over 100,000 members and employs dozens.
It was Rev. Sharpton and NAN that raised national awareness around draconian new voter laws in many states and modern mechanisms of voter disenfranchisement. In both 2008 and 2012, the African American vote was pivotal in getting Barack Obama elected, and Rev. Sharpton was instrumental in encouraging voter registration and engagement. He was a fierce advocate for health care reform and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, as well as criminal justice reform, some of which was adopted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Long before combatting police brutality became a mainstream issue, Rev. Sharpton was on the front lines marching and leading the call for justice – even risking his own life while doing so. Back in the 1980s, following the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith, who was chased by a White mob onto a highway in Howard Beach, Queens and hit by a car, Rev. Sharpton led massive rallies through that very neighborhood even as angry onlookers hurled racial slurs at him and the protesters. The City appointed a special prosecutor and eventually the nine attackers were convicted.
In 1991, Rev. Sharpton was preparing to march in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in another demonstration following the horrific death of 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins, who was shot and killed by a White mob, when a man stabbed Rev. Sharpton in the chest with a knife. He survived the attempt on his life, forgave the assailant, asked a judge for leniency for the man’s sentence and even visited this individual in jail. Despite the traumatizing experience, Rev. Sharpton pressed on and continued his life’s mission of fighting for justice and civil rights for all.
Whether it was bringing about reform to the NJ State Police following the shooting of three young Black and Latino men on their way to a basketball game, or voicing concern over the arrest, rush to judgment and conviction of the Central Park Five, Rev. Sharpton has always put a spotlight on societal ills even if he was standing alone while doing so. Other cases that he has been at the forefront of include Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, the Jena Six, Sean Bell, Omar Edwards, Ramarley Graham, Kendrick Johnson and many more.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens as long as we don’t purposely give our power away,” stated President Obama at NAN’s 16th annual convention. “Every obstacle put in our path should remind us of the power we hold in our hands each time we pull that lever or fill in that oval or touch that screen. We just have to harness that power. We’ve got to create a national network committed to taking action. We can call it the National Action Network.”
Through NAN, Rev. Sharpton has organized campaigns on ending gun violence, pushing for worker’s rights, eliminating unjust policies like stop-and-frisk, fighting for more women and minority owned businesses, a minimum wage increase, education reform – he even embarked on a national education tour with former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich at the request of President Obama – protection of voting rights, immigrant rights, pay equity for women, gay and lesbian rights and a plethora of other causes. As Pastor and activist Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who is known for his dedication in the struggle for school integration and worked with the organization Operation Breadbasket, said: to many it was clear that there was a divine calling in Sharpton’s life.
Today, though the challenges at hand may have changed, the need for activism and the need for a champion of equality are just as necessary as they were in the past. Rev. Jackson recently remarked that Rev. Sharpton didn’t burn out, but rather, he kept remaking himself, all the while working as diligently as ever – often up to 16 hours a day. In the Vanity Fair piece on Rev. Sharpton, Jackson said: “He didn’t just happen to be a leader. He really meant to be one, and he has pursued getting enough power through relationships to achieve his purpose.”
Whether it was his noteworthy Presidential run as a candidate for the Democratic Party in 2004, his contribution to end U.S. Navy exercises in Vieques, Puerto Rico, or his ability to hold people like radio host Don Imus accountable, Rev. Sharpton has continually used his ingrained talents to fight for what is right. His stance on behalf of the disenfranchised has taken him, in his own words, “from the streets to the suites”.
It is because of that unique ability to maneuver in various circles that Rev. Sharpton understands the dynamics of what it takes to be a true leader who never forgets where he or she came from. He has received praise and acknowledgment from all ends of the spectrum for his work throughout the decades. Even former President George W. Bush has stated, “Al cares just as much as I care about making sure every child learns to read, write, add and subtract.”
As the 2016 election looms, Rev. Sharpton is regularly preaching about the importance of political participation. With everything from a Supreme Court nominee to issues like voting rights, criminal justice reform, abortion rights and much more on the line, he continues to remind people of the significance of civic engagement because at the end of the day, all decisions directly impact the citizenry. As Rev. Sharpton has tirelessly shown the world with his life’s work, we must be the change we wish to see.
Rev. Sharpton was educated in New York public schools and attended Brooklyn College. He has an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Bethune-Cookman University, Virginia Union University and an honorary degree from A.P. Bible College. He resides in New York City and has two daughters, Dominique and Ashley, who are both active in NAN and with his radio and television shows.