For many Black Americans, he is next to a Messiah. For many non-Black Americans, he is thought to be an agitator, riling up already uncomfortable societal quagmires that are better left swept under the rug. Media image aside, Reverend Al Sharpton is neither of these things. Raised by a single mother in working class Queens, New York, developed a passion for civil rights activism as a pre-teen. He began marching alongside Reverend Jesse Jackson and other prominent civil rights activists at the tender age of thirteen, seeking to progress the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of civil disobedience and taking the high road to equal rights under the law for Black Americans.
As the years progressed, though the American civil rights movement has remained something of a moving target, much of the fight has landed at Reverend Al Sharpton’s doorstep. Families of victims of police brutality, fatal racial discrimination and other hate crimes come to him in their quest to gain the media attention they need to enact criminal justice and legislative reform on behalf of their loved ones. The powerless and voiceless look to Reverend Sharpton to get their voices heard. As Sharpton, himself, put it to me during our conversation, “People have called me an ambulance chaser, but we are the ambulance.” He is referring to victims’ families who have been helped by Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN), providing everything from the media attention these families need to pressure prosecutors to take action towards justice, to gaining the attention of congress for policy reform, as well as emotional and financial support in some instances.
Now, with his new book, Rise Up: Confronting A Country At The Crossroads, Reverend Al Sharpton outlines his unrelenting position on the weightiest political and societal issues of our time, recounts some hard lessons learned, and offers an inside glimpse into the mentors who shaped the man we see today. Most importantly, Reverend Sharpton outlines his plan for an America at the crossroads.
Allison Kugel: In light of recent news in the Breonna Taylor case (no criminal charges were filed in her death), what was your first reaction when you heard that decision?
Reverend Al Sharpton: It was alarming, but not surprising. I didn’t have confidence in this investigation, because of the obvious policies of the prosecutor. The prosecutor guides the grand jury and there is nobody in there besides the prosecutor. This prosecutor is a protege of Mitch McConnell. I did not think that he was going to do anything. I did feel that the indictment of the other officer, [Brett] Hankison, for the endangerment of everybody but Breonna was just as offensive. What they are saying is that he was reckless in who he was shooting at and putting others at risk. What about who they shot, and her being at risk? It is one of the reasons why we do what we do, in saying there needs to be new laws. We just had a big march with tens of thousands of us, three weeks ago. Among two of the things we wanted are The George Floyd Policing and Justice Act that sat in the House, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up. It would strengthen the laws that would have eliminated the no knock laws and put this whole thing in a different perspective. That’s one of the things I talk about that in this new book (Rise Up, Hanover Square Press).
Allison Kugel: Many people believe that you just show up wherever the action and media attention is. It’s important for people to know that you and your National Action Network (NAN) are the ones who work to bring national attention to these cases in the first place. For example, it was your organization, NAN, that brought national attention to Trayvon Martin’s murder and to George Floyd’s murder. Without your hard work, the world wouldn’t know the names Trayvon Martin or George Floyd. Why isn’t this common knowledge?
Reverend Al Sharpton: A lot of the media just doesn’t say it. Ben Crump (Attorney for the Floyd family) and the families have said it. In fact, Breonna Taylor’s mother’s first interview was on my show (MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation”). They couldn’t get a national show before my show. Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother) wrote about it her book on Trayvon. Ben Crump brought them to New York to ask me to blow up Trayvon [in the media]. Trayvon had been buried for 2 weeks. I didn’t even know about Trayvon until they came and met with me in my office. We made it an issue and called the first rally and had about 10,000 people out there. It ended up being the day my mother died, and I went ahead with the rally anyway. I said in the eulogy to George Floyd that people call me to blow things up, and I have an infrastructure with NAN where we support the family, we help them get legal advice and media advice, and we stay with them. Sometimes people can’t cover their expenses if they need to do a rally. Some of them need to pay their rent, and NAN helps with that. They call us because they know we’ll come.