Rev. Al Sharpton has been an intrepid and tireless champion for Black civil and human rights. Sharpton’s unapologetic militancy over the years has made him a beloved figure to many African Americans. He has organized folks in the community to demand better, and fairer treatment. Government bureaucrats have side-eyed the good Rev. to no end, primarily viewing his community organizing as a hotbed of anti-white resentment that incites vigilante lawlessness. Yet, the disdain coming from his detractors just rolls off the back of the 63-year-old go-to rabble-rouser because Black Lives Do Matter. Rev. Al is on a non-stop mission to correct toxic Whiteness and if he has to disrupt life as you know it, well, so be it.
Now the founder of the Harlem-based, National Action Network, TV host of MSNBC’s Sunday morning PoliticsNation, and syndicated radio host of Keepin’ It Real, chops it up with 50BOLD about the man behind the public persona…
50BOLD: So we don’t know too much about your formative years. Can you tell us about Al Sharpton, the kid and about your family life?
Sharpton: Well, I was born in Brooklyn, New York in ’54. My father was a businessman, he owned real estate and a construction company. When I was four, we moved to Hollis, Queens and into a 10-room house. We were pretty much a middle-class family. When I was nine, my father abandoned us. I was then raised by my single mother for the rest of my childhood and teenage years in the hood, in Brooklyn. So I lived both a middle class and very poor life. I started preaching when I was four. I grew up as a boy preacher in the church.
50BOLD: So you were once considered a real rabble-rouser but it seems there’s been a transformation in your style. What made Al Sharpton so very passionate back in the day?
Sharpton: When I led marches in the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst sections of New York City it was such that they would kill Blacks just for being there. And they would come out by the hundreds throwing bananas and calling us the N-word. I was even stabbed in one of those marches. Those kinds of neighborhoods and those kinds of confrontations have changed. They blame us rather than saying America has changed. I’ve lived from being stabbed for leading a non-violent march in a section of Brooklyn to sitting on the platform as a guest of the Black president of the United States. So I don’t think that’s transformed as much as America began to change. I’m still marching. I led the Trayvon Martin marches. I led the Eric Gardner marches. I’m not much different from who I was except for the fact that I’m older.
50BOLD: You have had a quite extensive civil rights journey. It appears you have been born to do this. You have given props to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Who were those early on grassroots soldiers who fueled you?
Sharpton: Rev. William Jones was the first person to fuel me; he is not well known but very respected. He was the head of Operation Breadbasket in New York City, Dr. King’s economic arm. He made me his youth director when I was thirteen. My mother brought me to see him when I was twelve. She explained to the Rev Jones, “He’s a boy preacher. He keeps getting involved in watching all this news, he wants to go to all of these rallies, and I don’t want him to leave the church. If you could only take him under your wing, I know he will stay in the church!”
Rev. Jones mentored me. He introduced me to Rev. Jackson. The Rev. James Bevel, another unsung hero who spent a lot of time in New York City, helped nurture me. I had many mentors. Naturally, with my father having abandoned me I looked for outside references to learn manhood. The Rev. Jones, my pastor Bishop Frederick Douglas Washington, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson became the early father figures that I didn’t have at home. I emulated them. I even tried to dress like them.
50BOLD: So the mentors you mentioned, did they propel you to become a Civil Rights activist?
Sharpton: These mentors trained me in it. Once I joined Operation Breadbasket and became youth director, they taught me things and believed, I had a natural calling for activism. Rev. Jones wanted me to become a pastor like him. And I had become enthralled with Rev. Jackson who had never pastored a church. I wanted to be his kind of preacher. Dr. King gave up his home church in Montgomery and went back to his father’s congregation in Atlanta. I wanted the kind of ministry that was civil rights based.
50BOLD: Was there any specific defining moment that placed you on this path?
Sharpton: My defining moment came after my mother took me to see Rev. Jones. I was 13-years-old and on picket lines in front of stores demanding jobs for the community. I knew this was what I wanted to do. I knew it inside. You know, all of the sirens went off. You kind of know when you’re at peace with something.
50BOLD: Do Washington politicos see you as polarizing, particularly with this current administration? Or are you now recognized as a statesman?
Sharpton: They recognize me as both polarizing and as a statesman. The fact that President Obama worked closely with me for eight years. They couldn’t deny the fact that I ran for president and got the vote, they couldn’t deny that. But at the same time, they see me as polarizing because I’m fighting the very issues that they’ve tried to revoke. They have tried to revoke Obamacare. They’ve tried to roll back on voting rights. You must remember, Donald Trump and I come from the same hometown. We fought. I marched when he called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five and they ended up being innocent.
It’s easy to call me polarizing because I’ve fought this present president. And I’ve been attacking him ever since he came out with the birther issue regarding President Obama. But, they’re not as vitriolic as they used to be because the public knows me now, even the white public. After the presidential campaign and after having my own show on MSNBC, it’s kind of hard to paint me as a crazed person. You’ll watch TV and say to yourself…’well, wait a minute, I might not agree with him but he sure ain’t crazy!’
50BOLD: Okay now don’t hold anything back, what do you really think of Trump and his political antics.
Sharpton: I think he’s racist. He knows better and chooses to be a racist. He takes pictures with rappers, he knows Al Sharpton, he knows Jesse Jackson, this is why he’s racist. He knows better and to practice racism when you know better is worse. He comes in and denies people healthcare. He then normalizes neo-Nazis and stated that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests surrounding plans to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee is blatant dog-whistling. What he is doing is dangerous to this country. It is an attempt to undo all of Dr. King’s and the Civil Rights movement’s achievements.
50BOLD: And what do you think is the rationalization of the Black Republicans who support Trump and his policies?
Sharpton: I can’t find any rationalization! For them to say they want access, access to what? If a guy is trying to institute policy and pass legislation that will hurt your people, your family; what do you need access to him for?
When Trump got elected he called me a month later and invited me to meet with him. I told him I’m not doing a photo-op. I would only meet with him if other heads of national Civil Rights groups can also attend the meeting. He said, “I don’t know them. I’ve wrestled with you for years.” I said I’m not doing that! Access through wickedness means that you’ve got a real problem. I don’t know how they justify being close to someone who is doing what he is doing to their own people.
50BOLD: So, Rev. Sharpton, do you have a credo you live by?
Sharpton: My credo is that you must be authentic and you must live for more than only yourself. You must live for a higher purpose. People live and die every day. Only those who live for a higher purpose are remembered. And understand that you are only at best, a link in a long chain. Just don’t be the weak link. Be the strong link!
50BOLD: Why do you think there aren’t many young civil rights activists stepping up to the plate these days?
Sharpton: There are some young civil rights activists, certainly I have some in the National Action Network. But a lot of them thought in the eight years of Obama that the struggle was over. Some of them felt that they had arrived. Trump was like cold water being thrown in the face to realize that the struggle is not over. I’m proud of some young people in my own organization. Sometimes you need a contrast for some of them to emerge.
50BOLD: Now, when you open your eyes in the morning are you pessimistic, or are you still keeping hope alive with regards to the political climate in this country?
Sharpton: I’m optimistic. I’m one of those people who get up 4:30 to 5:00 every morning to work out. Purpose wakes me up. I don’t even need an alarm clock! I’m in the gym at 5:00 am because I know we can win. In my life, I’ve been in two experiences. I was there in Johannesburg when they lowered the flag that was a symbol of the apartheid regime and announced that the ANC and Nelson Mandela had won the election. And I remember how we marched…“Free Mandela, Free Mandela!”
And I was standing at the gravesite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holding a youth rally the night President Obama was announced the victor in the 2008 election. He had invited me to Chicago and I told him, no, because we wanted to rally at Dr. King’s gravesite. My mother, Ada Essie Sharpton, couldn’t even vote in her native Alabama at one time, yet her son was standing at Dr. King’s gravesite when Barack Obama won as the first Black president. When I stood in the square in Johannesburg and saw them take down that apartheid flag…I’ve seen too many victories to ever doubt we can win no matter how hard the battle.
50BOLD: It seems you’re aging backward you look younger and younger. So what’s your exercise and diet regimen?
Sharpton: I gave up all meat. I don’t eat any red meat and no chicken. I might eat fish but no more than once a week. I eat natural salads, vegetables, fruits. I work out for about 55 minutes every morning on the stair climber. I also lift weights and do other forms of exercise. I believe you’ve got to keep yourself in shape and be purposeful about it. And you’ve got to also watch your diet. I lost 178 lbs. over the last four years and I feel good!
50BOLD: And YOU look good! So, how does Al Sharpton relax?
Sharpton: I work! My work is my relaxation. Anytime you do what you believe you were born to do, you enjoy your work. People talk about vacation. I don’t ever remember having taken a vacation. I enjoy doing what I do. I do my radio show 3 hours a day. I do a talk show, a television show once a week and other than that I’m at National Action Network working. I’ve always been a workaholic but it doesn’t feel like work to me. Even when I go away on what people call a vacation or retreat, I do my radio show from there.
I went to Africa over the last 3 years, and I worked while I was in Africa. What I’m doing is what I’m alive to do. I couldn’t imagine sitting somewhere watching the waves come in on the beach. It would drive me crazy!
50BOLD: Tell us something about you that most people don’t know.
Sharpton: What most people don’t know is that I’m very private. When I’m home I want to be home. I don’t like a lot of visitors. I’m very quiet. I study a lot. I read a lot. After I work out in the morning I go on the internet. I read everything. I read two and three books at a time. People think of me differently because of my boisterous public image, but they would be surprised to learn how quiet and studious I am at home.
50BOLD: What’s left on your bucket list?
Sharpton: I want to build a civil rights museum in the north. There are civil rights museums in the south. I want a museum in Harlem just committed to the civil rights struggle of working-class people: Showing the Harlem Bus Boycott (lead by Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1941), 15 years before the Montgomery Boycott; showing the street corner of spokespeople; showing people like, not just Malcolm X, but Lewis H. Michaux (Harlem bookseller and civil rights activist); showing the struggles of racism, bigotry and even slavery in the north. I’m working on this. I want to build a major civil rights museum in the north.