Preaching the Gospel, Our Ally Reverend Al
by Clarence J. Fluker
Dynamic ministers teach, preach and inspire their congregants with messages to awaken and elevate their spirits and minds. Reverend Al Sharpton, born Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr., in 1954, has been doing just that since he delivered his first sermon before he even entered kindergarten. His understanding of the Bible and keen ability to connect people to the scriptures lead his path to ordination before he completed seventh grade.
In the tradition of African American ministers of the time, not only did young Sharpton have a focus on Heaven, he was also very much concerned about the conditions of men and women on Earth, particularly people of color and the plight of the poor in America. Growing up in the 1960’s, in New York City he’d seen the effects of racial injustice and economic inequality firsthand. The intersectionality of these two issues provided the lens through which he’d first see his activism for equality.
As a teenager Sharpton became involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later took on a leadership position as the youth director of their Operation Breadbasket program. The program advocated for better employment opportunities for African Americans. Several years later in 1971, he founded his first national nonprofit and advocacy program, the National Youth Movement with financial support from someone who would help enlarge Sharpton’s lens of the fight for equality even more.
Bayard Rustin was the man who wrote a check to aid the birth of the National Youth Movement. Rustin had served as an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was the chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on the National Mall. “I would always ask him why he didn’t get more credit,” says Sharpton. “He was shunned and marginalized because he was gay and I always felt it was a betrayal of our moral authority that he had to take a backseat to homophobia.”
“He was kind to me, but not treated kindly,” Sharpton says of Rustin. The influence of Rustin made an impact on Sharpton and his consistent voice as a supporter of inclusive equality and fairness for all people for more than four decades.
While some African American pastors have wanted to separate the civil rights movement from the LGBT community, Sharpton has continuously embraced the LGBT community as a part of the civil rights community. According to Sharpton, “We have to fight all together – if not it is disingenuous.”
“We are all interconnected – it is limiting to sectionalize where human and civil rights apply – we can’t have moral authority when you separate – voting, immigration, LGBT, and other issues.” He contends that when everyone is treated equally and fairly it strengthens everyone else.
Prior to it being fashionable, Sharpton was vocal about HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and adequate funding for same-gender-loving men of African descent. Long before it was the law of the land, Sharpton had been an advocate for the legalization of same-sex marriage in all states as he recognized and tried to convince others that it was a civil rights issue.
Now that same-sex marriage has been legalized in the U.S. Sharpton reminds us that a change of law doesn’t equate to a change of heart. “You have to protect what you win and learn from history,” he explains while making reference to the Voting Rights Act. “Winning is part of the battle. You have to protect what you win.”
Heartbreakingly, on June 26, 2015, the morning of the ruling of the landmark same-sex marriage case, the nation was preparing for the funeral of an African American minister in Charleston, South Carolina murdered in his church in what many consider an act of domestic terrorism by a young white man. The statement released by Reverend Sharpton that day through his organization, the National Action Network which he founded in 1991 to promote a modern civil rights agenda, called out both the triumphant and the tragedy in the moment. It read in part:
“As a nation, we must carry the momentum from the highest court in the land and fight against discrimination in all its forms and make sure that all Americans – no matter whom they love, their class or color – can exist freely and equally.”
An activist, nonprofit leader, political candidate and since 2011, host of PoliticsNation on MSNBC and host of his syndicated radio show, Keepin’ It Real, Sharpton is still first a reverend. When asked what Bible verse or scripture he’d offer for a time such as this in America. He offered Galatians 6:9 and added, “We’ve got to keep going even through turmoil and setbacks. In due season we will reap – at the same time of escalation and violence, we are still moving forward – we can’t be worn down with our cynicism. We can’t get weary if we know what we are doing is right. ”
Sharpton is also now working on a plan to create a civil rights museum in New York City that tells the rich stories of the movement’s people and actions in New York that helped move the country forward. His vision is that the museum will explore everything from the Harlem busboys to Stonewall, an inclusive history that provides lessons and hope for the next generation.
PoliticsNation airs weekdays at 6:00pm ET on MSNBC.