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Al Sharpton is an outspoken and sometimes controversial political activist in the fight against racial prejudice and injustice.
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Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, discusses famous figures who contributed to the history of political activism in Harlem.
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Ordained in the Pentecostal church, Al Sharpton is an outspoken and sometimes controversial political activist in the fight against racial prejudice and injustice. In 1971, he established the National Youth Movement. His many critics and supporters have watched him run for Senate, mayor of New York, and candidate for president. His dramatic style brings popular and media attention to his causes.
"Sometimes you just have to live long enough for your message to catch up."
"We are not in the business of revenge. We are in the business of justice."
Social and political activist, religious leader Al Sharpton was born Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. on October 3, 1954, in Brooklyn, New York. Outspoken and sometimes controversial, Sharpton has become a leading figure in the fight against racial prejudice and injustice. He developed his commanding speaking style as a child. A frequent churchgoer, Sharpton became an ordained minister in the Pentecostal church at the age of 10. He often traveled to deliver sermons and once toured with Mahalia Jackson, a famous gospel singer.
In the late 1960s, Sharpton became active in the civil rights movement, joining the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC had a program called Operation Breadbasket, which sought to encourage diversity in the workplace by applying social and economic pressure on businesses. In 1969, Sharpton became the youth director for the program and participated in protests against the A&P supermarket chain in the early 1970s. He went on to establish his own organization, the National Youth Movement.
During the 1980s, Sharpton got involved in many high-profile cases in the New York City area that affected the African American community and led several protests against what he believed were injustices and incidents of racial discrimination. He helped keep media scrutiny on the racially based murder of a black teenager named Michael Griffith in 1986.
The following year, Sharpton became embroiled in the Tawana Brawley case—a case that would haunt him for years. Brawley, an African American teenager, claimed that she was raped by a group of white men—some of whom were allegedly police officers. The case was later dismissed by a grand jury, which reportedly concluded that the teenager had made up the story. But this came after months of media frenzy around the case, largely encouraged by Sharpton. He was even sued by the district attorney working the case for making slanderous remarks. Sharpton was found guilty and fined for his comments.
His reputation damaged, Sharpton faced more charges in 1990. He was tried and acquitted of stealing from the NYM. No matter what problems he encountered, he remained dedicated to his activism, arranging protests and giving press conferences. During one such protest in Brooklyn's Bensonhurst neighborhood in 1991, a man stabbed Sharpton in the chest. Rushed to the hospital, he had surgery to repair the damage and made a full recovery.
Sharpton tried again to win public office in the 1990s. He had made one unsuccessful run for for the New York State Assembly in 1978. But this time, Sharpton had his sights on the national political arena, trying for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1992 and in 1994. He also ran for mayor of New York in 1997. In 2004, Sharpton attracted national attention by throwing his hat into the ring to become the Democratic Party's presidential candidate.
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