Who Is Al Sharpton?
Ordained in the Pentecostal church as a child, 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 as a candidate for president. His dramatic style brings popular and media attention to his causes, and he has hosted his own MSNBC show, PoliticsNation, since 2011.
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, the famed gospel singer.
Sharpton attended public schools in Queens and Brooklyn. In the late 1960s, he 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, then a high school student, became the youth director for the program. He later participated in protests against the A&P supermarket chain in the early 1970s.
In 1972, Sharpton graduated from Samuel J. Tilden High School. He spent two years at Brooklyn College as a contemporary politics major before dropping out. During this time, Sharpton remained politically active and eventually established his own organization, the National Youth Movement (NYM).
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.
In April 2014, the Smoking Gun web site reported that Sharpton had been a paid FBI informant during the 1980s and had been a key player in taking down the Genovese crime family. In defending his work with law enforcement, he said, “Rats are usually people that were with other rats. I was not and am not a rat, because I wasn’t with the rats. I’m a cat. I chased rats.”
Running For Public Office
Sharpton tried again to win public office in the 1990s. He had made one unsuccessful run 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 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, but he failed to garner enough support to become a contender for the nomination.
MSNBC and Radio Show
A well-known public figure, Sharpton continues to share his views and to tackle today's issues through his television and radio programs. He has been the host of PoliticsNation since 2011 on MSNBC. He also has his own syndicated radio show, Keepin' It Real.
Sharpton has continued to be involved in direct activist interventions, taking a lead role in organizing protests against the police-related deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. Sharpton worked with Garner's family to request his death be investigated as a civil rights violation on a federal level. Sharpton has also been an ally of New York mayor Bill de Blasio, with President Barack Obama also speaking at the National Action Network's annual convention in the spring of 2014.
Nonetheless, Sharpton also continued to deal with controversy, contending with a New York Times story about owing a large sum of taxes (which he declared to be untrue) and distancing himself from NAN litigator Sanford Rubenstein after the attorney was accused of rape.
Activism Amid Criticism
To this day, Sharpton remains a political and social activist, with many supporters and critics. He is known for his deft handling of the media, leading some to call him the master of the sound bite. Others are concerned that his flare for the dramatic overshadows the causes he represents or he uses the causes he champions to further his own agenda. Sharpton seems to be pay no heed to his critics and continues to throw his talents behind important causes, cases and events in the African American community, including the rebuilding of New Orleans after the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In June 2009, Sharpton led a memorial for Michael Jackson at Harlem's Apollo Theater. A lifelong friend of the Jackson family, Sharpton said Jackson was a "trailblazer" and a "historic figure" who loved the Apollo Theater.
More recently, Sharpton held rallies in Florida to fight for justice in the Trayvon Martin case. Martin, an unarmed African American teen, was shot to death in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, a member of a neighborhood watch group, in February 2012. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense, but others feel that Martin was a victim of racial profiling. Initially the local police did not file any charges, but Zimmerman was eventually tried for second degree murder, though he was found not guilty.
Some had worried that Sharpton's presence in Florida would turn already tense race relations into riots. But Sharpton called for a peaceful approach. "We are not in the business of revenge. We are in the business of justice," he told the press.
In June 2020, Sharpton spoke at the memorial for George Floyd, who died on May 25, 2020, after a police officer kept his knee on Floyd's neck during arrest, despite Floyd saying that he couldn't breathe.
Sharpton on Trump
Having known Donald Trump for the past three decades as a native New Yorker, Sharpton has become very critical of the billionaire who became president in 2016. In early November 2017, Sharpton wrote a scathing critique on President Trump for NBCNews.com, saying:
"There were hopes last year that the executive office would temper some of this pettiness, but sadly we now see this is not the case. Rather than attempt to grow and learn, Trump has leaned into his role as divider-in-chief. This is exactly the same racially divisive, unapologetic blowhard I knew in New York."
In January 2018, after Trump's infamous "s***h**e countries" comment, in which he was referring to African countries and the island of Haiti during a discussion on immigration, Sharpton appeared on a New York television news station stating: “If you’re comfortable in selling racism, then you are in fact that,” he said, "You don't have to spray paint the Oval Office in the White House the N-word to be a racist."
Sharpton has two daughters, Dominique and Ashley, from his marriage to Kathy Jordan, with the couple having separated. As of reports surfacing in 2013, he has been seeing stylist Aisha McShaw.
Once weighing in at 305 lbs., Sharpton is currently a slim 129 lbs. How did he lose all of that weight? Sharpton went through an over four-year weight loss journey, losing 176 lbs., up until October 2014. Claiming he shed the pounds surgery-free, he attributes his success to a strict discipline of eating less, eating healthy and exercising regularly.
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