See also: National Action Network Jesse Jackson
Alfred Charles Sharpton was born in Brooklyn, New York in October 1954, to comparatively prosperous parents. He demonstrated considerable verbal dexterity at an early age and is reputed to have begun preaching when he was four years old. He was touted as “the wonder-boy preacher” by age 7, when he toured with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and Pentecostal minister F.D. Washington. Washington personally ordained Sharpton, who idolized Adam Clayton Powell, as a Pentecostal minister when the boy was 10.
That same year, Sharpton’s parents divorced, leaving the youngster and his mother impoverished and reliant on welfare. In the late 1960s, Sharpton joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1969 he was appointed as youth director of SCLC's "Operation Breadbasket," an initiative headed by Jesse Jackson which boycotted businesses accused of failing to hire enough black employees. Jackson, moreover, became a mentor to Sharpton.
In the February 9, 1971 edition of the Communist Party USA newspaper Daily World, CPUSA member Stephanie Allan wrote about a pair of recent rallies (in Chicago and in White Plains, New York) which had been held to support a CPUSA front called The Committee to Free Angela Davis. At the time, Davis was in prison for her role in abetting the murder of a California judge. Eliseo Medina was one of the speakers at the Chicago event, while Sharpton addressed the New York rally. According to Stephanie Allan, Sharpton and fellow speaker J.L. Scott “exposed the connection between [the] A&P [Corporation], U.S. monopoly capitalism, racism and imperialism, and related these to the Angela Davis case and the threat to the vital rights of the Black people.”
Also in 1971, Sharpton established the National Youth Movement, an organization that sought to organize young African Americans to push for increased voter registration, cultural awareness, and job-training programs. He would lead the group for the next 17 years.
After attending Brooklyn College for two years, Sharpton dropped out and had no additional higher education or formal seminary training. He soon began working (as a tour manager) for the entertainer James Brown and, later, for boxing promoter Don King. In 1978, Sharpton made an unsuccessful run for the New York State Senate.
A 2002 telecast of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel showed a 1983 FBI surveillance video in which Sharpton could be seen discussing a money-laundering scheme with mobster-turned-informant Michael Franzese, onetime captain for the Colombo crime family. On the tape, Sharpton appeared to offer to broker a meeting between Don King and a South American drug lord. No indictments were filed.
Sharpton first entered America's national consciousness on a large scale in November 1987, when he injected himself into the case of a 15-year-old black girl named Tawana Brawley, who claimed that she had been abducted and raped by a gang of six whites in Dutchess County, New York. Despite a complete absence of any credible evidence to support Miss Brawley's story, Sharpton (along with attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason) made increasingly wild allegations, culminating in charges that then-Dutchess County assistant prosecutor Steven Pagones had participated in the girl's brutalization. When Sharpton was criticized for accusing Pagones without offering a shred of proof, he retorted: "We stated openly that Steven Pagones did it. If we're lying, sue us, so we can go into court with you and prove you did it. Sue us -- sue us right now."
In a speech he delivered when the Brawley case was dominating news headlines, Sharpton derided his white critics as racists: "They looked up and they saw Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton. What's wrong with them? What was wrong with us was [that] crackers didn't choose us!"
An extensive and costly investigation eventually proved Brawley’s tale to be without factual basis, and a grand jury dismissed her accusations. When Pagones in 1997 sued Sharpton (as well as Maddox and Mason) for defamation of character, Sharpton, under oath, said he could “no longer recall” having made a number of his slanderous accusations against Pagones and other law-enforcement officials years earlier. Pagones won a $345,000 court judgment against Sharpton and his two accomplices, of which Sharpton was responsible for $65,000. But Sharpton never paid his debt; rather, it was paid (along with $22,000 in interest) in 2001 by a group of wealthy Sharpton supporters.
Notably, Sharpton has never apologized for the way he conducted himself throughout the Brawley hoax, because to apologize, he explains, would be “all about submission” to white people eager to “forc[e] a black man coming out of the hardcore ghetto to his knees.” Reflecting on the Brawley case in 1999, Sharpton said: “If I had to do it again, I’d do it in the same way.”
In 1991 Sharpton formed the National Action Network (NAN), whose platform "revolves around activism against racial profiling, police brutality, women’s issues, economic reform, public education, international affairs, including abolishing slavery in Africa, job awareness, AIDS awareness, and more."
That same year, anti-Semitic riots erupted in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section after a Hasidic Jewish driver accidentally ran over and killed a 7-year-old black boy. Delivering the eulogy at the boy's funeral, Sharpton told the mourners:
"Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid.... All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise, no meetings, no coffee klatsch, no skinnin' and grinnin'."
three hours, a black Crown Heights mob had hunted down and slain an innocent
rabbinical student, Yankel Rosenbaum, in retribution.
Undeterred, Sharpton declared that it was not merely a car accident that had killed the black child, but rather the "social accident" of "apartheid." He organized angry demonstrations and challenged local Jews––whom he derisively called "diamond merchants"––to “pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house” to settle the score. Stirred by such rhetoric, hundreds of Crown Heights blacks took violently to the streets for three days and nights of rioting. Sharpton reacted to the chaos by stating, “We must not reprimand our children for outrage, when it is the outrage that was put in them by an oppressive system.” Further, he repeatedly shouted the mantra, "No justice, no peace!" According to Norman Rosenbaum, brother of the murdered Yankel Rosenbaum, "Based on everything we have seen and read, Sharpton never called upon the rioters to stop their anti-Semitism-inspired violence. He never called on the rioters to go home." Rosenbaum adds:
"The riots were the product of anti-Semites taking advantage of the tragic death of a child to justify inflicting their violence on innocent people -- the Jewish community of Crown Heights -- and murdering Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jew from Australia, amid the cries of 'Kill the Jew!'"
Sharpton ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1992 and 1994, and he received 32 percent
of the vote in the 1997 Democratic mayoral primary in New York
In 1994 Sharpton was re-baptized into the Baptist faith and became a minister of that denomination.
Also in 1994, Sharpton delivered an incendiary speech at New Jersey’s Kean College, where he said:
“White folks was in the caves while we [blacks] was building empires … We built pyramids before Donald Trump ever knew what architecture was … we taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it.”
Sharpton subsequently explained that while his use of the word “homos” may have been “irresponsible,” it “is not a homophobic term”
The Kean College speech also featured Sharpton explaining that America’s founders consisted of “the worst criminals, the rejects they sent from Europe ... to the colonies.” “So [if] some cracker,” he continued, “come and tell you ‘Well, my mother and father blood go back to the Mayflower,’ you better hold you pocket. That ain’t nothing to be proud of, that means their forefathers was crooks.” Sharpton later defended his use of the word “cracker,” calling it merely a “colloquial term used to describe a certain kind of bigot, who hates both blacks and Jews. It’s certainly not a racist term and certainly not an anti-Semitic term, because a cracker hates Jews and blacks.”
In 1995 Sharpton -- along with such notables as Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama -- helped organize Louis Farrakhan's October 16th Million Man March.
Also in 1995, Sharpton led his NAN in a racially charged boycott against Freddy’s Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned business in Harlem. The boycott started when Freddy’s owners announced that because they wanted to expand their own business, they would no longer sublet part of their store to a black-owned record shop. The street leader of the boycott, Morris Powell, was also the head of Sharpton’s “Buy Black” Committee. Powell and his fellow protesters repeatedly and menacingly told passersby not to patronize the “crackers” and "the greedy Jew bastards [who are] killing our [black] people." Some boycotters openly threatened violence against whites and Jews––all under the watchful, approving eye of Sharpton, who referred to the proprietors of Freddy's as "white interlopers." The subsequent picketing became ever-more menacing in its tone until one of the participants eventually shot (non-fatally) four whites inside the store and then set the building on fire––killing seven employees, most of whom were Hispanics.
In 1998 Sharpton was a featured speaker at the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York.
In August 2000, Sharpton held a "Redeem the Dream" rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, where one the the featured speakers was Malik Zulu Shabazz. At that event, Shabazz called on black young people, including "gang members," to unite against their "common enemy" -- "white America" and its allegedly racist police departments. He also articulated a "black dream that when we see caskets rolling in the black community … we will see caskets and funerals in the community of our enemy as well."
In a May 2003 speech sponsored by Harvard Law School, Sharpton characterized Republicans as racists who “cut taxes for the rich while [they] strangle the poor”; he likened black Republicans Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to subservient house slaves; he called for “$50 billion a year” in tax hikes so that America could “invest in working-class people, not multi-billionaires”; he proclaimed that “white male land owners” were in control of the United States; and he asserted that the descendants of the white men who “used to buy [blacks], now they rent 'em.”
A harsh critic of the Iraq War and the Patriot Act (which he called "unpatriotic" and "illegitimate" legislation), Sharpton campaigned for the U.S. presidency in 2004. Though his candidacy was unsuccessful, the Democratic Party establishment allowed him to speak in the prime-time slot on the third day of its national convention.
In August 2005 Sharpton visited activist Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas to show support for her anti-war, anti-Bush protest campaign.
On September 24, 2005, Sharpton spoke at the "Call to United Mass Action," an anti-Iraq War rally in Washington, DC that was co-organized by International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice. Other speakers at the event, which was attended by an estimated 300,000 people, included Ramsey Clark, Cindy Sheehan, George Galloway, Ralph Nader, Lynne Stewart, Mahdi Bray, Dolores Huerta, Elias Rashmawi, Larry Holmes, Brian Becker, Michael Berg, and Michael Shehadeh.
In February 2008, Sharpton asserted that the federal government was seeking to prosecute black athletes more aggressively than white athletes in scandals over their alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. Specifically, Sharpton claimed that members of Congress, in their recent questioning of white pitcher Roger Clemens, had acted as if "they were at a fan club meeting," as compared to the allegedly harsher treatment which black outfielder Barry Bonds was receiving. "You've got to understand that the fight has always been about the criminalization of black men," said Sharpton.
In March 2008, Sharpton, a strong supporter of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy, stated that he was accustomed to speaking with Obama on a regular basis -- "two or three times a week."
Sharpton often threatens to organize black boycotts of corporations on grounds that they supposedly discriminate against African Americans. Those companies, in turn, typically try to pacify Sharpton with cash; sometimes they hire him as a consultant. For example:
In April 2009, Sharpton and his NAN were fined $285,000 for having violated election rules during Sharpton's 2004 presidential bid. According to the Federal Election Commission:
On May 2, 2010,
Sharpton addressed a church congregation in Danbury, Connecticut,
where he said that the late Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream "was
not to put one black president in the White House," but rather
"to make everything equal in everybody’s house."
Sharpton reacted passionately to a February 26, 2012 incident in Sanford, Florida, in which a white Hispanic neighborhood-watch captain named George Zimmerman gunned down an unarmed 17-year-old African American named Trayvon Martin, who Zimmerman thought was armed and acting suspiciously. After subsequent reports suggested that Martin had merely been in Zimmerman's neighborhood to purchase a bag of Skittles at a local shop, Sharpton said:
“It is an unbelievable burden, and hard to articulate, that [if you are black] you’re born automatically a suspect, and you have to operate and behave in a way that does not exacerbate or incite someone’s paranoia. We have come so far in this country that we can put a black man in the White House, but we can’t walk a black child down the neighborhood street to get a bag of Skittles.”
On May 25, 2012, Sharpton told a radio audience that Republicans view black people as subhumans, much as Adolf Hitler saw Jews:
"It seems like they [some of the right wing] act as though some wiping out of people ... is alright. It's not alright to do to any innocent people.... [T]o wipe out innocent people just 'cause of who they are, like was done in Hitler's Germany, or was done to Native Americans, is not justified."
On December 4, 2012, Sharpton and several other "influential progressive"
advisors (as described by White House deputy press secretary Josh
Earnest) met with President Barack Obama to strategize on how to best sell the American public on the
need to raise taxes on people earning $250,000 or more, while extending
the Bush-era tax cuts for all other U.S. residents. Also in
attendance at the meeting were Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, MSNBC host Ed Schultz, and Arianna Huffington.
Later in December 2012, Sharpton spoke out publicly about a recent incident where a deranged gunman had shot and killed 26 people (including 20 children) at a Connecticut elementary school. Calling for stricter gun control measures, he said: "In any civilized society, you do not see massacres continue to happen ... and you keep the same laws when clearly they're not working." A questioner then asked Sharpton, "What happens when the criminal goes to knives?" Sharpton replied: "Then you deal with knives. The same thing you do if you have a head cold, and the cold is gone and you have a headache. Then you take headache medicine."
In January 2013, Sharpton stated that Barack Obama was at least as deserving as President Theodore Roosevelt of having his likeness appear on Mount Rushmore: "[Obama] stopped two wars and the whole question of finance reform on Wall Street and health care. I mean, he has done some concrete things.... [A] lot of people could say that Teddy Roosevelt was more of a character than a transformative president. I can name, literally, things that President Obama has done. Now, I’m going to say that if Teddy Roosevelt is the measure, I think it strengthens the case for President Obama."
In addition to his social activism, Sharpton is also a broadcaster. In July 2011 he replaced Cenk Uygur as the host of a nightly MSNBC news/talk television program titled Politics Nation. Moreover, he hosts his own daily radio program, Keepin' It Real with Al Sharpton, which began airing in January 2006. And he hosts a weekly radio show titled Hour of Power on Sunday nights.
 Jonathan Mahler, “Sharpton’s Image As New Moderate Dimmed by Video,” Forward (December 22, 1995), p. 4.