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Al Sharpton

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The Reverend Al Sharpton

The Reverend Al Sharpton.

Photo: Richard Alan Hannon / Getty Images.

Biographical Summary:

The Reverend Al Sharpton is a longtime civil rights activist and community organizer. He is an assistant pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn and president of the Harlem-based National Action Network (NAN), which addresses civil rights issues ranging from racial profiling and police brutality to racist and sexist media content. He has written two books, and his radio show, Keepin' It Real with Al Sharpton, is syndicated on XM Radio and in 40 regional markets.

Howard Beach Protests:

Sharpton rose to national prominence in December 1986, when three black men were chased down and severely beaten, and one killed, after eating in a white pizzeria in the upscale Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York. Sharpton led a 1,200-strong nonviolent march through the neighborhood in protest. The image of over one thousand African Americans marching through a 99% white Queens neighborhood, as some local residents hurled racial epithets, brought the Howard Beach incident--and Sharpton himself--into national prominence.

The Tawana Brawley Case:

On November 28th, 1987, 15-year-old Tawana Brawley was discovered sitting in a garbage bag outside of an apartment in Wappingers Falls, New York. When she was taken to a hospital, staff discovered that she was covered in feces, racial epithets written out in ash on her body. She said that she had been raped by a group of white men, which included police. Sharpton came to her defense and lashed out at her alleged rapists, but doctors found no physical evidence of rape and a grand jury later decided not to press charges. Brawley still stands by her original account, and Sharpton still believes her.

The Bensonhurst Assaults and the Yusuf Hawkins Slaying:

On a warm night in August of 1989, 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins and three friends entered the predominantly white Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn to ask about a used car. A group of seven armed young white men and one or two dozen unarmed white men, who had heard rumors that a neighborhood girl was dating black men, had gathered in wait. Hawkins was shot and killed, and his friends chased off by the angry mob. Sharpton, pelted with watermelons and racial epithets by some local residents, led several protests through the neighborhood with Hawkins' family.

The Bensonhurst Assassination Attempt:

On January 12th, 1991, Sharpton was organizing a third major rally in Bensonhurst when tragedy struck. Police present at the rally had given Sharpton the go-ahead to exit his vehicle. When he stepped out, a local resident, Michael Riccardi, rushed Sharpton with a knife and stabbed him in the chest. "I thought it would make me a hero in my community," Riccardi later explained. Sharpton later visited Riccardi in prison, forgave him, and spoke on his behalf at trial, pleading for a lenient sentence on the basis that Riccardi had been misled by divisive media coverage.

The Death of Gavin Cato and the Crown Heights Riot:

In August 1991, 15-year-old Gavin Cato was run over by a Jewish driver in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood. Paramedics airlifted the uninjured driver before attempting to rescue Cato, still pinned beneath the vehicle. Cato, who was black, later died as a result of his injuries. Sharpton spoke out against "apartheid ambulance service" and organized a peaceful rally in protest, but an anti-Jewish riot ensued in which 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum was murdered and many Jewish businesses vandalized. Sharpton has been criticized for calling public attention to Cato's death, the event that led to the riot.

2004 Presidential Campaign:

In January 2003, the Rev. Al Sharpton became a candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, winning 34% of the vote in the Washington, DC primary but otherwise not moving beyond single digits. Sharpton admitted that he had never expected to win the nomination, but hoped that his campaign and his participation in the debates would help call attention to urban issues such as civil rights, education, and health care. Sharpton is also anti-war, pro-choice, pro-immigration, and supports full equality for lesbian and gay Americans, including same-sex marriage.

Jena 6 Protests:

Sharpton also helped organize massive protests in response to the aggressive prosecution of six black Louisiana teenagers in the Jena Six trials. The local district attorney, who serves an 85% white district, had sought life imprisonment for all six teenagers in response to a December 2006 incident in which they beat up a white schoolmate in retaliation for the recent (unprosecuted) beating of a schoolmate at the hands of white students.

Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zongo, and Sean Bell:

Sharpton has also organized vigils, "pray-ins," and other peaceful protests against the NYPD shooting deaths of 22-year-old Amidou Diallo in February 1999, 38-year-old Ousmane Zongo in May 2003, and 23-year-old Sean Bell in November 2006. In all three cases, the men were unarmed African-American men, the circumstances surrounding their deaths highly suspicious, and the officers ostensibly immune to local prosecution. Public sentiment among whites has tended to lean in favor of the shootings. Sharpton has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.

Biographical Timeline:

October 3, 1954 - Alfred Charles ("Al") Sharpton Jr. is born in Brooklyn, New York.

1958 - Young Sharpton preaches his first sermon, on John 14: "Let not your heart be troubled. Ye who believe in God also believe in me," at a local Pentecostal congregation. He quickly became a celebrity in Brooklyn's black Pentecostal community.

1963 - Sharpton's father, Alfred Charles Sharpton Sr., gets his mistress pregnant and leaves his family to fend for themselves. The family is placed on welfare and Sharpton's mother, Ada, works full-time as a maid.

1964 - Sharpton is ordained as a minister in the Church of God in Christ.

1969 - The Rev. Jesse Jackson takes Sharpton under his wing, appointing him youth director of the SCLC's Operation Breadbasket.

1971 - Sharpton becomes a tour manager for James Brown--but doesn't slow down as an activist. In the split between Jesse Jackson and the SCLC, 16-year-old Sharpton sides with Jackson and leaves the SCLC in solidarity, founding the National Youth Movement.

1991 - On January 12th, Sharpton is stabbed by a white man while organizing a protest. At his attacker's trial, Sharpton forgives him and pleads for a lenient sentence. Later that year, he creates the National Action Network.

February 7, 1994 - Sharpton, who was originally ordained as a Pentecostal minister, becomes a Baptist and joins the ministry team at Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn.

2003 - Sharpton announces his candidacy for the 2004 presidential nomination. While he neither won the nomination nor expected to, his campaign provided a vehicle allowing him to promote an "urban agenda" of civil rights, education, and health care.

January 2006 - Sharpton's radio show, Keepin' It Real with Al Sharpton, debuts.
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