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Sharpton Al(1954–) - Activist, minister, Shaping His Signature Personality, Flamboyance Raises Questions over Controversial Alliances, Chronology

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As an outspoken activist in the fight against racism, Al Sharpton has been as widely loved as he has been reviled. Unveiling the injustices of the American justice system, opposing police brutality, and criticizing the staggering disparity between the poor and the rich was not easy. In addition to having his activism characterized as disingenuous, Sharpton’s finances as well as his business and fraternal affiliations came under fire. Even so, among the New York community that he calls home, Sharpton is heralded as the champion of the underserved and the causes that matter to them. As an ordained minister, Sharpton has been making public appearances at age four. While his civic activism began when he was a teenager, Sharpton’s political activism significantly enlarged after an attempt on his life in the early 1990s.

Albert Charles Sharpton Jr. was born on October 3, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York to Albert Sr., a contractor and landlord, and Ada Sharpton, a seamstress. As religious parents, the Sharptons regularly took young Sharpton to church from his infancy on. Even so, it was undoubtedly exceptional that the four-year-old was already addressing the congregation of the family’s church. Ministering before Washington Temple Church of God in Christ’s congregation of several thousand, the “Wonderboy,” as he was nicknamed, was ordained as a minister at age ten in the Pentecostal Church by the Bishop F D. Washington. As such a young minister, Sharpton made famous his evangelical appearances across the New York area throughout his childhood and even was included on a tour with renown gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

However, the stability of the middle class enjoyed in their comfortable Queens home abruptly ended in 1963 when his father walked out on the family to marry Tina,who was his stepdaughter from Ada Sharpton’s prior marriage. The shocking courtship as well as the subsequent separation of the family that it caused forced his mother, another sister, and young Al to move from their middle class home in Queens to the Crown Heights projects in Brownsville. Taking a job as a domestic, Ada Sharpton earned so little that the family qualified for welfare.

Shaping His Signature Personality

At age twelve, young Sharpton initiated a meeting with the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. after reading one of his books. As the first African American congressman from New York, the famous pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1945 (a position that he maintained until 1970). By the time Sharpton met with Powell, the politician was already beloved by black communities for his flamboyant charm but was despised by his opponents for his outspokenness. Long after the meeting, Powell exercised considerable influence on Sharpton. Many whites viewed Powell as a troublemaker, but Sharpton liked his mentor’s independent, self-assured and even arrogant carriage. As if a precursor for his own troubled political career, Sharpton witnessed Powell’s suffering through innumerable personal and professional attacks by government agencies throughout his career.

Sharpton also joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as a teenager. After meeting the Reverend Jesse Jackson at a rally to attract young people as recruits for his Operation Breadbasket program, the teen joined in protests and demonstrations for civil rights. In 1969, Jackson nominated fifteen-year-old Sharpton as the youth director of the New York branch of Operation Breadbasket, an activist organization that directed boycotts against unfair business practices in predominately black American neighborhoods. His weekly preaching appearances, his activist leanings, and his probable political ambition led Sharpton to intern in the New York City Human Resources Administration as a high school student.

Flamboyance Raises Questions over Controversial Alliances

Encouraged by the success of his early activism (including a substantial protest against the A&P, the country’s largest grocery store chain), Sharpton founded the National Youth Movement (NYM) in 1971. Designed as an extension of his battle against discriminatory hiring and business practices, NYM also worked to combat police brutality and deter substance abuse. Through NYM’s activities, he met the soul artist James Brown who agreed to perform a benefit concert for the organization. The meeting offered Sharpton the opportunity to tour as a bodyguard of the performer and provided useful contacts between Sharpton and important African American personalities such as Don King, with whom he worked to promote boxing events, and Michael Jackson, whom he worked with to increase job opportunities for African Americans in the entertainment industry.

Years later, when Brown and King went through a series of legal troubles, Sharpton found himself at the center of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attack on King. Although the FBI was convinced that the infamous fight promoter was linked to organized crime from which he profited, by the end of its investigation the bureau could only allege that Sharpton provided information about the Genoveses, New York’s infamous crime family.

Chronology

1954

Born in Brooklyn, New York on October 3

1964

Ordained as a minister in the Washington Temple Church of God in Christ at age ten

1966

Meets the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who becomes a lifelong mentor

1969

Nominated by the Reverend Jesse Jackson as the youth director of the New York branch of Operation Breadbasket

1971

Founds the National Youth Movement (NYM)

1972

Graduates from Tipton High School

1973–75

Attends Brooklyn College

1978

Runs as a candidate for State Senate

1985

Thrust to spotlight following two racial deaths in New York City

1986

Answers the call of a family seeking assistance in the racial killing of Michael Griffith

1987

Reputation suffers after he maintains his support to Tawana Brawley and her family despite a jury’s conclusion

1989

Helps to bring attention to the murder of Yusuf Hawkins

1991

Attacked and stabbed by Michael Riccardi on January 12 during a protest rally in a Bensonhurst schoolyard; founds National Action Network (NAN) in Harlem, New York

1992

Runs as a candidate for the U.S. Senate

1994

Runs as a candidate for the U.S. Senate

2003–04

Vies for the Democratic nomination for president

After his 1972 graduation from Tipton High School, Sharpton attended Brooklyn College from 1973 to 1975. Despite his not serving his own church as pastor throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Reverend Al Sharpton remained a visible figure in New York City well into the 1990s. Regarded in some African American circles as a defender of black power traditions, Sharpton continued to appeal because of his speaking ability. His NYM activities and regular preaching appearances attracted considerable audiences who enjoyed his black preacher style. In the tradition of Afro-folk religion, his loud and sometimes raspy voice would methodically crescendo until its climax electrified audiences.

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