Al Sharpton, Jr.
civil rights activist and minister
Born: Oct. 3, 1954
Birthplace: New York, N.Y.
A flamboyant and controversial African American political activist, Sharpton was fully ordained as a Pentocostal minister by the time he was 10. Born into a middle class black family in Brooklyn, the Sharptons descended into poverty after Al Sharpton Sr. abandoned the family around the same time. In 1969, when he was just 14, he became youth director of the New York branch of Operation Breadbasket, organized by activist Jesse Jackson, which distributed food in poor black communities. His teenage years were spent involved in a number of civil rights causes, and in 1970 he founded the National Youth Movement, an organization devoted to the problems of black urban youth. From 1973 to 1980, Sharpton worked as soul singer James Brown's tour manager. He remarked that Brown became “like the father I never had.”
In the 1980s Sharpton became involved in a series of high profile, racially charged court cases. He received national attention for organizing protests surrounding the 1985 Bernard Goetz case, in which Goetz, a white subway rider, shot four black youths whom he thought were going to rob him, and in the 1986 Howard Beach case, which involved in the death of black man named Michael Griffith, who was hit by a car and killed in Howard Beach, Queens, after being chased by the white mob. Sharpton's reputation as a tough defender of civil rights was badly tarnished, however, by the notoriety of the 1987 Tawana Brawley case. Her wild and elaborate claims were eventually exposed as a hoax, and Sharpton, who served as one of Brawley's spokesmen, fanned the flames of the fraud with further reckless and unfounded accusations. Critic Stanley Crouch called Sharpton's tactics “an ethnic version of McCathyism.” Decades later, Sharpton still refuses to admit the case was a hoax, or to apologize for the damage and racial divisiveness the case generated. Sharpton has been involved in a series of other causes celebres, including the “Central Park jogger” case (1990), Crown Heights case (1991), and the Amadou Diallo case (1999), among others.
In 1991, Sharpton founded his own civil rights organization, the National Action Network, which he continues to run today. He has run for political office in several unsuccessful bids: as a candidate for the New York State Senate (1978), the U.S. Senate (1992 and 1994); the mayoralty of New York City (1997), and the U.S. presidency (2004). A fiery and charismatic speaker known for his incisive wit and unapologetic dandyism, Sharpton has been criticized for his relentless self-promotion, which sometimes overshadows his causes. While his supporters view him as an eloquent and fearless spokesman for African Americans, his critics contend that his demagogic tactics have bred alienation and mistrust, and have in fact been destructive to black civil rights. In recent years, Sharpton has attempted to transform himself into a more mainstream political figure, and has toned down his image and rhetoric.