The Sharpton I Know
As soon as I saw the flyer I knew there would be a fight. “Special Worship Experience with Carlton Byrd. Special Guest- Al Sharpton.” It was a much-needed community rally sponsored by the Oakwood University church. Dr. Byrd began the assembly with an address on unity in diversity and Sharpton followed.
By most accounts Sharpton’s message, that ranged from voting rights to immigration policy, was thoughtful and well received. But I was right. The critics were out in force. Online and in person they blasted the church and Sharpton before, during, and after the presentation.
Sharpton is the founder and director of the National Action Network. Founded in 1991, it is a major civil rights organization with chapters throughout America. From his earliest days as an activist in New York, Sharpton has always been a polarizing figure. Sharpton’s supporters hail him as a champion for the oppressed. Sharpton’s detractors blame him for deteriorating race relations in America.
But issues like police misconduct, civil rights, and civil rights leaders look different depending on who you are and where you are. As Nelson Mandela was fond of saying, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” And in early 1999, Al Sharpton and I were sitting in a Marriott hotel in Riverside, California discussing ways to calm a community that was about to explode.
On December 28, 1998, a young lady by the name of Tyisha Miller was driving her aunt’s car in Riverside, California and her tire went flat. As she waited for help in her locked car, she had a seizure. Officers were alerted, came to the locked car, and found her foaming at the mouth and shaking. She had a gun in her car for protection and the officers claimed that she reached for it when she came out of her coma. They opened fire 23 times. 12 of the bullets hit Miller- 4 in the head.
The city exploded. Long standing tensions between the minority community and law enforcement resurfaced. I was asked by the family and religious community to lead a steering community to address the volatile issue. Months of press conferences, marches, and court cases followed. The full story is for another day, but it brings me back to the hotel room with Sharpton.
Over a two year, period, I came to know civil rights leaders from Martin King III to Jesse Jackson to Dick Gregory to the late Johnny Cochran. Each of them was helpful, but none of them made the difference that Sharpton did. These are some of the things I came to know about him.
He’ll come when you call him
Many of the critics of Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others accuse them of being ambulance chasers and publicity hounds. The accusation is that they troll for racial and social problems and then make them worse when they show up. The reality is that most of the time both Jackson and Sharpton are invited by the immediate family to come and help.
As tragic as Tyisha Miller’s death was, it remained a fairly local issue until the family got Sharpton and his crowd involved. When he came the national media came with him and issues of police misconduct in Riverside became national news. He was hard working and very sensitive to the needs of the family. And none of his efforts cost the family or the steering committee a dime.
He might get you arrested
Even before Sharpton hit the ground in Riverside, there was talk of civil disobedience -going to jail as a form of protest. People had been marching by the thousands but the police officers who shot Tyisha Miller had still not been fired or even disciplined. The community was getting restless and dangerous. Sharpton suggested that we conduct a major march to the downtown police headquarters, block the entrance, and force our arrest. The publicity would force the city to move.
Well, I quickly found out that the clergy in Riverside was not as eager as the clergy in Birmingham and Montgomery to go to jail. Some of them reminded me that this wasn’t the 60s. Some of them reminded me that they had unpaid traffic tickets! But there I was, leading from the front. In charge and eventually in jail.
He’s not always consistent
It could have been my ears, but I thought I heard Sharpton and Dick Gregory say, “Don’t worry brothers and sisters. We’ll be the first ones in and the last ones out! We’ll be the first ones arrested and the last ones released!” That was particularly encouraging to a reluctant band of leaders, some of whom weren’t sure if they could get out of jail as easily as they could get in.
True to his word, Sharpton was the first to be arrested. I was in the next wave, about 15 minutes behind. As I walked into the holding area with my friend Robert Edwards, who did I see walking out of the holding area but Al Sharpton and Dick Gregory. It’s probably not appropriate to reveal what I thought or said, but so much for the first being last and the last being first! He’s human.
He was always courageous
The quality I respected most in Sharpton was his courage. He was absolutely fearless. Under constant attack from law enforcement. Misquoted by the media. Second guessed by even some of the victims he attempted to help. He never wavered. He came early, worked hard, and stayed late. You don’t really understand or appreciate the Sharpton’s of the world until you need their help.
Sharpton and I disagree on some significant subjects. But we need more people willing to publicly stand for what they believe. People with the courage to speak for those who can’t effectively speak for themselves. Because at some point, you might very well need someone to advocate for you. Martin Niemoller, a pastor who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp put it this way.
First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.