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Al Sharpton – Brownsville, Brooklyn / Hollis, Queens

Your Hometown
Your Hometown
Al Sharpton – Brownsville, Brooklyn / Hollis, Queens
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Our guest is the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose activism has made him a fixture in the press for decades in his hometown of New York City. Lately, though, we often see him as the eulogist at funeral after funeral of those taken too soon through violence. He does it with enormous grace and power, including after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. And there’s a reason for that. As Rev. Sharpton explains to Kevin Burke in this rare interview, there’s a traumatic incident that happened to him a long time ago, when he was 9 years old, that gives him the ability to speak to children who are in pain, because there is a pain deep inside of him that permanently shaped the arc of his formation as a preacher and future civil rights leader. It’s a story he doesn’t tell often, because it’s so surprising and unexpected, but in this episode, you’ll hear him share it in the most personal way. In listening, you’ll also gain an understanding that may forever alter the way you see this icon of our times. 

"The key is not how far I came from. The key is I'm still that little boy inside. The minute you stop being who you were then, you don't succeed. You succumb to being somebody else. I never gave it up. I'm still that boy from Brooklyn."

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Show Notes

Music
Ernestine Washington – “Teach Me How to Wait” 
Mahalia Jackson – “Walk In Jerusalem” (1963)
Mahalia Jackson – “No One Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” (1963)
James Brown – “The Payback” (1973)
James Brown – on Soul Train (1973)
Archival
Bishop F. D. Washington Preaching at the COGIC Holy Convocation in 1978
Rev. C. L. Franklin – “Lo, I Am With You Always”
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. – “Keep The Faith, Baby” (1967)
Sermon Excerpt – Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr.
“I am somebody!” – Historical footage of Rev. Jesse Jackson leading a crowd in a chant of solidarity
Reverend Al Sharpton delivers eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral (2020)
George Floyd Funeral: Rev. Al Sharpton Delivers Eulogy (2020)
Jan. 21, 2013: Inaugural Ceremonies for President Barack Obama
Artwork
Illustrations – Nick Gregg
Poem
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Rebecca Stanford
A special thanks, too, to our co-presenter on this special New York City feature series, the Museum of the City of New York.

YOUR HOMETOWN

9: Al Sharpton – Brownsville, Brooklyn & Hollis, Queens
May 25, 2021

Intro: Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York, with generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at yourhometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.

 

Al Sharpton: No book or homiletics can teach you how to talk to the pain you know.

 

Kevin: Do you still find yourself drawing on that feeling to this day?

 

Al: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

 

Kevin: That’s the go to for you. That’s the place you go to.

 

Al: That’s the go to for me. It is not only the “go to,” it’s the “never left.” It never left me.

 

Kevin (Voiceover narration): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked a lot, but the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us and what happened to them there before we met the world and the world met us. I’m Kevin Burke and this is Your Hometown.

 

My guest is the Reverend Al Sharpton, preacher, leader, activist, host on television and radio, and too often of late, a eulogist at public funerals full of private pain.

 

In his hometown of New York City, he’s been a fixture for years on the front pages, especially when he first burst onto the scene in the 1980s. Now, for some people I talk to, you just have to mention some of those headlines from that decade and they think of him right away and they’re out. They’re done. And even get mad at you when you mention his name. Now, he knows this. He’s a New Yorker and he has the scars to prove it. For others I find though, Al Sharpton is a veteran civil rights leader of the northern movement, an establishment figure whom politicians want to be seen with at his National Action Network, and the one whom grieving families call when they need someone to stand with them as they deal with the shock of a father, brother, son, mother, sister, daughter being taken too soon through violence.

 

Today happens to be the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and it was in watching Al Sharpton speak at the funeral to the world, but especially to George Floyd’s children, that I found myself wanting to talk to him about his own childhood and where he finds the words to comfort kids in one of the worst moments of their lives. That’s the Al Sharpton I wanted to meet, and I did. And it’s the Al Sharpton I invite you to meet too, because as you’ll hear, while those who know him only from the press have a very difficult time imagining him as anything but the adult version, his experience of the kid inside himself and what he lost and what he found back there is right near the surface.

 

When he and I sat down to talk at his office in Manhattan last summer, it was in the middle of a packed morning, but it didn’t take us long to get into the time and place of his growing up. His parents had a house on Logan Street in the East New York section of Brooklyn before they moved to Hollis, Queens. We didn’t start there though, but at their Pentecostal church, the Washington Temple of Church of God in Christ under the direction of Bishop F.D. Washington — a major figure in Al’s early life. Bishop Washington had built up the church from a revival meeting under a tent into a congregation large enough to take over the old Loews Theater on Bedford Avenue, the scene of Al’s origin story as the wonder boy preacher.

 

Kevin: Reverend Sharpton, I wanted to begin by a startling fact, which I read about and thought was pretty amazing, which is [that] you preached for the very first time when you were just four years old. I’m wondering if you can go back for us and paint a picture of that scene, what you remember about that occasion, what was drawing you to the church, and what the church was seeing in you [that] you think that led to this extraordinary moment.

 

Al: Well, I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My parents owned a four-family house in the East New York section of Brooklyn, 542 Logan Street. By the time I was born, they were members of a Washington temple. I remember at around three years old, I was baptized by Bishop Washington and became a member of the church. I became a member of what they called the junior usher board. They were little kids that would give out the programs and we would help the adult ushers seat people. Every year, they would have an anniversary program — a morale booster for everybody to see these kids and who’s been doing this church service for years, particularly when I was four, which would have been in 1959. I would be five that October. But this was in July. I remember the date: July 9. The adult adviser whose name was Hazel Griffin got us together, maybe about 15 or 20 of us, and said, “What do y’all want to do on the program? Because we want to show the talents of the juniors. And one young man who was about two years older than me, his name was Ronnie Dyson, who later in life starred in Hair, the Broadway play, and did an R&B rhythm and blues singing career. But he’s a kid then. He’s six years old, seven the most. He said he wanted to read a poem. My sister Joy said she wanted to sing a song. I said I want to preach. And all of the kids started laughing. I used to come home from church service on Sundays and get my sister’s dolls, put on my mother’s bathrobe — imitating the clerical robe that Bishop Washington wore — and I would preach to the dolls what he had preached in church, to the best of my memory and ability at three.

 

[we hear Bishop F. D. Washington Preaching at the COGIC Holy Convocation in 1978]

 

Al: I felt I could preach and I felt this compulsion. They were saying the church is calling. So it was natural to me to say by that point I want to preach, even though they laughed. Mrs. Griffin said, “Don’t laugh. Maybe he’s being called a preacher.” She went and discussed it with Bishop Washington and he said, “Let him preach.” And I remember that day on the anniversary, July 9, ‘59. There must have been 900 people in church. It was pretty full. And they had to put this box there because I was a little kid. I was too short for you to see me over the roster. And I preached from St. John’s 14th chapter, first verse. [John 14:1]. “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.” And I did about 12, 15-minute sermonette and that started my preaching.

 

Kevin: It’s amazing because I’m Catholic and the age of reason used to be seven, communion at eight. So when you come out at four interpreting [and] even knowing what to say, what to even signify, is so unusual. Did you prepare a lot for that?

 

Al: I told a stepsister to help me prepare in terms of reading the scripture, but it was mostly extemporaneous because you have to remember I’m four going on five; I was not even in school. I was going to get ready for kindergarten.

 

Kevin: Yeah, it’s pre-kindergarten.

 

Al: And I was getting ready to go to school and I could not read and write. One of the reasons why, later in life, I never used a manuscript [while] speaking was because I learned how to speak publicly before I learned how to read and write. I never followed the manuscript. And so, it shaped and molded my whole life as a public speaker. It started in Washington Temple in Brooklyn.

 

Kevin: Do you remember how you felt being up at that rostrum, being on that box, speaking to that 900-person assembly that day?

 

Al: Maybe the first 30 seconds I was a little nervous, but then I felt like a glove that fit your hand. I felt right at home even at that young age. All of my fear of stage fright gone in 30 seconds. I just felt natural and to this day I feel most natural preaching a sermon on delivering a speech.

 

Kevin: Do you remember the reaction that you got?

 

Al: They were applauding, standing up. And a lot of it, as you grew older, you understood, was the uniqueness of a little boy doing this. I don’t know how much of my content they were listening to, but it was an enthusiastic reaction, which I always felt encouraged me to keep doing it. And I did. By the time I was seven, I was preaching for [World] Youth Days in a lot of the churches in Brooklyn,

 

Kevin: It’s something you took really seriously because you’ve talked and written about how you would listen to records of the great preachers obsessively, kind of listening to the rhythm and what they were saying. What was the ritual like for you to get these records? When you think about being a kid, most kids are thinking about the top 40, they’re listening to forty-five records of R&B or rock and roll. But that was your thing.

 

Al: No, my thing was getting the LP’s, at that time, you could get albums of great preachers and I would listen to them over and over and over again.

 

[we hear Rev. C. L. Franklin – Lo, I Am With You Always]

 

Al: Reverend C.L. Franklin was a famous preacher. He would come to Washington Temple and he made a lot of albums. I would listen to him, Martin Luther King, Adam Craig Brown. My mother and father would get me these albums and I would listen. I wasn’t interested in a lot of the games that a lot of kids my age would play. I would be listening to these albums, to the rhythm of their speech, to the timing of when they would go up or down with their voice, and to what connected with people. I grew up with that to the point where when we moved to Hollis, in the basement of the house, my mother built me a little chapel. I used to go into the basement and put on — by then I had my own little clergy robes — and I would preach. She had what were really picnic benches, which would be two or three, which would be my congregation. And I would preach there. Most of my friends in the neighborhood would be outside playing stickball, basketball. I’d be in the basement preaching.

 

[we hear Rev. C. L. Franklin – Lo, I Am With You Always]

 

Kevin: How did it change the household with this little boy who has this complete passion or something that is so unusual?

 

Al: I think it changed the household because they had to adjust to the fact, especially when I started getting invited to the churches, they would have to take and bring me — I’m a kid, five, six, seven years old. At that time, there was no social media. People would be passing out handbills or fliers. We call it “The boy preacher will be at X, Y, Z church.” So in that Black church circle, I became known as a little celebrity, which certainly altered home. It was awkward in school because one: some of my classmates’ parents would go hear me preach. That didn’t make it too easy for them to adjust to me being in their class. And as you get older and get near the age of puberty, try dating girls whose mother and father used to go see you preach. You’re not exactly the kind of person that a young 12, 13-year-old girl is — how do you date a boy preacher, a teenage preacher when I got old?

 

It also gave me a sense of, early in life, a self-awareness and the strength of being one that would march to the beat of my own drum, because I was doing things differently at the same age as other kids. I remember when we had moved, I went to P.S 134 and I wrote on my homework page “Reverend Alfred Sharpton.” The teacher kept saying, “You can’t write that you’re not a minister.” I said, “Yes I am.” She could never get it around the head that I was a minister, to the point where my mother got a call from the principal and she explained it to her. Bishop Washington came to the school to explain to the principal that in the Pentecostal Church, they accepted young boy preachers and that he had, in fact, when I was 10, licensed me to be a preacher, which would become an ordination. And so, the principal told her to just leave them alone. That was probably my first protest, that I refused to let people identify who I was or limit who I was.

 

The reverse of that is also true is that — and I didn’t think about this until many years later when I was older — that if my mother and father had told me no, or if the bishop had said no, that might have changed my whole life. It might have crushed my dreams. The fact that they didn’t say no and I grew into that, my own self, identity, and self-awareness meant that for the rest of my life, I never let anybody put me in a pre-ordained box.

 

If somebody grows up from age 3 to 18, pretty much identifying their own unique lane, it’s hard when they get older for you to assign them to somewhere that you’re more comfortable with when they are already comfortable in their own skin. I was already comfortable with being different. I was very comfortable that the other kids would mock me or respect me. I was very comfortable that girls would find me different. I was comfortable with that and that would follow me the rest of my life when I got to be known and would be ridiculed by the media or cartoons, it didn’t bother me at all. It was like growing up in Brooklyn or in Queens. I was used to that.

 

Kevin: Do any particular instance stand out, where you were teased or mocked or bullied by the kids for this peculiarity? 

 

Al: When I first was growing up in Brooklyn on Logan Street, my parents owned the candy store newsstand on the corner, and the adults on the block would always say he is the boy preacher in an admiring way. By the time my father was an entrepreneur and made money, we moved to Hollis [which] was a Black middle-class neighborhood at that time. And he bought a new Cadillac every year. I remember on one occasion I went outside, I wanted to play punch ball with the kids — we would play in the middle of the street on 99 Street. And they would laugh, “The boy preacher is going to try to play ball.” I was determined that I could punch the ball and hit a home run like them because you still want to be able to deal and socialize with the rest of the kids. It was something that I had to strain to try to do and to answer my markers. I never thought about not preaching anymore. My thing was I was going to do both. I remember having to overcome being defensive about being mocked, that I could do what other kids did, but I can still be a preacher.

 

Kevin: One thing I’ve noticed, my son is two and a half and he’s really serious about the guitar. There’s this movie, School of Rock with Jack Black, and he plays it and he likes to listen to all kinds [like] Chuck Berry. He can completely reproduce and dance just like Chuck Berry, duck walking and all that. I notice with him that when my parents come over or other people have seen him, if they laugh out of amusement, you can tell that it sort of is not the point for him. And he almost feels, you can tell, wounded by the laughter. It’s not cute to him. It’s serious. This is serious business. I’m wondering if that was similar for you, that this is not a play for you.

 

Al: Even though I had to deal with, sometimes, the mocking, which I was able to overcome and turn a lot of the markers around, even very young — I’m talking pre-teenage years — I got to where I didn’t want to be smiled [at], like “oh isn’t that cute, he’s preaching?” I wanted them to understand, I’m serious. This is not a cute thing. At first it was exhilarating. The crowd is up, but then it was like, well, wait a minute, I’m really a preacher. Don’t act like I’m some exhibit at a museum or an animal at a zoo. I want to be taken seriously. I was serious. I felt that I could do what Bishop Washington was doing.

 

Kevin: I imagine that the basement temple that you had helped you because you have these dolls. I’m trying to picture that in my mind, they’re not talking back, there’s no call and response from the dolls. They’re just you. You couldn’t rely on the exhilaration in those moments. You were just alone in a room.

 

Al: When you are in the church, the call and response helps drive you. But when you’re sharpening your skills with inanimate objects, like dolls, you have to deal with content and your rhythm is much different. I wanted to not only be able to quote a scripture and scream, which is starting, but be able to fill in this gap for my congregation, which was my sister’s dolls, who, no matter how good I was, they were going to say amen or clap anyway.

 

Kevin: And can you picture those dolls in your mind? Can you see them, what kind of dolls they were?

 

Al: In those days, there was no such thing as Black dolls. They were all white with reddish hair. They were dolls that you could close the eyes, open the eyes, and dress a little cute. And they were dolls my sister got maybe for her birthday or Christmas because she was three years older than me. It was funny because she would always know that she had to go to the basement, to my chapel to get her dolls.

 

Kevin: And they probably could hear you down there.

 

Al: Oh, you could hear me and everybody in the house could hear me. And it was accepted. Again, the privilege I had is that no one tried to shut it down.

 

[we hear Bishop F. D. Washington Preaching at the COGIC Holy Convocation in 1978]

 

Kevin: What do you think it was about Bishop Washington that inspired you to want to come home and reproduce his sermons, to embody what he had just said to this — I mean, I looked at the Loews Theater. It was 5000 seats, the Loews theater, it was huge. It’s not a small church.

 

Al: No, no, a very large church.

 

Kevin: So, he must have made some impression on you.

 

Al: I think that I was awed by his fire, passion, and ability to move those large amounts of people. It kind of just resonated with me. It was almost like you sit down at a laptop and you put in the right password and it lights up. It lit me up. He connected with me and it became what I would be in life.

 

[we hear Bishop F. D. Washington Preaching at the COGIC Holy Convocation in 1978]

 

Al: And then the most prominent people — Bishop Washington, became very well-known because the church was so large. Politicians would come through because you wanted to get up and talk to people that would vote. Some of the biggest gospel artists would come because Bishop Washington’s wife, Mrs. Ernestine Washington, was a gospel recorder.

 

[we hear Ernestine Washington – Teach Me How to Wait]

 

Al: So, Mahalia Jackson, Mighty Clouds of Joy, C. L. Franklin and his daughter, Aretha Franklin. I got to see all of these people, be around them hanging [at] Bishop Washington’s office, even though I’m a kid, with some of the most prominent people in the 60s. Martin Luther King, I saw twice at that church.

 

Kevin: Wow.

 

Al: All of these images are in my head while I’m in my formative, literally formative years. I mean, I’m not talking about college years. I’m talking about from six, seven, eight till my teens. It became normal because I’d go to church, go into Bishop Washington’s office and a congressman was there, or Senator Jacob Javitsto, or somebody else. It was like, of course, they’re going to be here. We’re Washington Temple. It gives you an early kind of self-esteem.

 

Kevin: And what opened that door to Bishop Washington for you? In other words, he’s obviously a high-profile preacher — 5000 seat temple. You had this one moment where you spoke at four, but how did you come in under his wing? How did he take note of you?

 

Al: When I started preaching and the congregation liked it and start[ed] using me a lot, I used to be at church all the time. I would drift and find a way to go and sit in his office after church services. And he’d let me sit there. I think the thing that kind of amused him but also captivated him is he was a voracious reader. His study was full of books. He had this habit where he’d always sit after service and read, probably preparing for the next service because he would do two or three on Sunday. He’d read and underline things and I would get a book off his shelf and read the underlined things and I couldn’t even read the books at this age. I think it amused him and captivated him that here was this little kid that wanted to be like him. But it was understood that the boy preacher was going to be sitting here, which gave me access to everybody that would come see him.

 

Whereas people would not want to talk business or whatever around other people, you’re just a kid. Nobody cared that I was sitting there, “he’s a kid.” I don’t know what we talked about, but I’m taking it all in like a sponge. And that created a bond with him as I grew older. It shaped a lot of my personality.

 

Kevin: And you have to have so many pieces of your puzzle line up with that, because it’s the performance, it’s the honing of the craft, it’s seeing the business of a church. You have to be interested in all of those things and you have to have that deep spiritual connection to, as you said, the content. It’s not enough to say this guy is a great performer, I want to be like him. You have to also feel the underlying force there, it’s a soul force that you’re drawn to.

 

Al: And the fact that he was such a great performer, but believer. He would always say that your gift is driven by what you believe in, that [if] you don’t believe it, is not going to work.

 

[we hear Bishop F. D. Washington Preaching at the COGIC Holy Convocation in 1978]

 

 

Al: It’s almost like a single entertainer looking for the right note to sing. You know that if you’re being accompanied by an organist or symphony, you’re looking for them to keep up with you because you find in that note that you could sing the song. I would always be constantly searching for that right feeling, that my delivery then would take off, because without that feeling, it didn’t matter how much content I had to deliver, it was missing. Later in life, I got close with James Brown, the godfather of soul, and he capsulized it best. He said Revered, people can feel you before they hear you or see. And to give people that feeling, you have to have it yourself. And that comes from your fundamental beliefs.

 

[we hear Mahalia Jackson – Walk In Jerusalem (1963)]

 

Kevin: You’re talking about how you had exposure to all these extraordinary performers. One of them is Mahalia Jackson. You think about her in the early 60s being at the March on Washington — historic moment there. Not that long after, you’re touring with her and you perform — you open for her at the historic 1964 World’s Fair, which in a different interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about how formative that fair was for him as someone interested in science. It was a big deal. I’m wondering, talk about —

 

Al: They had a gospel night at the fair and in the New York Pavilion, which is a circular kind of building out there that’s still there, the replica is still there. And often, when I’m flying into New York and as the plane is descending, it goes over the World’s Fair. And I look at that circular thing and think about when I was a nine-year-old boy preacher and they had gospel night preaching for Mahalia Jackson. I did a little seminar that I did for about five minutes. I would tell my daughters or tell whoever was flying, I said, “You don’t know what that is” because now the tennis places are nearby.

 

Kevin: And Citi Field and all that.

 

Al: But to them, that’s just some rusty replica. I said that was a New York for me at the ‘64-’65 World’s Fair and I preached there when I was nine years old. They were having gospel night because Washington Temple was so big in the gospel circle because we had a big radio broadcast Bishop Washington would do every Sunday. They invited various churches and we were, of course, on the list. And part of what Bishop Washington decided was let Alfred preach. And they gave me five minutes and I did that. And it was the first time, though I’ve done a lot of churches, it was like a big audience of people that were not necessarily Baptists or Pentecostal. And the give and take, the call and response, was not the same. It was my first exposure on that kind of platform.

 

Kevin: And when you’re flying in, you see that rusty replica, what do you see in your mind’s eye that other people can’t see? What do you see of that night in your memory?

 

Al: I remember the nervousness, which was unfamiliar to me because the rest became, like I said, hand in glove. And [it was] probably the first time I spoke before a majority white audience, as I think about it — I never thought about it. I’m nervous because they’re not going to yell amen, they’re not going to yell hallelujah. But I still have to get what I believe. And the nervousness was combined with a boldness. I’m going to show them. And it drove me.

 

When I’m flying in and I look, I think about how I felt that night. I remember I was telling somebody 10, 12 years ago, we were flying in late one night on a flight and I told them that story. We were sitting next to each other. I said, “Do you see that building?” and described what happened. And they said, “Wow, look how far you’ve come from there.” I said, “The key is not how far I came from. The key is I’m still that little boy inside.” The minute you stop being who you were then, you don’t succeed. You succumb to being somebody else. I never gave it up. I’m still that boy from Brooklyn.

 

[we hear Mahalia Jackson – No One Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (1963)]

Kevin: Can you also describe what it was like to be at that age, a formative age, and to be in the presence of a talent like Mahalia Jackson? 

 

Al: Mae Jackson was probably my mother’s biggest idol. My parents broke up when I was 10 and we had to move back to Brooklyn, the other side of Brooklyn. I never knew. My mother used to play her records almost until the vinyl came out. Mae used to sing this song, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” And my mother played it over and over because her husband abandoned her, had a child with her daughter, my stepsister, and it was a painful thing.

 

We went from owning this corner house on 199th Street, 104th Avenue in Hollis, 10 room house, garage, basement, Cadillac in the driveway to staying for a while in Albany projects and then moving to Brownsville on a subway. Now no Cadillac, on welfare, and struggling to pay the rent when we used to be the landlords in houses. The whole world flipped upside down. So Mahalia’s song, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” songs like that, were what my mother would play. And for me, later that year and the following year, I would preach doing summer intermissions with this woman who I felt was the bridge that brought my mother.

 

[we hear Mahalia Jackson – No One Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (1963)]

 

Kevin: And that time in your life [that] you’re just describing, it sounds like it was an incredible trial. I mean, to have that situation where you’re in Hollis, Queens, which is, as you said, suburban Queens, it’s really going out towards Long Island, eastern Queens.

 

Al: And in those days, it was like [how] we look at Long Island today, especially for Black families because Blacks were just moving out.

 

Kevin: Yeah. And to have your father leave your mom for your stepsister and the circumstances of that, and being so young and seeing her go through this, what is the scene in your mind when you tell that story, which you have told. What do you think?

 

Al: I think that the thing I most remember is that at first my mother tried to hold on to the house. She couldn’t pay the bills so we lost all the utilities, they cut the lights

 

Kevin: Because your father left. He was gone.

 

Al: The lights were out and the gas was out. The winter was freezing. I had to do my homework by candlelight. I think about how the whole world flipped upside down. Being 10 years old, I have been now [for] five or six years preaching. I wondered why God did this after my mother. And it transformed — my room was the corner, and right outside of my room was the lawn. We had a lawn wrapped around the whole house. was the lawn. Next to the lawn was the driveway, into the private driveway for the residence. I remember I used to sit at night looking in the dark, because we had no lights, in that driveway telling myself, Daddy will come home. And he never did. It’s somewhere in the night it would flip in my head that he’s not coming and now you’ve got to take care of your mother. You’ve got to be the one responsible and God will take care of you. The sermons I was going to preach became personal. I think that that is what made me a better preacher.

 

[40:27 we hear Bishop F. D. Washington Preaching at the COGIC Holy Convocation in 1978]

 

Al: Because it’s one thing, especially if you’re a kid, to preach about trials and tribulations, but you don’t know anything about trials and tribulations. Then I knew about trials and tribulations. And the kids and their parents who used to admire you, or even those that were like “oh he’s a boy preacher” in a somewhat admiring way, were now mocking me. “Their daddy left them for the sister.” It cut the lights off at all. Your whole world changed and your whole image changed. And you had to deal with that. So, I had to grow up the first 10 years, 6 of those 10 years were standing being different. Now you had to deal with being different and disgraced, by no action of your own. I’m a result of the weaknesses of my father —

 

Kevin: for whom you’re named after too. You’re a junior.

 

Al: The same kids that were pointing “that’s the boy preacher” were [now] pointing “that’s the boy preacher whose daddy did a, b, c, d. And they don’t have lights.” I never forget we had a blackout in 64 and the kids on the block that would laugh at us about [having] no lights would knock on the door and ask if they could borrow a candle. We didn’t even know there was a blackout, because we didn’t have lights anyway. It gave me an adjustment in life. It also gave me an attitude that no matter what comes, I will be able to get through it, because how could you at 10 years old see that coming, especially [with] what it was. I don’t know if I understood the weight of abandonment and incest, but I understood it totally turned my mother into a wreck for a while. I think it prepared me for the life I later live with controversies and all because I grew up in very formative years having to deal with unexpected blows.

 

Kevin: Yeah. Also thinking about the faith side, you talked about your faith and your relationship with God during this, that before the crucifixion, Jesus has that feeling also, of doubt [and] being forsaken.

 

Al: Often, when I preach on Good Fridays, even now, I think about [how] even Jesus would question, can I escape? Will you remove this bitter cup? And that’s the point of I can’t take it. That’s the point of “remove this bitter cup. Why have thou forsaken me?” These are all words on the cross. It’s like, God, why would you do this to me? Why would you do this to my mother? Jesus on the cross, “why thou forsaken me?” But then at the point of that, it turns and he says, “Not my will, but thy will.” And I think that became my first junction

 

[44:29 we hear Bishop F. D. Washington Preaching at the COGIC Holy Convocation in 1978]

 

Al: And many times, and the night after that, where you’re at the point of why me? Make this go away. Then your faith kicks in and you say, well, if this is your will, I submit to your Will. Jesus went through that. And I often talk about that, not necessarily personalize it like I’m doing now, but that is very much deep in me. I also preach that there cannot be a resurrection without a crucifixion. All of us want to rise, but none of us want to go down. You’ve got to go down the rise.

 

Kevin: And you had that experience so young and in such a painful way.

 

Al: Personally. It was a pain that would not go away because you grew up with it. The older you got, the more you understood the gravity of what incest was and what abandonment was. And then I’m going from middle class Queens and Cadillac to riding the subway with my mother. [Also,] the shame of going to get groceries with food stamps and trying to hide from your friends that you’re using food stamps, where I used to have whatever I wanted, my parents owned a grocery store. And living in neighborhoods now where they don’t pick up the garbage and where you call an ambulance if somebody is sick and they don’t come for hours. You call the police and they don’t come for hours. Your whole world flipped upside down.

 

And I often think, and I honestly believe this, that a lot of my activism started there because I learned firsthand the difference in the zip code. When we lived the first few months at the Albany Projects with some friends of my mother that we call our cousin

 

Kevin: And the Albany Projects where are they?

 

Al: In Bedstuy.

 

Kevin: They’re in Bedstuy, yup.

 

Al: I used to ask the kids in the projects, “Why is all that garbage stacked up there?” They said, “Oh they pick up the garbage Saturday.” “Saturday?” Because in Hollis, they picked up every day. I started learning the difference in city services and public services by zip code.

 

We finally got an apartment in Crown Heights after a few months and then we moved into Brownsville East Flatbush. And my mother, even once we even moved there, let me keep going to school at PS 34 because I begged her. I said, let me finish elementary school out there, because I know my friends and the teachers know me and the teachers knew what my father did. They were almost like my guidance counselors. I think I was afraid of the schools, of meeting new friends and all of that. I would get up early in the morning and ride three trains and a bus to go to school. I’m still in elementary school, fifth, sixth grade. I used to spend that hour, hour and fifteen minutes to go to school every morning. Get the El train in Brownsville Saratoga. And then when you ride, change trains on Pennsylvania Avenue. Get the Jamaica El, ride to the last stop, Jamaica Avenue, and then get to the Q2 bus to my school and do the same thing back. I would read on the train. That’s where I really developed a lot of voracious reading. I used to have a book with me all the time and I got used to being alone because I’m on the train just about three hours a day. That’s where I really developed a lot of my reading appetite and my sense of being alone. When you leave early in the morning before everybody is up, just about, and you’re back when it’s just about dinnertime, you don’t have a lot of time to create friends and all of that. You kind of learn to live with yourself.

 

[we hear train stopping]

 

Kevin: People, I think, make the mistake of thinking of New York City as one big hometown, but it’s a series of hometowns. And for those listening who don’t know the difference between Hollis and Brownsville, it’s 10 miles apart. On a map, it seems like not a big deal. To you growing up, if you could describe the differences inside your homes and outside the homes.

 

Al: In Hollis, all the social services are there even for Black families at that time. It may not have been what Jamaica Estates were like, where Trump grew up. But it was — people mowed the lawn and people walked their dogs. People would go to church. They were proud, many of them were civil servants or entrepreneurs. I remember the guy that lived directly in front of us in Hollis owned Ebony Oil. He was one of pioneer Black businessmen. So, you had all of that. The barbershop was a block and a half up and the supermarkets were clean. It’s just a kind of, almost, for Blacks at that time, an idyllic kind of life. And I’m sure had my father never left and stayed there, I probably would have been a moderate, laid back kind of preacher, probably would have wandered past a church or something like that.

 

You get to Brownsville and it’s an environment that is always tense and always at the cutting edge because you live on the cutting edge. And it was a whole different world in the same city. When you hear people talk about the tale of two cities, I lived it. It wasn’t just the white, the Black. It was even within the Black community because the Black middle class, which I was born and raised in until I was ten, is much different than the Black lower middle class or lower class, as one sociologist would describe it. And I lived it. It wasn’t something that I got out of a sociology class, I lived it and I knew the difference.

 

And so, whereas kids in Hollis, you’d talk to [them] and they would say, “I’m going to be a lawyer, I’m going to be a doctor, I’m going to be this I’m that,” where kids in Brooklyn [it] was, “Man, I just want to make a couple of dollars.” They don’t care. Some of them, the little kids would run numbers, sheets for the number runner of the town. And all it is, it was a difference and aspiration. And some of them kids were smarter than the kids in Hollis, but they did not have the environment to show their intellect or their ability. And I saw it firsthand.

 

Kevin: I read newspaper articles from the city back then noting that Brownsville I think the murder rate was soaring in the 60s. Did it feel that way to you?

 

Al: Oh, yeah. It was not uncommon to hear about a death two or three times a week. Sometimes [of someone] that you knew. It was not uncommon to have guys say, “I’m in the Tomahawks,” which was a gang. “I’m in the Bishops, I’m in the Jolly Stompers.” And it was interesting, though, that they all said, “Well that’s the preacher, leave him alone.” And they never tried to dump me in a gang, but they all knew I knew the gang thing. And I kind of wanted to toughen up because I’m in the neighborhood now. I was with them, but not of them. And they knew that and respected that. And their parents, many of them were churchgoers and knew who I was, and even in this situation, they held on stronger than anybody to their belief in God. But it was a much different world.

 

Kevin: And you and your mother made a way, somehow, in this environment. How did you help one another?

 

Al: Well, my mother became a domestic worker, even though we were on welfare. And I would still preach at churches and they’d take a little collection and maybe raise $20, the most $25. I’d give it to my mother to help subsidize what she made as a domestic worker and welfare. I remember that every day when we lived in the 40-family building and in East Flatbush, Brownsville, my job on the first and sixteenth every month was to rush home from school and stand by the mailbox to get the welfare check because they would break in the mailboxes. And so, my thing was to preach a little, the little money I would give to my mother, walking to the subway so nobody snatched your pocketbook because there were a lot of pocketbook snatchings, even in the afternoon.

 

After a while, my sister got into trouble. She went to jail, it was just me and my mother. And we kind of were each other’s support system. My mother would say to me in the walks to the train, “Life’s not about where you start. It’s where you are going.” And again, being different, not being in one of the gangs and not being in the sports per say, I’d watch the news a lot. That’s where I fell in love with Adam Clayton Powell. I’d watch all of the talk shows.

 

[we hear Adam Clayton Powell Jr. – Keep The Faith, Baby (1967)]

 

Al: Adam Clayton Powell was then 66, I’m 11 going on 12. They were talking about kicking him out of Congress for some impropriety. I wanted to be at the rallies to save my hero, Congressman Powell.

 

[we hear Adam Clayton Powell Jr. – Keep The Faith, Baby (1967)]

 

Al: My mother got concerned and said, “You don’t need to be that. That’s of the world.”

The Pentecostal folks didn’t deal with all that at that time. They do now. And I kept watching the news and I kept begging to go to the rallies and all of that. Most of the rallies were in Harlem in his district with some supporting preachers in Brooklyn. She finally brought me to Bishop Washington and she said, “Bishop, he keeps talking about these rallies. If you watch the TV and talk to these guys in the street, they’re not church people. I understand civil rights, I support Dr. King and everything he was doing down south. I’m from Alabama.” She was from Alabama. She said, “but I don’t want him to leave the church and his ministry.” Bishop Washington kind of said, “Well we had Dr. King here at the church and Freedom Riders, it’s not sinful, it’s just another form.” He said, “I know what to do. And y’all meet me, whatever day.” We met him at his house — and he lived on President Street in Crown Heights — which was almost the same kind of upper class, or really middle class but to us upper class, of the Black community. On his block were some of the biggest, most prominent ministers in New York. Right across the street from him was Reverend Dr. Gardner Taylor, who was considered the dean of American preaching.

 

Kevin: Oh, yeah that’s a huge name.

 

Al: Down the block was Dr. Sandy Ray, who my mother and father used to be a member of his church. The next block was Reverend William Jones, who was the head of the chapter of Dr. King’s organization in New York

 

Kevin: SCLC?

 

Al: Yeah, SCLC Operation Bread. Bishop Washington walked across the street [to] Dr. Jones’ house. Dr. Jones welcomed us in and Bishop Washington said, “Well this is the boy preacher.” And he said, “I know who he is — boy preacher” and kind of laughed. And [Washington] said, “You know, he’s getting into all of this, watching the news and wants to do this or another. And his mother here is concerned about him. Doesn’t want him to leave the church.” And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t one of y’all hand him over to me? I could use him to rally a lot of the young people in the churches to help through the picket lines and the marches and stuff.” I was like, “I like that.” And he took me in and I became, at 12 years old, a member of Operation Breadbasket.

 

[we hear Sermon Excerpt – Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr]

 

Al: By the time I was 13 earlier that year, which would have been ‘68, I became youth director. That April, they killed Dr. King. About a year later, we opened the office of Operation Breadbasket on Fulton Street in the middle of Bedstuy over the Black bank, Carvers Savings Bank. The head of Operation Breadbasket was going to come to cut the ribbon. And Reverend Jones said, “Alfred come here, I want you to meet the hero of Breadbaskets.” He walked me in his office and Jesse Jackson was sitting behind the desk. I remember I looked and said, “That’s that guy out of Chicago” and he said, “Yeah, Jesse Jackson. This is our youth leader, Alfred Sharpton.” Jesse had on a buckskin vest and a Dr. King medallion, the medallion I later wore. He had it on that night. No tie and all that big afro. I said, oh he is hip. I like his style because it’s kind of flamboyant, like Adams was. And Dr. Jones was one of these buttoned-down kinds of preachers. I remember Bill Jones said to Jesse, “Do you have any advice for our youth leader on what to do?” And he just said, “Well just choose your targets and kick behind.” And I liked that.

 

Then they went to have the opening night rally a few blocks away from the headquarters of the Friendship Baptist Church on Herkimer Street. I don’t know how we got in, we walked the room anyway. Then I’m sitting in the audience with my mother and Jesse comes out and they put them up. The Church is full. Jesse said he’s glad to be there and he cut the ribbon downstairs over Fulton Street and he was going to lay out the program. He said, “But I got a surprise for y’all. A friend of mine is here performing at Carnegie Hall and she wanted to come over and give a little rendition of the salute opening of Operation Breadbasket, New York.” And he did his long arm [gesturing], “Sister Mahalia Jackson.” Mahalia walked in. Everybody was standing up and gleeful. Mahalia looked and said it, “My little boy preacher.” Jesse [went], “You know him?” And she made me — my head swelled up. I think that is part of what started bonding me with Jesse. Jesse became my mentor to this day.

 

[we hear “I am somebody!” – Historical footage of Rev. Jesse Jackson leading a crowd in a chant of solidarity]

 

Kevin: It’s hard to picture you in high school, but you went to high school. You went to the Samuel J. Tilden High School. Thinking about the fact that you had to balance being a high school student with your activism, how did you find that balance?

 

Al: Well, it’s funny. I talked about a year ago to somebody who went to school with me. We said it was crazy to them and to the school principal. The principal’s name was Joseph Shapiro. By the time I was in high school, I’m already Youth Director of Operation Breadbasket. I would be in the newspaper leading the picket line and in class the next morning. The kids were like, “Did you see Alfred in The Daily News?” or whatever it was. It was more challenging for the school principal and teachers and my classmates than me, because I was always different. When they would talk about he’s leading the rally after school or he was in the newspaper this morning, it was no different than the kids outside playing stick ball saying he’s down the basement preaching to his sister’s doll. It was the same world. I was always different. It was always something in me and I think it was my spiritual connection, maybe, strong enough to say I’m not going to adjust to you, you are going to adjust to the fact that I’m different.

 

Kevin: Going back to your relationship with Bishop Washington, it seemed like he had a plan for you. He was nurturing you, cultivating you, and traveling with you. Maybe with the idea that you would take over for him someday you might become a bishop in the Church of God in Christ.

 

Al: I think that Bishop Washington probably wanted me to be a bishop in the Church of Christ and felt he was preparing me. But I think when I went the civil rights route and in many ways, [with] the influence of Adam and Jesse as role models, [it] made me go a different route. Even Reverend Jones. Reverend Jones would say to me in my mid to late teens, “Alfred, now I want you to go to seminary and I’ll move you into a big Baptist church.” I said, “No, I want to be like Jesse. I want to build my own organization.” “Ain’t no life in that.” I think they had different projections and I did it my way.

 

Kevin: It’s interesting hearing you talk and recount these years, because not that long ago in our conversation, we were talking about how your father left. He was removed from the scene of your life and it’s you and your mom breaking away. Then as you fill in the years, we start to hear the names of all these other important figures who, it sounds like, became male role models for you, at a time when you had lost yours, you had lost your dad.

 

Al: That is totally accurate. I have wondered a lot, in my older years, whether my mother knew that it was important to give me male role models to emulate, to look up to. Otherwise, I was going to find male role models elsewhere that might have taken me down a different path. I think in her own way, one well versed, one well educated. She understood that if I do not put them around the right role models, he might join a gang. And a lot of people do it because they want something strong, some image, they want to belong to something. And I make him belong to something like Operation Breadbasket. I look up to a Bill Jones or Jesse Jackson. If not, he’s going to join the Tomahawks or join the Jolly Stompers. I really think that. It felt natural, but it was too well placed in that it had some fun in it. And for her to think to even bring me to Bishop Washington and him to think to bring me to Bill Jones.

 

Kevin: And you said earlier she created the temple for you in the basement at the home.

 

Al: Right.

 

Kevin: So she was cultivating. She had a mind of, “How do I help nurture this?”

 

Al: She understood that she was nurturing. You could have a seed, but if somebody doesn’t water the seed, it won’t grow. I was blessed with good surrogate fathers, though. If my father stayed, I would have never known Bill Jones and Bishop Washington probably wouldn’t play the central figure. I never would have met James Brown and he became like a surrogate father. So I tell my daughters who are grown that maybe what was painful was God getting my father out the way because he had a better plan.

 

[we hear James Brown- The Payback (1981)]

 

Kevin: You mentioned James Brown and in the 70s, you went on the road with him and you were an adviser to him, a spiritual comfort to him. He obviously was a mentor to you. How did that go about? Was that your jumping off point into adulthood, would you say?

 

Al: Absolutely. What happened was that I formed my own youth group in ‘71, National Youth Movement. In ‘73, a young guy named Teddy Brown from Georgia joined. Same age as me. I started a youth group, I was 16. This was around — I was 17 going on 18. I found out he was James Brown’s son. One day we got to where Teddy was killed in a car accident and it shattered everybody. The leading disc jockey in New York at the time was a man named Hank Spann, WWRL. The head of community affairs was a man called Bob Law. And Bob Law had his finger on the pulse of what was going on in Black activism. He told Hank Spann, “You know Sharpton, right?” He said, “Yeah.” He said, “James Brown wants to do a memorial for his son. His son used to go to his youth group, Alfred Sharpton’s.” They told him about me and he said, “Have him come by and meet me.” I went and I remember it was like Mahalia when I was a kid. James Brown was the biggest Black artist in the world. The only recreational memories I have with my father is him taking us to The Apollo to see James Brown.

 

Growing up in Hollis, James Brown had a mansion in St. Albans. We used to go stand at the gate looking at the back door, hoping to see James Brown. I think maybe one time he waved out the window and we were in ecstasy. The doctor, the Black doctor that brought me in the world, my mother’s maternity doctor, that’s the right term, lived about two blocks from James Brown in St. Albans. A well-to-do doctor, had a banana shaped pool.

 

So I’m in the dressing room with all these members. This is the James Brown, soul brother number one, and he’s talking Rapid Fire and all that. We agreed to do this concert in Brooklyn. And I did it. He told me, “Listen to me, do it the way I tell you, you’ll sell out and I’m going to give you good money and honor Teddy.” Yeah, and he was very specific, how many flyers, where to hang up the posters. All of that. And I did it to a tee.

 

At that time, unbeknownst to me, he had had a little dip in ticket sales in his career because he had endorsed Richard Nixon for president the year before. A lot of Blacks were mad. Limousine pulls up and I do the show, August ‘73. He jumps out, he jumps in, goes into the back seat. He looks at his manager. “How are we doing? You got two shows, right?” [Manager] said, “Yeah.” He said, “How are we doing with the ticket sales?”  [Manager] said, “The kid did everything you said. You sold out.” And he stops and says, “What?” He said, “So at first I ain’t sold out in a few months because of the Nixon thing. Anybody picketing?” “No, they ain’t gonna picket this kid.”

 

And he put his arm around me and walked me aside, started the show. Miles Davis came to see the show that night. Now I’m in seventh heaven. You got Miles Davis in the wings, James Brown on the stage. I came out and gave him an award and all that. Two weeks later, his manager, Charles Bobbit, called me. “Mr. Brown would like to see you. He’s going to be in town.” Because Brown had his office in Georgia and an office on Broadway. I wanted to see it. He said, “They’re about to do some other stuff with you.” We did some other things out in, I think, Pennsylvania. Then he called me and said, “I’ve got to tape Soul Train. I’m taking you with me.” I said, “The Soul Train?” “Yeah.” He sends me a ticket out from California [and] takes me to the Soul Train set. And Soul Train was the biggest thing in the world for the Black kids at the time.

 

I’m like nineteen years old, I think. He says to Don Cornelius, “In the middle of the set I want you to have this kid, Reverend Sharpton, give me an award.” Don Cornelius says, “Mr. Brown we don’t do that show.” So he said, “Don, I want you to do it.” [Don] said, “It don’t quite fit the format.” He said, “You know I do the big payback.” [Don] said, “No.” He said, “Well you’re going to do it if you let this kid do it.” So [Brown] demanded it and he put me on. He knew that would build me with young Blacks all over the country, because I’m on Soul Train. I go back to Brooklyn [and] I was like Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.

 

[we hear James Brown – Soul Train 1973]

 

Al: And little by little, we developed this bond. His wife at the time, Divi, said to me, as we started to get close because he was very private — I was one of the few people that he would let come to his house — she says, “I think in many ways James sees you as what Teddy would have been.” After a while, I became that son he lost and he became a father I didn’t have. He would want me to wear his hair like him. He would tell me don’t date girls and be famous. He would actually bring me in the bathroom and say, “No you should shave like this.” The manly things that I never learned from my father about women, shaving, and dress, I learned from James. He became my surrogate father. Until the day he died we were like father and son. Our politics was — he was a Republican. Our politics was different. We debated about that, how our professions were different. He was show business and I was church. When I would go to the shows, “Reverend, you’re a preacher. You sit in the wings, don’t go in the audience, don’t hang out with the band because all of them do real bad things. You sit right there. I’m not going to let you do anything but preach.” We had two different worlds, but we were like father and son. Teddy was his oldest. I became, I think for him, that when he needed it, [whether] when he realized it or not. And it took me a while to realize he became the father that I lost. And ironically, they had the same birthday.

 

[we hear James Brown – Soul Train 1973]

 

Kevin: And in that world, [from] the way you describe it, it almost feels like a small world, even though these people are larger than life.

 

Al: I think the uniqueness of my experience was that [while] people knew them as trendsetters and superstud, I knew them. That was the difference. By me growing up, a boy preacher, I knew the backstage as well as I do —

 

Kevin: From sitting in that office.

 

Al: Sitting in that office and sitting in Mahalia’s dressing room or whatever. Whereas most people just know to get the best seat in the audience. I knew the backstage all my life. I knew the walking out to the stage of the pulpit and the nervousness in your belly. I knew that more than I knew, sitting in the seat with the anticipation of looking at a performer because I walked with the best performers in Black America to the stage and I knew that. I grew up with that. I didn’t have to learn that. I grew up with that because that’s who I was. I watched them do it and I watched how they handled it and it was all honing my work.

 

[we hear Reverend Al Sharpton delivers eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral] 

 

Kevin: It’s interesting you mention that because recently, I think all of us sat rapt watching you deliver the eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral. It was a moment in time that one can’t forget if you were witnessing it, even on TV. I’ve always been fascinated by people who can comfort the grieving and the mourning. It seems like such an extraordinary act and a difficult one. And what you were just describing about seeing people behind the scenes and how they do it, I’m wondering if you can recall your first encounter with a funeral, in particular, and the loss of someone and what you took in from that, because seeing you do what you did with George Floyd — and it goes on from there, you’ve done it so many times — I just think how can he do that? How does he get through that?

 

Al: I sit through the beginnings of a service trying to read the audience and the family and trying to lock my experiences with them. Then say in my mind, I’ve got to speak to the public on whatever the issues may be, but I have to speak to the family. And being that I’ve had so many different kinds of experiences, I can relate to them. Now, what would I want somebody to say to me? Somebody that lost somebody, like George Floyd or Eric Garner whose funeral I did, you really can’t feel what they lost, so you got to give a meaning to it so they could understand. As painful as it is, there’s a reason for this bigger than you. If you submit to the bigger call in, then it helps you with the pain and to fulfill that call.

 

[we hear George Floyd Funeral: Rev. Al Sharpton Delivers Eulogy]

 

Al: So as I’m sitting there at a funeral when I was a little kid, I remember maybe in my teens, I preached [my] first funeral, I thought about how the person — this was not a police brutality case or racial just somebody just died. Bishop Washington had me do the funeral. I thought about what it felt like to lose somebody. I put myself back in Hollis, looking out the window at the driveway and realizing after a while that he wasn’t coming back. And this person at this funeral, the person in this casket will not be coming back. I spoke from that pain that I felt as an abandoned kid to that person, saying it’s going to be hard, but they’re not coming back, but you can make it in here. And no book or homiletics can teach you how to talk to the pain you know.

 

Kevin: Do you still find yourself drawing on that feeling to this day?

 

Al: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

 

Kevin: That’s the go to for you. That’s the place you go to.

 

Al: That’s the go to for me. It is not only the “go to,” it’s the “never left.” It never left me.

 

Kevin: Yeah, I mean, I think he was almost a form of social death, the way you’re describing it

 

Al: It becomes a social death and it becomes a sense of meaning of the pain. You can bear pain if you know, if it has meaning beyond you, because then it just doesn’t hurt you. You’re hurting for a reason bigger than you, but it still hurts. And it keeps you also grounded and centered.

 

[we hear George Floyd Funeral: Rev. Al Sharpton Delivers Eulogy]

 

Al: I remember 2013, I was invited by President Obama to sit on the platform of his second inauguration and as honored guests. I’m sitting there with Martin Luther King III, his wife, and Marc Morial, the head of the National Urban League. And we are all about four to six rows in. Supreme Court Justices are here. Joe Biden’s family is here, then us, before the Senators and the Congressman. You come out to take your seats. It’s live on TV. It’s a big thing. You come down the steps and they show you on the screen and people clap.

 

[we hear Jan. 21, 2013: Inaugural Ceremonies for Barack Obama]

 

Al: As I took my seat, I remember one of the senators going, “Hey Al, you got better seats than me.” I thought about how here I was, sitting there, guest of the President, the first Black president and among all of these whatever. I thought of two things. I thought about [how] I hope some kid that grew up like I did in Brownsville is watching and knew [they] could do it. Whole time I’m watching the inauguration, the swearing in and all, and I find myself a lot of times looking for that little chubby kid. That’s what gives a lot of meaning to me.

 

Kevin: Yeah.

 

Al: I think about people in life, there’s no — I put it this way, there’s no more poignant pain than the pain of rejection, fearing rejection, and to be rejected by your own father, who you look like, [was] made after. After a while, you learn that you don’t need the acceptance of others. You learn to accept yourself. I tell young people today that that’s what I say during funerals. I preach to the greater meaning because I tell young people today that had my father stayed and I stayed in Hollis, I would have never been able to preach like that. I would have never probably fought to be an activist like that. So maybe God, who I felt abandoned or forsaken me, let that happen for a greater purpose because I wouldn’t have been the Al Sharpton you came to know if I hadn’t gone through that.

 

Kevin: And so often now, tragically so, you’re speaking to children who, because of a loss of a father in a different setting, are also now not going to have a childhood.

 

Al: And a world of difference. Yeah, I’m sitting there looking at the Floyd family, or all the other families now through the years, knowing more than they do. You’ll never be the same because everybody knows your name now and you didn’t ask for it. You know, I aspired to be a leader activist at some point. They didn’t. They woke up one morning, relative’s dead, and from now on, they are part of a cause that they had no training for, no pursuing it. Now every time you walk down the block, “Oh that’s George Floyd’s brother.” I know the world is getting ready to change them better than they do. I know the world that if they are late on a bill is going to be in the newspaper. If they have an argument with their wife, it might be on television. Your world is getting ready to change. I’m going to try to empower you to know it’s for a bigger cause, because otherwise it’s going to be more difficult for you to deal with. I’m trying to interpret for you what you’re about to go through.

 

[we hear George Floyd Funeral: Rev. Al Sharpton Delivers Eulogy]

 

Kevin: And I end every interview by going to the great New York poet Walt Whitman and in Leaves of Grass “Song of Myself,” he writes, I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles//You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/But I shall be good health to you nevertheless/And filter and fibre your blood//Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/Missing me one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

 

And I wanted to ask you if you can project out 50, 100, 200 years from now when people come to the great city of New York and the hometowns that you lived in growing up, and they’re studying you or they want to know you, where should they look for Reverend Al Sharpton in New York, in your hometown to commune with you?

 

Al: Where they should look for me is they should look for somebody, male or female, gay or straight, is fighting to make sure that it’s equal and that it’s fair for everybody. If they go under the surface of who that person is, they’ll find that that person was treated unequally and [was] rejected. It motivated them to try to equalize society, to equalize what was inside of them. And there they’ll find Al Sharpton.

 

Kevin: Beautiful. Let’s let it lie there. Thank you, Reverend Al Sharpton, thank you so much for taking me to your hometown.

 

Al: Thank you.

 

Kevin (voiceover outro): Your Hometown is a Kevin Burke Production. For more, visit our website at yourhometown.org, where you can listen to past episodes and find our show notes and artwork for each guest. You can also follow us on your favorite podcasts app and when you’re there take a minute to fill out a survey to let us know how we’re doing. Please also follow us on social media, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Also, please look up the show’s New York City series page, including information on live events on the Museum of the City of New York’s website at mcny.org/yourhometown-podcast.

 

Now let me thank the wonderful team that works with me each week on Your Hometown, beginning with our executive producer, Robert Krulwich; our art director, Nick Gregg; editor and sound designer, Otis Streeter — now, Otis was there with me the day we recorded this episode, and he and I rode home together, blown away by Al Sharpton’s coming-of age-story and his willingness to give so much of his time to us, when we knew he was in the middle of a very stressful summer on the Civil Rights front — our composer and performer Sterling Steffen, and our researcher Shakila Khan.

 

The show’s branding and website design is by Tama Creative.

 

Special thanks too to our partners this season, the Museum of the City of New York. I also can’t thank enough the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and our other financial supporters for believing in the series and our mission.

 

Until next time. Thanks so much for taking this ride with me. And remember, everyone’s from someplace and everywhere is somewhere.

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Series one

New York City

Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.

© Museum of the City of New York, 2021