Alfred Charles Sharpton, Jr., “The Rev. Al Sharpton,” looked relaxed in the black-leather, cube-shaped sectional seat, his legs crossed. He’d walked off the stage to a standing ovation minutes before at the Oakwood University Church in Huntsville, Alabama.
His sermon was a recitation of civil rights history, political analysis and an exegesis of Matthew 8, woven together with the expert pacing and tone of the preacher he has been since childhood. Sitting in the Green Room above the church’s sanctuary, a small gaggle of reporters waited to ask him questions. It was just another day at the office for the most well-known black civil rights leader in the nation.
The Long Fight
With a new President – one who Sharpton knows personally but doesn’t agree with politically –few days or sermons will be routine. Sharpton went in on President Donald Trump – hard and unflinchingly – as he preached to the packed crowd.
“He justifies the ban by saying they are fighting terrorism,” he said of Trump’s controversial executive order that limits who can enter the United States.
“Saudi Arabia isn’t part of the ban,” Sharpton said to applause. Other critics of the executive order also have noted that the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi nationals, yet that nation is not being affected. And at least in part because he was in Alabama, Sharpton was sharply critical of U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General. He said Sessions would undermine the last 50 years of civil rights achievements – particularly voting rights – Sharpton’s charge echoed those expressed by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
“We fought too long, spent too many nights in jail, took too many beatings,” Sharpton said as the crowd’s excitement rose. “We lost an election. We have not lost our minds.”
Motive Behind The Man
There’s no denying that Sharpton has been controversial in his role as a civil rights activist and social critic. Some conservative have been particularly scathing in their criticism of him, saying he’s a race baiter and a charlatan. But at least one doubter who sat in the Oakwood church and heard Sharpton’s sermon was mildly surprised.
“I thought that Al Sharpton was worse than what he sounded tonight,” Jeanne Shrader told WHNT-TV, the CBS affiliate in Huntsville. Shrader described herself as a Trump supporter and said she was curious about what Sharpton would say.
“He seems like he’s very sincere in helping people,” she said, though she disagrees with his criticisms of Trump.
Like him or not, Sharpton’s rise from poverty to become America’s preeminent voice on civil rights issues is undeniably amazing. He has said that he lived a middle-class life before his father left his mother to start a relationship with Sharpton’s 18-year-old step-sister. His mother was left destitute, but he credits her persistence with saving him.
The young Sharpton also found new male role models, including soul legend James Brown whose influence was so lasting that the preacher relaxes his hair as a tribute to Brown. Sharpton’s very public journey has been colorful and controversial but also indisputably successful and impactful.
Shift In The Atmosphere
In 1991, he founded the National Action Network, a civil rights organization that now has approximately 90 affiliates across the nation. Sharpton staged a competitive campaign to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2004, and gave an electrifying speech at the party’s national convention later that year. He hosts a nationally syndicated radio show, and a Sunday morning political talk show on MSNBC.
Sharpton’s resume makes him the most well-known civil rights activist in the nation, and uniquely positioned to speak to the relationship between the movement and its preeminent institution, the black church.
“I think that black church has been in a strange place the last decade,” Sharpton told Message after his Sunday night sermon. “The popular thing in the Black Church went from social justice and fairness to seeking opulence and seeking comfort.”
But there has been, to appropriate a popular phrase in some Christian circles, a shift in the atmosphere due to the economic woes many have faced in recent years.
“You can’t tell people that they’re going to get a Mercedes when they can hardly pay the rent,” Sharpton explained. “The Black Church now, under a new president, is challenged to go back to its roots of social justice. Our parishioners are frightened. They want some hard, real Gospel and social action.”
Sharpton delivered both to the congregation that filled the Oakwood University Church that night, ending his sermon with a classic Black preacher “whoop” about the reason some worship with exuberant praise in church.
Power In The Praise
“She made it through her storm,” Sharpton melodically called out to punctuated organ riffs and electrified audience. He recalled an unnamed woman who lost everything, he said. But God restored her losses, so she offered Him her praise.
And then there was the woman whose husband left her destitute and to raise their children. This woman lost her house and car, Sharpton said. Their situation seemed hopeless and yet, the preacher intoned, “She lived to see that little girl and little boy be somebody!”
“The reason I know her story is because I’m her little boy!” Sharpton said, nearly singing as much as he was preaching. As he walked off the stage, the audience gave him a standing ovation while the organ wailed bluesy, syncopated chords.
Sharpton seemed lost in his own thoughts, perhaps briefly reliving the many moments that led him from being a destitute, fatherless boy to an American thought-leader and preacher.