RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
All this week on MORNING EDITION we've been listening to the debate over black leadership in America. We've heard from a corporate CEO, Ann Fudge, NPR's Juan Williams, and author and linguist John McWhorter.
Today we hear from one of the most high-profile members of that community, Reverend Al Sharpton. He joins us from Sharpton Studios in New York. Good morning.
Reverend AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Activist): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, you may - in fact, you are the one person in our group of speakers who would commonly be identified as a black leader in the political sense and in the traditional sense. Do you think you are?
Rev. SHARPTON: I think a leader is anyone with a following. And I think that I lead an organization with a registered membership. I've run for public office and have demonstrated a base following. I think in that context, I guess I am.
MONTAGNE: Now you emerged on the national stage, if you will - you made headlines during a case about two decades ago involving a young black woman, a teenager, by the name of Tawana Brawley.
Rev. SHARPTON: That's not true. The first case that went national, that I was involved in, was the killing of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach in 1986.
MONTAGNE: And that was young white men who killed him with a baseball bat when he was biking.
Rev. SHARPTON: Right. And ran him in front of a train, that's right.
Rev. SHARPTON: Ran him in front of a car, I'm sorry. He went to a pizzeria at Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach, and they said blacks should not be in the neighborhood, chased him with a baseball bat onto the Belt Parkway. He was run over. And when his family got in touch with me, we began a series of demonstrations and we were successful in getting a special prosecutor who in turn did convict people for that death.
MONTAGNE: Why did they come to you? You were in your early 30s at the time.
Rev. SHARPTON: I had a civil rights organization that was very active and high-profile. People come to civil rights organizations because they are seeking help, one, to expose their problem, and B, to stand up and put pressure on the system for them.
I'm sure that the reason - Howard Beach 20 years later, we just had the case of Glenn Moore, who was beaten up in Howard Beach and there was just a conviction in New York on that about a month ago with Fat Nick. The reason his parents came to me, probably, is because if you look at Howard Beach, one, or Bensonhurst, or Abner Louima, or any number of cases that we got involved, we successfully put pressure on the system and got some measure of justice.
So I guess people go to people that they, one, see have a track record, and two, fill the needs of what they are looking for at the time.
MONTAGNE: Now, part of your track record, and you know it better, I would say, than anyone else, is that you've been charged with being everything from an ambulance chaser in terms of cases like this, to Reverend Soundbite. Why do you think that you get that sort of reaction from some people, including people in the black community, when earlier civil rights activists never seemed to get tagged with those sorts of criticisms?
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, to name one, Jesse Jackson has had best-selling books written against him, called Shakedown. Are you kidding? Jesse Jackson is...
MONTAGNE: Well, later. Later. But when he was young and coming up in the world of civil rights...
Rev. SHARPTON: No, when he was young, coming up, the first book, Barbara Reynolds, the first biography on Jesse Jackson, Barbara Reynolds, a black writer, wrote against Jesse Jackson. Not true. Martin Luther King was constantly attacked by black commentator Carl Rowen. Most civil rights leaders are never given credit until they're dead.
The real question becomes why these guys cannot explain why victims come to us and why we have built a following and an organization that has sustained past all of them.
MONTAGNE: Why do - why do victims, as you call them, come to you?
Rev. SHARPTON: Because I think victims go to where they feel people have the expertise and the track record to do what they want. And what they want is someone to stand up for them, to command public attention on their issue, and get some justice for them. There's always somebody that not only wasn't involved, didn't even support the fight. They want to sit by in some studio and give commentary on something that they know nothing about, which is why I say I don't understand the point.
MONTAGNE: One of the points is this: there are black commentators out there who argue that some leaders delight in feeling that their followers are victims.
Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I mean, again, I don't know the commentators, most of whom have never talked to me, and some of the people they attack. They're trying to sell books. And let them sell books. And...
MONTAGNE: Well, well, let's just get to it. Do you view people who would follow you, do you view part of leadership as carrying the load, if it will, for victims, or do you view it as a way of empowering people?
Rev. SHARPTON: Absolutely view it as a way of empowering people. In fact, you would not fight for them to get justice if you weren't empowering them. And you wouldn't do other things. I'll give you an example. When you support, as I just finished the last two weeks fighting for Ned Lamont to get the Democratic nomination in Connecticut because he's right on the issues against Lieberman, who was the victimization there? I mean, that's absurd.
When we fight to stand up with Bill Cosby against what is negative in terms of the use of the music industry in our culture, and I went to FCC last year about the radio stations being used to pit one group against another in hip-hop, who's the victimization there?
The reality is that we have fought against those in the music world and in other worlds that want to make money off the victimizing our community.
MONTAGNE: The publisher of New York's black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, has written of you that while white media thought they were using Al Sharpton as a caricature, Al is using the media. Do you think you use the media?
Rev. SHARPTON: I think the media is part of how you address the broader body politic of this country. Media is like electricity. It could be good and light up the world or it could be bad and burn it down. So you have a media strategy in every fight you do.
Yes, I've always tried to have the media strategy, even when it was negative media, to put light on situations that would not have gotten light. Sometimes that means they're going to burn you, and they're going to distort you and attack you. But your job is to get the attention.
MONTAGNE: Last question, Reverend Sharpton. What do you think will be the legacy of your leadership?
Rev. SHARPTON: I hope the legacy will be that in the latter part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century, when many people felt that the human rights and the civil rights struggle was waning, that there were those soldiers that stayed on the battlefield to fight to preserve voter rights and civil rights and to fight against unjust wars, and Al Sharpton was one of the soldiers that stayed on the field.
They will not say - they cannot say I was a perfect man. They cannot say that I was a flawless man. They may not even say that I was a good man. But they can say, he was on the battlefield. He fought in his day, in his generation. And those that were before him, he tried to live up to their expectations. That's all.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.
Rev. SHARPTON: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: The Reverend Al Sharpton is an activist based in New York.
You can hear equally vehement opinions about the state and nature of black leadership on our Web site. CEO Ann Fudge, Mayor Corey Booker and other guests in our series are at npr.org.