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Al Sharpton Sizes Up Generations of Black Leaders

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Al Sharpton Sizes Up Generations of Black Leaders


Al Sharpton Sizes Up Generations of Black Leaders

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is News & Notes, I'm Farai Chideya. More than a week ago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright was supposed to step down as senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. That's the church from which Senator Barack Obama resigned his membership. Reverend Otis Moss III was already hand-picked to take over at the pulpit. But in a last-minute move, Reverend Wright decided the 37-year-old minister wasn't ready. How hard is it for black leaders to pass the torch? And as America grapples with the possibility of electing its first black president, are traditional civil rights leaders ready for a new generation to take the helm? For more, we have Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network. Reverend Sharpton, great to have you on.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (President, National Action Network): Thank you, glad to be with you.

CHIDEYA: You know, I remember we talked before. We've talked several different times. And you said something about your generation, which is that you are not of the hip-hop generation, but you are also younger than Reverend Jesse Jackson and some of the other people who were associates of Reverend King. So how do you see yourself situated in this whole transition of leadership, or passing of the torch from generation to generation?

Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I think that there is the generation ahead of the group I'm with, and the generation behind. And I think that every era, we're always in transition. I think in the civil rights of the '60s and the '50s, they were in transition with the generation of Reverend Jackson, and Stokely Carmichael, who operated in their time in transition with people now that are in their 40s and 50s, which is the generation I'm in. For example, Deval Patrick and I are around the same age. And David Paterson, who is governor of New York, and I are around the same age. Barack Obama is only six years younger. So I think that we are in a generation that are older than the hip-hop generation.

I think that sometimes, Farai, we see the media too simplistic, in their analysis. Every generation has different people that do different things. So, for example, in Doctor King's time, Ed Brooke was the senator for Massachusetts, he was elected a year before Doctor King died, getting elected in a state that was mostly a white state. In Jesse Jackson's height, Doug Wilder was elected at a time, in Virginia, in a Southern former Confederate state, at a time Reverend Jackson and others would doing activism. In the time I'm operating now, I see a Deval Patrick elected governor, I see Barack as the Democratic nominee, all of this happening at in time. What I think is the misconception is that blacks only do one thing per generation. There's always been blacks that served different functions, at the same time, in the same generation.

CHIDEYA: What about the passing of the torch? In some cases, you know, for example, we spoke with Julian Bond a while back, and he asked him, you know, should leadership be passed as a torch, or should people have to snatch it? And he said snatch it. He was no bones about it. How do you feel about that?

Rev. SHARPTON: One, I think you have to define which torch you are trying to aspire to. And second, I think that people have to earn trust. At the end of the day, leadership is based on following, and you can't impose that. I think that in one level - I don't know if I would say snatch it, you got to earn it. I grew up in SCLC Operation Breadbasket under Reverend Jackson and Bill Jones, but they couldn't make me what I became, I had to earn that, and earn my own public galley. And I think that what, to be frank, a lot of the major mainstream media tries to do is appoint new leadership. Which to me is almost humorous, like people won't trust them, and follow them, or deal with them, because they've been appointed, that's crazy. The reason why many of the issues that those of us in the civil rights community respond to respond, is because people call on us. Well, why do they call us? Because the trust us and they've seen our track record.

Will younger people be able to do that? Absolutely. As long as they don't delude themselves that they can be appointed by even those ahead of them. They have to earn that, they have to get in the trenches and do the work. The biggest confusion that the media gives, Farai, is they try to have this monolith of black leadership, which they do not do in any other community. For example, people don't realize we had Martin Luther King in the south, Malcolm X in the north, Thurgood Marshall in the courts, Adam Clayton Powell in Congress, Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, Gloria Richardson in North Carolina, all at the same time. Whitney Young in the corporate boardroom, all at the same time. How did we get to the 21st century and act like we can't (unintelligible) at a time. That's absurd. It has never been our case, and it should not be depicted as that now.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned the media a lot of times, and you know, although I'm in the media, I'm not uncritical, but there are specific cases where people have shown that they don't want to give leadership, or pass it on. Reverend Jeremiah Wright has been in the news many times, but most recently he was supposed to step down as senior pastor of Trinity United, which is the church that Barack Obama used to go to. There was a 37-year-old minister, Otis Moss, who was ready to step up to the plate. But then at the last minute, Reverend Wright said, oh, well, yeah, I'm just going to stay in the seat, stay in the pulpit, stay the pastor. What do you think happens at a time like that, when someone is supposed to pass the torch and they don't?

Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I don't know the particulars of that, so I couldn't comment on that. But I think that in a general broader question of what you ask, there has been resistance of people that when it was time to move on, or agreed to move on, didn't. And I think that constituency has to deal with that. And I think sometimes those things are tense, sometimes they can even get ugly. I think that at the end of the day, if you are really about what you say you are about, you want to see the pursuit of those goals, even beyond your time of, say, your day in the sun. I'm not at all suggesting that's what happened here, because I don't know, but I think I've seen that happened in other cases. And I think that that's the real testimony of the sincerity of the person.

I think the best example I can give is Nelson Mandela, who's paid more of a price, who sacrificed more, he won, and then at a point, he says, now it is time for me to go on. He, if anyone, earned the right to say I am going to sit here and be the president of South Africa till I die. He said no, I've served my time. The fact that I spent 27 years in jail notwithstanding, I'm going to move on, and I think that that is why everyone respected him as a great man, because he did not put his own vanity above the cause.

CHIDEYA: Reverend Sharpton, great to talk to you.

Rev. SHARPTON: Thank you, have a great day.

CHIDEYA: Reverend Al Sharpton is a civil rights activist and host of the syndicated radio talk show Keeping it Real. He is also the President of the National Action Network.

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