STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Years ago, when living in New York City, I first learned of Al Sharpton. He was a young preacher and civil rights activist. In my memory, the New York City tabloids of the day gave him an edgy and negative portrayal as a figure who was ultimately sued for defamation when he accused a prosecutor of racism. Al Sharpton shared New York City tabloid space with another New York figure, Donald Trump, who spoke out on the opposite side on race, demanding the death penalty for five Black men who were innocent of a crime.
Today, of course, Trump is president, and Sharpton, gray-haired, is a kind of elder statesman. After George Floyd was killed by police this spring, Sharpton was asked to deliver a eulogy.
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AL SHARPTON: Go on home, George. Get your rest, George. You changed the world, George. We going to keep marching, George. We going to keep fighting, George.
INSKEEP: Al Sharpton's latest book is called "Rise Up: Confronting A Country At The Crossroads." When we spoke, I asked what Sharpton meant by - you changed the world, George.
SHARPTON: I had began to see, by the time of the funeral, there had been a movement that was unlike others that was very multiracial and intergenerational around the country that I felt would change some policing laws and some policing policies, unlike before. And I wanted to say to George, who obviously was not where he could hear me, that you have really changed the world. Policing in America, I think, will change because of George Floyd.
INSKEEP: I've been trying to figure out if this is such an excruciating moment for people - and I mean people of all races and persuasions and ages in different ways - such an excruciating moment because the world is falling apart or because we're heading to some, I don't know, better place. How do you see it?
SHARPTON: I think it is incited because the world is falling apart. And I hope that we can bring it to where we're going to a better place. I think one of the things that inadvertently helped it - everyone was shut in and shut down and was home watching the news. So people began seeing this tape of this man laying on the ground with a knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. I think the outrageous behavior of it, coupled with the fact that there was this captive audience globally, is what really prompted a lot of people because had we not been in a pandemic, I don't know if the same amount of people would have seen the actual tape and the footage that actually happened.
INSKEEP: I want people to know that in this book, you address a lot of current issues but put it in the context of your own life. And in passing, you make a kind of confession about yourself early in this volume. You note that you became a preacher in your teens. You were preaching to people at a very young age. But you did not seriously begin to study the Bible until your 20s. I'm curious what you were doing before that, if you were preaching.
SHARPTON: Well, I was preaching, and I was - I had read, obviously, and knew the scriptures. But I think it was my mentors, as I got older, that said, yeah, but go and delve into the meaning of the Scriptures. So when you're a boy preacher, you know the rhetoric, but you don't know the substance behind it. And what I wanted to, after I got in my 20s, is not be just a performer, but one that was really orating and bringing to the public the substance of it. So I could accurately talk about the battle of David and Goliath, but not really going into the mishaps of David and the fact that he was an unlikely person even fighting Goliath and what Goliath represented.
I think that it is very important that you have substance as well as style and not just be a show person, but be able to use your showmanship to drive something bigger than that and attract people to some context and content.
INSKEEP: You're pretty open here. You note that there was a time when people regarded you as a con man; maybe some people still do. There was a time when you were sued for your remarks about people in a famous case in New York City in the '80s and had to pay damages. I think I hear you saying that you learned something from that time. Do you feel like you're a different person than you were then?
SHARPTON: No, I'm the same person with a different understanding and maturity because I was always sincere and passionate, but I was not as cautious and studious. As you grow in profile and age, you also have to be cautious that you're going to be scrutinized. If you're really passionate about what you're fighting for, you want to do things to solve it, not just express or vent your feelings.
INSKEEP: Can I ask about one other thing, Reverend Sharpton, that grows out of your eulogy for George Floyd? You said at one point in that eloquent eulogy, God always uses unlikely people to work his will. But when I heard you say that, I thought of white evangelicals who will often use that same sentence or something like it about President Trump. They will say, you may not like this man; he may even be a terrible person, but God uses unlikely people, and he's working in a certain way. What do you think about when you hear people say that about President Trump?
SHARPTON: I would say that you would have to then say that you feel that God is against some of what - creators that he created because President Trump has been used to divide people based on who they are and what they are, and that is inconsistent with my belief that God pours out his spirit among all flesh. And I feel that it is important that we understand that is, to me, not the use of God.
What I said with George Floyd is no one - if you were casting characters at a movie in Hollywood, you would not choose a George Floyd as the character that could change the country to having this serious dialogue around policing. But he became that symbol. And all throughout the Bible, whether it was David who was - even his father didn't see much promise in him, whether it was any of the characters in the Bible and many times in history - it's people that didn't have what we consider the proper or well-groomed background that were the ones that changed the world.
INSKEEP: Reverend Al Sharpton's new book is called "Rise Up: Confronting A Country At The Crossroads." Pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much.
SHARPTON: Pleasure's mine. Thank you.
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