02 February 2023

The Gospel according to Al Sharpton

(Al Sharpton, part one)


One of the things ... that I’ve always had to deal with is, critics would say, “All Al Sharpton wants is publicity.” Well, that’s exactly what I want. Because nobody calls me to keep a secret. — Rev. Al Sharpton, 2020 (from the 2022 film Loudmouth).

Before the summer of 2004, as I hinted in my 2004 post about Al Sharpton, my impressions of him as a preacher and public figure reflected what those critics were saying. Probably most (but not all) of those critics were White people, perhaps feeling the heat of his rhetoric. Until Sharpton's speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I think I lazily assumed that this conventional criticism was more or less correct.

Yesterday, I watched much of Tyre Nichols's funeral in Memphis. It made a deep impression on me for a number of reasons: It was the expression of a community's grief over a full-on tragedy. Its cultural context was the Black church in the USA, with all the modes of expression available in this culture. (It was also a political event, with speakers giving explicit support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which seemed utterly appropriate in that setting and in that situation.) But what kept me from feeling an outsider/voyeur was that the funeral was, above all, a Christian celebration of life and faith.

Therefore, I listened to Al Sharpton's eulogy as a fellow minister. I wanted to follow his spiritual and scriptural grounding as well as his words of comfort to Tyre's family (and relatives of others killed by police actions, also in attendance), the connections he made with Memphis history and Martin Luther King, and, finally, his prophetic message yesterday to all his audiences.

Three central themes emerged in his sermon, all tied to Genesis 37, the story of Joseph left by his brothers to die in the pit: 

First, the sacrifices made by King and others to end segregation in Memphis law enforcement and politics, and the betrayal of those sacrifices by the police who fatally wounded Tyre Nichols;

Second, the desire of Tyre, of George Floyd, of perhaps all of us to "go home," to be back in our mothers' care, to be safe, to question the forces that make us unsafe;

Third, the perspective of Martin Luther King's last speech in Memphis, April 3, 1968, when King said he had been to the mountain top. Sharpton called us all to be mountain climbers. "Don't stop 'til we get to the top."

Yesterday's funeral, and Al Sharpton's eulogy, reminded me that I'd heard about a recent film about Al Sharpton. I downloaded and watched it today: Loudmouth.

All the preacher does is take biblical stories and use the story to therefore get to the moral message, or the ethical message they’re projecting. I transfer that into social justice, whether it is Michael Griffith being killed in Howard Beach, or whether it’s somebody choked to death by a cop in Staten Island years later, Eric Garner. It is the story, but the issue is racial violence. But you need the story to make the issue live. — Rev. Al Sharpton, 2022 (from Loudmouth)

As critics have pointed out, Loudmouth is not a journalistic documentary. It makes no claim to be objective. I would call it a video memoir, with lots of archival footage from Sharpton's emergence as a teenage youth leader through George Floyd's funeral and a bit beyond. Woven into the historical segments are commentaries from Sharpton, which he delivers directly into the camera for this film, and which form the framework of the film.

Tom Snyder (Tomorrow Coast to Coast, 1981): Are you in any way predicting a long hot summer? You’re not predicting urban strife, you’re not predicting disorder, anything like that?

Al Sharpton: Well, what I’m saying is, you know, at home you have an oven. There are flames on top of the oven, and there’s heat in the oven. We always discuss whether there’d be a flame on the top, and don’t discuss that it’s already 600 degrees inside. 

The film is undeniably a setup for a positive presentation by Sharpton of his own legacy as an activist, and doesn't pretend to inventory all his pluses and minuses as a human being, minister, or celebrity. There's a brief confrontation with a critic who points out his wealthy lifestyle, to which he replies that he and his movement worked hard to open up access to those things. The film does pay significant attention to the Tawana Brawley controversy, and in a comment to the camera he addresses the controversy directly, if (to my mind) very incompletely.

Another important point of self-revelation was the contrast between his early rhetoric and the course he followed after getting some important advice from Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King's widow. As he tells the camera, she said:

“Al, do you realize that words have power? So you ought to be careful with that.” She says, “You can either go for the crown” (that we talk about in Christianity) “or you can go for the crowd.” 

However much he softened his rhetoric, some things did not change.

The question that I always hear from Whites: “Reverend Al, why do you make everything about race?” And the Black question that’s just as troubling is: “Why are you doing that? Ain’t nothing going to change.” It’s somewhere between these two questions that I’ve had to do a lot of my work in activism … to explain to Whites that every Black born in America is born into “it’s all about race.” (2022)

That things do change is part of Sharpton's testimony in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd:

But I’m more hopeful today than ever. Why? Well, let me go back—Reverend Jackson always taught me, “stay on your text.” Going back to my text, Ecclesiastes. There is a time and a season. And when I looked this time and saw marches where in some cases Whites outnumbered the Blacks marching, I know that it’s a different time and a different season. When I looked and saw people in Germany marching for George Floyd, it’s a different time and a different season. When they went in front of the Parliament in London, England, and said it’s a different time and a different season, we need to go back to Washington and stand up in the shadows of Lincoln, and tell them, this is the time of building accountability in the criminal justice system. (2020)

Yesterday, Sharpton told the mourners at Tyre Nichols's funeral to keep climbing the mountain, as he himself intends to do. At the end of Loudmouth, he thinks about what he will have left behind when he reaches the end of his own path on earth.

… And when I see my mentors in Heaven, I can tell them, I got some stuff done.

After nearly six decades of activism, Rev. Al Sharpton has lots of admirers, and also many critics. The comments on the YouTube page with the trailer for Loudmouth include a sampling of typical reactions to this divisive figure. The Internet has an ample stash of harsh criticisms of Sharpton, some of them probably justified, but I see Loudmouth as a fascinating, coherent, very worthwhile presentation of his own side of the ledger—in the context of a country where racism, though weakened, remains embedded as a satanic stronghold. As a Christian minister in the Quaker tradition, struggling to reach the mountain top, I see Sharpton—with all his complications—as a mutual ally. His errors and excesses may be partly his own, but (for example, in the Brawley case), I see them also as an aspect of the smoke and chaos that racism continues to generate, that obscures the view and frustrates the designs of activists and observers alike. I'd rather have imperfect prophets than none at all.

Those that oppress us had the nerve to try and advise us on how we ought to try to get free from them. We are intelligent enough not to let you tell us what tactics that you are comfortable with…. (1986)

Related: Here on YouTube is the interview Tom Snyder did in 1981 with Rev. Al Sharpton, Muhammad Ali, and James Brown, from which Loudmouth took the clip about the 600-degree oven.

Melissa Harris-Perry interviews Al Sharpton and Loudmouth director Josh Alexander.

... And Ed Pilkington (of The Guardian) interviews Al Sharpton about the (then) upcoming film.

More sad and difficult revelations about abuses connected to Jean Vanier and the cult he participated in. Today's L’Arche movement as a whole seems not to have been compromised.

Yet another venerable human rights institution in Russia may be falling victim to repression. The Sakharov Center, already designated a "foreign agent," has been asked to vacate its premises.

John Kinney's take on the parable of the talents.

Greg Morgan on dying and unfinished business.

Mavis Staples with Rick Holmstrom's band: "I'll Take You There."


Bill Samuel said...

Sometimes we get caught up in false binaries. A person is either good or bad. Most people are some mixture. Someone can do a lot of good and we can still have questions about some aspect related to them. Al Sharpton is someone who has worked for decades on the very real problem of racism in our country. That is to be lauded even if there are specific things in his life that we may have some questions about.

Phil McLain said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective, Johan.