"If we do not go from demonstration and couple it with legislation, history will say we had a summer of discontent and nothing happened," Sharpton says

By Sam Gillette
October 12, 2020 12:48 PM
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The Rev. Al Sharpton
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The Rev. Al Sharpton is many things: headline-grabbing civil rights activist and erstwhile politician and TV and radio host; sharply dressed and sharp-tonged and ever-outspoken; sometimes controversial, inflammatory and even notorious.

But maybe before he is anything else, he is always at work.

Sharpton's latest book, Rise Up: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads, is both a call to action and an ode to the Black lives lost to racial violence. 

In an interview with PEOPLE, Sharpton discusses Rise Up, published late last month, as well as his thoughts on the Breonna Taylor case and the long road to equality that he says is tied to the results of the Nov. 3 election. (If President Donald Trump is re-elected, it will be "catastrophic," he says.)

"The police need to be brought to justice. The police [officer] that shot recklessly needs to be prosecuted," Sharpton, 66, says of the decision by a Kentucky grand jury to charge only one of the three officers involved in Taylor's fatal shooting.

(The state attorney general overseeing that case — who has drawn criticism for his approach — has said the officer who fatally shot Taylor, as well as another officer at the scene, were returning fire from her boyfriend. He said the officers "were justified in their return of deadly fire after having been fired upon by Kenneth Walker." The officer who was charged is accused of wanton endangerment, for firing into an adjacent apartment.)

Taylor, a 26-year-old aspiring nurse who had been working as an emergency medical technician, died after police officers entered her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13.

Her killing — while police were actually looking for a former boyfriend who wasn’t there — and the high-profile deaths of a number of unarmed Black people at the hands of the police in recent months touched off nationwide protests.

Breonna Taylor
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Sharpton compares the case to the 1998 shooting on the New Jersey Turnpike, in which four Black and Hispanic men were shot at by state troopers without cause. (In 2006, the men won a $12.95 million settlement in their lawsuit against the state.)

His point: None of this is new.

"What is frustrating is that there seems to be so many people that don't understand that this kind of movement happened before," Sharpton says of the Black Lives Matter movement. "It is larger this time, and I'm very happy to see that it's more diverse this time."

"If we do not go from demonstration and couple it with legislation, history will say we had a summer of discontent and nothing happened," adds Sharpton, who called for police reform during his speech on the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington in August. "What made the '63 March on Washington work was that it led to the '64 Civil Rights Act and the '65 Voting Rights Act."

Sharpton emphasizes this in Rise Up, which includes lessons from his own decades-long activism career. He also provides insights into top political players that he's encountered, like President Trump, former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But, mostly, his book shows readers how past and present struggles should guide Americans as they continue the fight for equality for all — and prepare to vote in the November presidential election.

"In this upcoming political season, this is not just about a regular race. It is not about an election. It's about a direction," he says, unsparing in his assessment of Trump's administration. "We have, in the last three years, been bending, going back toward a role of rescinding all of that [we've won]. Voting rights is at risk, LGBTQ rights at risk, certainly civil rights when it comes to equal protection under the law is at risk, gender rights at risk. We've got to decide which road are we going to travel."

For decades, Sharpton has been noted for his relentless place in the spotlight, bringing cases of racial injustice into the national conversation. His career has also been shadowed by scandal, most infamously for his role in the case of a teenage girl making unsubstantiated claims of gang rape in the late '80s.

Speaking with The New York Times in 2018, he stood by his role with that girl.

“Why did I get involved with [her]?” Sharpton told the paper. “Because I believe the criminal justice system is unfair.”

He said then: "If I had to choose between a 15-year-old black girl and a white legal system that has always done us wrong, I’m going with her."

Sharpton has been criticized as a race-baiter and performer. In past decades, he also used anti-Semitic rhetoric and has been accused of inciting violence against Jewish people.

More recently, he has denounced attacks on Jewish people and, in Rise Up, he writes of meeting with former Vice President Al Gore and being confronted about the perception of bias. "We agreed that our records spoke for themselves; we both had perceived baggage—fair or unfair—in our various communities," Sharpton writes.

Elsewhere in the book, he writes, "We will never be the same, but everyone—gay, straight, Jewish, Evangelical, white, Latino, black, lower-class, and upperclass—should have equal protection under the law."

Regardless of those past issues, families continue see him as a valuable champion for their quest for racial justice, bringing national attention to cases that might otherwise slip through the cracks.

Sharpton gave the eulogy at George Floyd's funeral in June, which he included in the book. (Floyd died in Minneapolis after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, sparking national fury.)

And at the March on Washington in August, Sharpton worked with Martin Luther King III to gather together victims' families. Floyd's family spoke, as well as the loved ones of Taylor and other Black people whose families say they were killed unjustly, including Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner.

Speaking with the Times in 2018, in a rhetorical turn, Sharpton said: "Whatever you want to say about Al Sharpton, the reason he’s sustained all these years is because he deals with stuff that y’all have not stopped. You want to make him go away? Why don’t you stop killing blacks then?"

RELATED VIDEO: 1 Officer Charged, 2 Cleared in Shooting Death of Breonna Taylor, Grand Jury Decides

The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks at the 2020 march on Washington, officially known as the “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks,” at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
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"These are the victims that still show Dr. King's dream has not been achieved," Sharpton tells PEOPLE now of the anniversary march, held virtually this summer. "And we're standing in his exact spot he made the 'I Have a Dream' speech with tens of thousands of people."

As the election approaches, Sharpton says that former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, needs to be "more assertive" and needs to do more to reach Black voters. But he describes Trump, whom he's known for years, as a threat to all that he and other civil rights activists have accomplished. (Trump has a long history of racist and inflammatory language and has previously hesitated to condemn white supremacy.)

"It'd be catastrophic, because I think that Trump, knowing his personality and his narcissism, will feel that the fact that he race baited openly, that he never gave any sympathy and empathy to a police brutality victim, and that he ignored complaints of voter suppression, was all validated by the people," Sharpton says of the president winning the White House for the next four years. "He would only go further. He would feel that this is how people have confirmed that we want to govern. They've chosen this role."

Rise Up is on sale now.