Who Is Al Sharpton?

Dec. 31, 2004 -- The Rev. Al Sharpton says he became an activist very young.

When he was a child, his parents separated. His mother was left with no money. She and her two children were forced to move into a much poorer neighborhood. It was his firsthand experience with a lack of public services as a child, the Democratic presidential candidate says, that led him toward political activism.

"I was outraged they didn't pick up the garbage on time or that you would call for an ambulance, and it wouldn't come for another hour. Or you'd call for the police, they didn't come. Because I had lived in a neighborhood where I knew they picked up the garbage every day. And the police did come, and the ambulance did come."

"The difference gave me a sense of outrage that probably fueled me at 12 or 13 to join the civil rights movement," he said. "Because I knew people were being treated unfairly, 'cause I had directly lived it."

Mentors and Father Figures

He learned about manhood, he says, from several men. One was his church pastor, Bishop Washington. Another was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom Sharpton met and worked for in the civil rights movement in the New York chapter of Jackson's Operation Bread Basket. Another was singer James Brown.

Sharpton was Brown's tour manager from 1973 to 1980. "He became like a father I never had," Sharpton said. "So, by '70, late '73, I'm flying around in his private jet. Coming home twice a month. Running my youth movement. Back out doing things on the road with him. And it started a long relationship that's lasted 30 years." Sharpton recently performed an impression of Brown on Saturday Night Live.

Sharpton is married and has two daughters. The family, as a unit, seems to shy away from personal publicity. But Sharpton is accustomed to the spotlight. He was a preacher when he was 4 years old. He was ordained as a minister when he was 10.

A Racially Charged Case

In the 1980s, Sharpton was involved in a series of very highly publicized racially charged criminal cases. The most controversial was that of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old girl who said she had been abducted and raped by white men. Sharpton made her a cause. He was accused of reckless accusation. A jury finally decided that it didn't happen.

Steven Pagones, one of the white men accused of raping Brawley, successfully sued for Sharpton for defamation.

Sharpton says he has no reason to apologize for his involvement in the case.

"I believed her," Sharpton said. "She stated who did it. She stated why. And I represented what I believed. I never understood why he or others would say I should apologize for her."

Sharpton doesn't apologize for much. He is more concerned, he says, with what he believes he stands for as a man who has made it up from the bottom.

"Somebody gave me a dream," he said. "Didn't have money. Didn't have skills. Didn't have connections. But I had a dream. And when a kid believes in a dream it doesn't matter what he doesn't have, he'll get everything he needs. And one of the things I'm trying to do is reenergize the dream of young Americans. That's what will make this country work, if we learn how to dream again."