THE REJECTED STONE: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership
First published in The New York Daily News
Al Sharpton exclusive book excerpt:
From boy preacher to Tawana Brawley to the White House Super Bowl party
Let 'emotions control me' in famous rape-charge case; thought cops were 'killing me' when stabbed at Yusuf Hawkins rally
These days, you can find the Rev. Al Sharpton hosting a cable TV talk show, you see him at presidential fund-raisers and inaugurals.
But it wasn’t always that way. In these excerpts from his new book, “The Rejected Stone,” Sharpton touches on various stops of his life journey, from child preacher to time on the road with James Brown, through the Tawana Brawley scandal, from his own brush with death during a march for slain teenager Yusuf Hawkins to the White House Super Bowl party.
My preaching career started at the age of four, when Bishop Washington allowed me to stand on a box at the pulpit and sermonize to a congregation of 900 people on the anniversary of the junior usher board.
When I started to become known in the community as the boy preacher, it was not looked on kindly by my classmates. Their reaction ranged from outrage to amusement, with a bit of everything in between.
I never got beaten up, but they clearly thought I was a strange kid. They were either laughing at me or trying to avoid me. It wasn’t helped by my insistence in writing Rev. Alfred Sharpton at the top of my papers in school, which upset my teachers so much for some reason that my mother had to come to school to intervene.
It was my first real confrontation with authority, but it was also affirming for me, my insistence that I was something, someone of worth, despite the rejection by my father, despite the craziness that my life had become.
My growing identity as a boy preacher undoubtedly helped my self-esteem at the time, but it also increased the sense of isolation I was feeling. It put me further out of step with my contemporaries, made me an oddity. After all, I was their mothers’ preacher on Sunday. How were they supposed to act toward me on Monday?
Bishop Washington took me under his wing, with the intent of nurturing and guiding me so that one day I could succeed him as pastor of the church and maybe even become a bishop in the Church of God in Christ.
I began to do the church circuit, preaching at different churches in the area. That’s when I went on the road at the age of nine with Mahalia Jackson, traveling with the most famous gospel singer in the world as her opening act, as the astounding boy preacher from Brooklyn.
I knew Mahalia was huge, but I had been preaching for so many years already that it became second nature to me. One of my distinct memories from that period was opening for Mahalia at the 1964 World’s Fair, at the circular pavilion and replica of the globe in Queens that you can still see when you fly into LaGuardia, next to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center where the U.S. Open is held.
This made a serious impression on my classmates. So what was at first odd and amusing soon became a reason to hold me in a certain amount of esteem, or at least respect. They’d point to me, saying, “There’s the boy preacher.” But no more “ha ha ha” to go along with it. Opening for Mahalia Jackson at age nine will do that for you.
The relationship I had with James Brown turned out to be one of the most meaningful associations I’ve had in my life, the one that shaped a lot of what I eventually became.
In 1973, when I was eighteen, James heard about my National Youth Movement and decided he wanted to help me raise money by doing a benefit concert. James seemed to really like me and took me under his wing. He started inviting me to his shows to help out, eventually bringing me all around the world with him and even appointing me his manager because he knew he could trust me.
Our relationship became like father and son. In fact, James’s father, Joe Brown, once said I brought out the best in James because he wanted to live up to my admiration of him.
Those years with James were a heady, glorious time for me. I learned a great deal about human nature, about business, about the black community, about the music industry, and I met huge stars in just about every field imaginable.
In fact, James was the one who told me to shorten my name to “Al.” Up to that point, I was known as Alfred Sharpton. “Reverend,” he said to me one day (he always called me Reverend). “Cut it to Al. You don’t need four bars (as in Al-fred Sharp-ton). Just Al Sharpton. Alfred’s too much.”
If James Brown tells you to shorten your name for the aural benefits, you do it. From that day forward, I was Al Sharpton. ...
During the year and a half that I stayed with James, I was thrown smack in the middle of a teenager’s dream: nights in Vegas, parties in Hollywood, shows in London. I was there when he left to perform before the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight, the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.” I was nineteen, and I was a player at some of the most intoxicating cultural events of our time. Can you imagine? He was one of the biggest figures in the entertainment industry and I was his right hand. What more could a kid ask for?
But I wasn’t happy. I knew this was not what God intended for me, to be a road manager/assistant for James Brown. There were bigger things in store for me, a path that I needed to begin to walk. That’s why I say don’t get hypnotized by the shiny objects, the so-called bling. It would have been easy for me to stick around and live large, but it didn’t feed my spirit. So I left James and went back to my mother’s place in Brownsville, Brooklyn. James couldn’t believe it.
“Oh, he’ll be back,” James told the people around him. “He can’t make a living.”
Whether it was my search for a father figure or for a clearer idea of how to turn myself into a great civil rights activist, one big lesson I took away from all of the men I followed early in my life was the notion that in order to rise, I had to be focused and intentional and committed to a cause greater than myself.
The word focus here is key. It’s something I believe I was lacking early in my career, when I too often allowed my emotions to control me. That was a mistake I made with one of the cases with which my name became indelibly linked: Tawana Brawley.
If I had it to do over again, there are things I would do differently, knowing what I now know about human nature, about the criminal justice system, about the media. The entirety of the case hinged on whether this young black girl in Upstate New York had been violated, as she said she was, by a white police officer, among others. Sensational stuff, sure, but there’s no way I would ever turn my back on a young teenage girl in need, even if her claims were going to turn into an explosive media story.
That’s just not in my nature. But my first miscalculation was in making the case so personal — us against Robert Abrams, the special prosecutor. The lawyers I was working with and I did a whole lot of name-calling. In these instances, the right approach is to fight the case, not demonize the actors. Because when you allow it to become personal, you take away from the objective. Here’s a young lady who says she was violated. Let’s deal with the facts, what we know. You can conduct an investigation and try to determine what happened to her, but you can’t just ignore it because she said the perpetrators were law enforcement. That’s what we feared was happening, that the authorities were automatically dismissing her as a liar.
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Copyright © 2013 by Reverend Al Sharpton. From the forthcoming book THE REJECTED STONE: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership by Reverend Al Sharpton to be published by Cash Money Content, LLC.