Icons of the 1980s

Tawana Brawley
'80s Claim to Fame:
Controversial Civil Rights Activist


Alfred (Al) Sharpton, Jr. , is a Pentecostal minister, political and civil rights activist, first African American candidate for the New York State Senate.

Al Sharpton has made a career of placing himself at the front line of the struggle against injustice by lower and middle-income African Americans. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Sharpton began preaching at the age of four and spent his early years as a "wonder boy" sensation on the Pentecostal preaching circuit. In 1964, when he was ten years old, Sharpton was ordained as a minister and preached on a tour with famed gospel music performer Mahalia Jackson. But also that year, the divorce of his parents propelled Sharpton from middle-class comfort in Queens to public welfare and a housing project in Brooklyn. Having lived in better circumstances, he knew that black poverty was not inevitable and he vowed to fight for improved living and working conditions for African Americans. In 1969 civil rights leader Jesse Jackson appointed Sharpton as youth director for Operation Breadbasket, an organization that boycotted and demonstrated against businesses that were not hiring blacks.

After high school and a few years at Brooklyn College, in 1971 Sharpton began his own organization, the National Youth Movement. After meeting soul singer James Brown in 1973, Sharpton became his touring manager and continued in this role until the early 1980s, all the while continuing his political activism.

Sharpton formally entered politics in 1978 as the first African American to run for a seat in the New York State Senate. In the 1980s Sharpton became involved in a series of racial incidents that occurred in various New York neighborhoods. In 1986 he organized demonstrations and called for a special prosecutor in the aftermath of the Howard Beach incident, in which a crowd of whites chased a black man named Michael Griffiths onto a highway, where he was struck and killed by a vehicle. Two years later Sharpton served as an adviser to Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who claimed she had been abducted and raped by a gang of whites. Sharpton's credibility came into question when a grand jury found no evidence of any crime against Brawley. Sharpton also played a prominent role in the protests that followed the 1989 shooting death of Yusuf Hawkins, a black youth who was attacked by a white mob in the Bensonhurst section of New York City. In January 1991 Sharpton was preparing to lead a protest march in Bensonhurst when a drunken white man attacked Sharpton and stabbed him in the chest. After this incident, Sharpton began to refine and tone down his controversial public image.

In 1991 Sharpton founded the National Action Network, a civil rights organization that seeks economic justice and political empowerment for the disenfranchised. Continuing to pursue a career in politics in the 1990s, Sharpton ran unsuccessfully in the 1992 and 1994 Democratic primaries for the U.S. Senate from New York. Meanwhile, in 1993 he served a well-publicized 45-day jail sentence resulting from a 1987 protest march that shut down the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1997 Sharpton made an impressive showing in the city's Democratic mayoral primary, winning 32 percent of the vote. More recently, Sharpton led large demonstrations against police brutality in the New York Police Department following the police torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997 and the shooting of unarmed Ghanaian immigrant Amadou Diallo by four New York City policemen in 1999.

See also:

Tawana Brawley Bio

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