I say, no, I’m the ambulance. Because people called me. I have never got involved in a case, whether it was 30-some years ago with Howard Beach all the way to Trayvon [Martin] and Eric Garner, that the family didn’t call me. So when people say, “Oh, Sharpton just wants publicity” — exactly. Nobody calls me to keep their issue silent. Or: “You’re a publicity seeker.” You’re doggone right! They used to call Dr. King that. I’m not comparing myself to Dr. King, but the public attention and publicity — that’s a tactic.
They talk about a lot of things in the media. For years, you would have thought that I caused World War I, II, III and the Korean War — all in one night. But they don’t talk about [how] I got stabbed leading a march in Bensonhurst. I’ve been arrested at demonstrations maybe 30 times. Twice I had to do 30 days in jail. Once I had to do 90 days, for leading the sit-in in Vieques. So when they come with all this “opportunism,” who can pay you to take a knife in your chest? What they gonna pay you? Who can pay you to take three months in jail away from your kids? So, yeah, you’re going to be called an ambulance chaser. Yeah, you’re going to be called an opportunist. That comes with the territory. But at the end of the journey, I want people to say, you know, he had flaws, he did right, he did wrong. Sometimes was too abrasive. But he did make the country deal with criminal justice. And he did bring the veil off of Northern racism. The rest of the stuff, I’ll accept. I can handle it.
What is something that people may not know about you?
I’m still very, very religious — a lot more conservative in terms of religion than people think. Not conservative in the sense of fundamentalist gospel, but really practicing a spiritual life. First thing I do every morning is pray. I do a lot of reading the Bible. I met an Indian yogi who taught me how to chant “Om.” And every morning after I read the King James version of the Bible, I do “Om.” I’m sure the fundamentalists that’ll read this will say, “What’s he doing ‘Om’?” And the guys at meditation, “What’s he reading the Bible?” But I figure out my own formula, I guess.
I’m very boring. I work out before dawn every morning. I’m very regimented. Everything is work. I mean, I’ll go to a Broadway opening, and I’ll do the red carpet and go out the back door and never see the play or the picture. That’s just me.
What advice do you give others?
You’ve got to make a decision of what you’re committed to and the tactics you really believe will get you there. And know that there’s going to be an upside and downside. But you just keep going. I tell all the young activists that make a good speech, do a great interview, I may even put you on my show, but I want to see if you can take a punch. I want to see when you look at a front page and they’re lying on you. Can you take that? I want to see when people you care about say, “I can’t be seen with you.” Can you take that? Can you take nights in jail when you don’t know if anybody’s outside?
I got to know Muhammad Ali when I was a kid. And I remember I was down in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. He had a training camp there. And I went into the gym one day, and there was a guy in the ring that looked good to me. I said, “Champ, that guy’s good. That guy’ll be a champ one day.” And I’ll never forget it. Ali said, “Well, he’s good, fast, good left jab, but let’s see if he can take a punch.” Because real leaders got to learn how to take blows, not just throw them.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
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