There is a quiet scene in Ava DuVernay’s Selma that speaks powerfully to our current civil rights moment. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. takes an evening drive through the city with activist and future U.S. Congressman John Lewis, the more agreeable but no less fiery half of the youthful Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee contingent depicted in the film. It is a respite that comes not long after “Bloody Sunday,” and King is understandably discouraged—the violent rebuke of voting-rights demonstrators seems to have broken his resolve. It’s then that the 25-year-old Lewis steps up and encourages King with his own words, taken from an earlier address. King was inspired by Lewis’ resolve; he’d obviously wanted to be drawn out of his despair.
Contrast that healing dialogue with Rev. Al Sharpton’s needlessly inflammatory remarks this week. The 60-year-old firebrand and host of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation” addressed a group of young people Monday at the Harlem office of the National Action Network, which he founded in 1991. What Sharpton said was only heard by those present and watching online, but thanks to a February 2 report by Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah, his words have found a nationwide audience.
“They are pimping you,” the reverend said, addressing the younger activists who have been increasingly visible and audible in the past year. He continued:
“I’ve been meeting with them and talking with them since. And they were told, ‘Your problem is Al Sharpton and the other guys.’ Anytime you have movements, whether it’s in Ferguson, whether it’s in New York, whether it’s in Denver, wherever it is, when they got you more angry at your parents then they got you at the vote you’re supposed to be out there for, you’re being tricked and you’re trying to turn the community into tricks. And they are pimping you, to do the Willie Lynch in our community.”
The “Willie Lynch” reference is a particularly loaded one, invoking an 18th-century slave owner who is reputed to have given a speech in 1712 advocating for the control of black slaves by setting them against one another. Lynch’s remarks are less a historical certainty than they are an effective rallying cry that hits home for a movement spread now across states and digital platforms. Sharpton gets that.
A lot of media coverage has been devoted to examining what has been deemed a generational gap between civil rights activists: Those who have come of age since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri last August, and the more publicly entrenched organizers like Sharpton. The reverend and younger leaders have come to a strategic impasse about who is leading the Black Lives Matter movement. Some personalities have challenged how the movement should manifest itself and how it should provoke change, leading to rightful suspicions that elder leaders were parachuting in belatedly to co-opt the hard work of younger people on the ground. In his report, Paybarah notes he’s witnessed how that tense dynamic has revealed itself in some ugly language from younger marchers, including cries of “Fuck Sharpton!” But the reverend’s Monday remarks made it plain that the problem hasn’t been one-sided.
I'd contend that the reverend stepped over a rhetorical line in his remarks, as when he likened the younger generation to “a ho” being played by a power structure—the “pimp”—that wants to see older leaders like him pushed aside. Sharpton and other older activists fear that the entire movement will suffer in the process. “They tell them what they want to hear,” he continued. “They don’t tell you, ‘I’m going to turn you out.’ They tell you, ‘You’re beautiful. Nobody appreciates you like I do. Look at you.'” He continued the metaphor, invoking all kinds of placating gifts associated with pimps and the people under their control.
In a phone conversation with me Tuesday night, Sharpton was critical of the Capital New York report, noting that young people have reacted with confusion to the article. (“We emphatically stand by Azi's story,” editor Josh Benson told me in a statement, adding that Paybarah emailed Sharpton's spokesperson—to no avail—asking for clarification about whether there were any specific young activists or organizations he was referring to in the speech.) But the reverend didn’t back away from the image. “I was telling them not to be treated like a second-class citizen,” he said. Sharpton added that there was one central message he sought to communicate that night: “Do not condemn the elders.”
Activist Johnetta Elzie, 25, is a likely target of Sharpton’s message. She played a pivotal role in organizing protests following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, and has since become a leading voice in what she told me is “a decentralized movement,” where “everyone has their own platform.” Frankly, that reminds me of the civil rights movement that actually happened in the sixties, the one that featured more diversity of gender, thought, and action than the reductionist “Martin-and-Malcolm” narrative I learned at school growing up. Elzie also led a successful disruption of one of Sharpton’s own rallies in Washington in December.
The reverend’s “pimping” remarks left her stunned, telling me that they were a “total erasure” of the work she and other young activists have been doing. “I don’t think this is going to help bridge any gaps between him and young people,” Elzie said. “All the other elders whom I’ve come into contact with, this analogy has never come up. I think ‘offensive’ is the best word I have for it.
“From what I’ve seen since August 9, being that this is my first time being on the ground, putting my body where my Twitter activism was and answering the call to action, I don’t think that the community has been turned into anyone’s ‘trick,’” she added. “There's a protest community. We are learning our strengths and our weaknesses together. We talk about legislation and bills, and folks who were not following politics now are.”
What Elzie describes is reminiscent of Sharpton’s own early activism, when he was appointed, at the age of 13, as the youth director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket, where he worked alongside the more established Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The furor of Black Lives Matter has been so loud that President Obama himself not only took a meeting with organizers last year but also addressed police brutality in his State of the Union address. Through his Justice Department, the Obama administration has made noticeable, if flawed public gestures towards police reform.
No one is pretending that enough has been done, especially given signs of a national numbing to the fatal encounters unarmed black men like Jerame Reid—a motorist who was shot and killed by police in South Jersey with his hands up and a camera filming. Sharpton’s remarks come at a tipping point for this incarnation of a long civil rights struggle, when the media attention, nationwide planning, grassroots networking, and trending hashtags hope to speed concrete change.
That is why Sharpton’s protestation about his prominence in police reform protests here in New York City rang hollow to me when we spoke. “Nobody’s been more against (NYPD Commissioner William) Bratton than me,” he told me. “There’s no one that has gotten more scorn than I have." That’s all well and good, but has pissing people off become the principal payoff?
Another prominent organizer, 29-year-old DeRay McKesson, had been hoping for a détente. He lamented Sharpton’s approach to the energy of young activists like himself. “I do not dislike Al Sharpton as a person, because I do not know Al Sharpton as a person. But his self-interested public persona and his tendency to center himself in narratives of black struggle remain deeply problematic,” McKesson wrote to me. “Everyone has a role to play in the fight for social justice.” Referencing Sharpton’s early youth empowerment work in the late sixties and early seventies, McKesson added, “It is unfortunate that Sharpton has chosen to silence the very voices that just 40 years ago he worked so hard to empower.”
Along those lines, Elzie said, “I suppose you wouldn’t know if you don’t know the people. You won’t know what’s going on in the community if you don’t know the folks you’re talking about. That’s not fair, especially with him having such a large platform. This is not community building.”
Sharpton’s experience and history of activism does not elevate him beyond criticism. He should take a note from that Selma scene, and show the respect that he himself expects. That won’t happen when the young people ostensibly working towards shared goals are belittled in a patriarchal rant, deprived of any agency, and taken for suckers.