(Photo by Rayon Richards)
"I don't know if I would have brought Al Sharpton on to do a show!" Rev. Al Sharpton himself admitted this fall at the one-year anniversary party of his MSNBC nightly program, PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton, according to the New York Observer. His civil rights accomplishments over the past four decades have at times been overshadowed by his public missteps and inflammatory rhetoric, but this election cycle a more focused, slimmer Sharpton, 58, has brought even his adversaries -- like Newt Gingrich -- on his show for thoughtful debate. Huffington spoke with him about what gets him out of bed each day, including voter suppression attempts, marriage equality and the elusive notion of a post-racial America.
- Leigh Owens
Why in 2012 are we still having to fight for the right to vote?
I think that it is something that is unbelievable, but at the same time we realistically have to deal with. There are forces that never wanted to see women, blacks and Latinos vote, and I think that we’re seeing a 21st-century version of how they intend to at least minimize that vote... This is one of the real fights of our time, to maintain our right to vote.
We’re in post-racial America because we have a black president, right?
That’s right. And to me, the sad part is, not only has a lot of White America bought into we’re in post-racial America, a lot of Black and Latino America has bought into it. And therefore, with guys like me that are out there, people say, “Oh they’re just causing trouble.” No, we’re about to lose it all.
What is it going to take to awaken people?
As people hear it, that’s one of the reasons why I work 18-hour days and do radio, TV and NAN [National Action Network, his nonprofit civil rights organization]. People hear it, they wake up. A lot of it is communicating. For example, we did the voter ID march reenacting the Selma to Montgomery march in March of this year. When I got back to New York, after we did 10 days doing the march and had a big rally in Montgomery really making the voter ID thing a national issue. When I got back to New York, I got a call from Ben Crump and the parents of Trayvon Martin. I’d never heard of the case. And when they told me about the case, and I said, “Alright I’ll help make it national.” I brought the family up, put them on my TV show. Michael Baisden, Tom Joyner and I hit the airways and called for a rally. 30,000 people came to Sanford [Florida]. I didn’t even know where Sanford was. Once people hear it, and once you mobilize, people will come out.
In terms of marriage equality, as a religious leader but also as an activist, have you ever had a period in your career where you felt conflicted?
I came out for marriage equality in 2003. I was not always there. But I have a member of my family that was gay who told me, “Why is it that my mate and I can build a life, and if something happens to me where I’m not in charge of my health, they can’t make decisions for me? Or that we can build wealth together but then we can’t share it together?” That’s what started changing me. Why do I need the permission of your beliefs to operate my life? And suppose if I come to power, can then I make laws against you being a Baptist? So I came out in 2003, and I went into the Democratic primary in 2004 raising this issue. I had black ministers tell me, “I’m not going to let you preach in my church for that,” and I told them fine. I’ve seen a growth now in the faith community. You have others that are adamant, others that come out when the president came out. Eventually other civil rights groups have come out. But we’ve been there a long time. You cannot be a civil rights activist and not be for civil rights for everybody.
What would you say to the Chick-Fil-A CEO?
I would say that you have the right to your beliefs, but you don’t have the right to impose those beliefs. That good ministers convert people, they don’t force them. Even God gives you a choice. So why do we remove the choice from people? In what name do we say that by law, we’re going to make people do things?
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.