>> He is famous for showing up on the front lines of protests, and sometimes infamous for showing up on the front pages.
This week on "Firing Line"... >> No justice!
>> No peace!
>> No justice!
>> No peace!
>> He's been fighting for civil rights for decades.
Reverend Al Sharpton started as a boy preacher in Brooklyn, New York, became known for his activism in the 1980s and his outspoken rhetoric.
>> You don't have none of us under control.
And you will never have us under control again.
[ Cheers and applause ] >> He founded the National Action Network... >> It shows the strength of our community.
>> ...ran for president, hosts a cable television program... >> Tonight's lead, the speaker and the spectacle.
>> ...and still preaches every Sunday.
>> If you be faithful over a few things, he'll make you ruler over many things.
>> Over the years, his tone has softened, but his mission hasn't changed.
>> No justice!
>> No peace!
>> No justice!
>> No peace!
>> We're better than we was, but we're not where we need to be.
>> What does Reverend Al Sharpton say now?
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> Reverend Al Sharpton, welcome to "Firing Line."
>> Well, thank you.
>> You have been on the front pages and the front lines for more than 50 years.
As you look back, how do you describe your life's work?
>> I would describe my life's work as a minister whose ministry was social justice.
My first calling in life was to be a preacher.
And I decided very young, I wanted to be in the social justice movement from a ministerial point of view.
That's what I see my life work as then and now.
>> You actually preached when you were 4 years old?
>> That's correct.
>> I don't know.
But, no, I would say, I was a member of Washington Temple Church of God in Christ, Pentecostal Church, the largest Black Pentecostal denomination in the world.
And they stood me on a box because I was too short to stand behind the pulpit, and I preached from St. John's 14th chapter, first verse, "Let not your heart be troubled.
You believe in God.
Believe also in me."
July 9th, 1959.
I'll never forget it.
And I've been preaching ever since.
By the time I was 7, I was preaching at different churches around Brooklyn, New York, and in the Tri-State area.
>> Your father left when you were young?
>> Left when I was 10.
We had, he was a businessman, owned a construction company and a corner store.
We moved to Queens, had a nice home.
He walked out with my step sister.
And my mother had to move my sister and I to the middle of Brownsville, Brooklyn.
And I grew up from that part on on welfare, using food stamps.
And my mother was wise enough to put male, strong male figures in my life.
>> It's been said that you actually have two fathers -- James Brown and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Tell me about your relationships with them both.
>> I met Reverend Jackson when I was 12, and Jesse Jackson was at that time twice my age.
He was about 25, 26.
And I liked him.
He was different than the other ministers.
He had a big afro, used to wear a medallion and turtleneck.
>> I may be poor.
>> I may be poor.
>> But I am... >> But I am... >> ...somebody.
>> I may be hungry.
>> And he wasn't interested in pastoring a church.
He never pastored a church.
And he had a rhythm that I liked.
So he was like a teacher to me, how you can do things dramatic but keep it nonviolent, how you address politics.
James Brown I met when I was 18.
>> James Brown had just lost a son.
>> He had just lost his son, Teddy, who was my age.
I think I became psychologically a replacement for Teddy to him.
He had other children, but Teddy was the same age and ambitious, and I was.
And I think with me he became the father I didn't have.
Because the only recreational memories I had of my father was he used to take me to the Apollo to see James Brown.
>> There's a new documentary film out called "Loudmouth."
>> You all say we're crazy.
You've driven us crazy.
400 years of abuse.
>> And, in the run up to this film, it has been said that you were approached on three conditions.
One, that you would have no editorial input into the film.
Two, that it would be written and directed by a white producer in California whose name is Josh Alexander.
And three, the title would be "Loudmouth."
And it has been said, or you have said, that you initially resisted the third condition.
But you came around to it.
>> That's true.
When they said the first two, I agreed.
No editorial control, fine.
Want a white producer because you want to make it a film that looks through the eyes of somebody totally objective and not even racially involved.
But "Loudmouth," I said, let me think about that.
And I thought about it, and I said, yeah, I'll go with that, I said, as long as you let me explain why "Loudmouth."
And I said, unlike the people I study, like Dr. King, like Reverend Jackson who mentored me, they were born in the South.
I was born and raised in New York.
In the South you could have a march or a rally, put out a press release, and it became an issue.
In New York, I'm competing with Broadway lights, Broadway theaters, Statue of Liberty, all kinds of things, Radio City.
You have to be loud and do things dramatic to even make an issue in New York.
So I had to be a loudmouth.
That was part of the strategy.
>> So, I had never thought about this, actually, until I heard that explanation.
But are you saying that the nature of fighting for civil rights in New York necessarily looks different than anywhere else in the country?
>> I think it is very different to anywhere else in the country because New York as a city is very different.
And New York had enjoyed this image of liberalism, because people assumed that all of the real visceral racism was in the South.
And those of us that were born and raised in New York knew that was not the case.
But how do you dramatize that or bring that to people without being loud and dramatic?
So when I would march in neighborhoods that did not want Blacks and they would come out by the hundreds, whites would come out by the hundreds, waving watermelons, saying the N-word at us.
It made our point.
And people around the country were saying, "I didn't know New York was like that."
It was one thing for executives in New York to say, "That's them down in Mississippi.
Isn't that a shame?
That's them down in Alabama."
What about right here in New York where you live?
And I think that's one of the reasons I was for so long was so controversial because I was taking the veil off of the northern racism that controlled the media, that controlled entertainment, that controlled finance, Wall Street here.
They did not want people to say, is that how you all behave in New York?
>> Well, that brings me to Howard Beach.
In 1986, a 23-year-old Black man named Michael Griffith ended up in an all white neighborhood because his car broke down.
And he was brutally attacked by a mob of white men and then in fleeing for his life, was hit by a car and killed.
>> Then Governor Mario Cuomo appointed a special prosecutor to handle the case.
And ultimately, nine convictions were handed down related to Griffith's death.
And you were at the front and center of the entire incident as it played out in the courts and in the media.
What do people today need to understand about the situation in Howard Beach, Queens, in 1986?
>> What they need to understand is when I got the call from someone close to Michael Griffith and I went out to see the family at their request, they were saying in the media, and put out there by the neighborhood, that maybe they were out here for no good, maybe they were trying to rob.
And I said, no, they were victims of racism.
And they said, but how do we prove that?
I said, "I know how to prove it.
We'll take a motorcade and go to Howard Beach."
They said, "What's that gonna do?"
I said, "Just let me do it."
And we called a march for that Saturday and 1,500 people.
And they were lined up on both sides of the street yelling the N-word, "Get out our neighborhood."
And you see in the documentary, they would say it right to the camera the N-word, they had no shame.
This was not anything.
And then I think when people saw that, the whole thing of, "Were they out there for no good?"
went away, which led to Governor Cuomo, Mario Cuomo, appointing a special prosecutor and led to some convictions.
>> Critics often say that you did what you did for publicity and you would say, "Yep, that's right."
>> That's exactly right.
>> Others say you try to infuriate people intentionally and you say, "Yep, that's exactly right."
>> And I say that to say, if there was not some racial fury there, how could I bring that out of them?
They did this.
I mean, for people, I marched in Bensonhurst, Yusef Hawkins case, 29 Saturdays consecutively, was stabbed by a guy there one time.
And every Saturday they were out there acting in a very racial way.
>> White power!
>> They saw the news and knew how they were being depicted.
They didn't care because they believed we did not belong in that neighborhood and they had the right to take things into their own hands, including trying to kill me.
I will never bow down to one of these chicken[bleep] Negroes that y'all have elected to one of these offices that have done nothing but kiss crackers' behinds all their life.
>> Your style has changed noticeably over the years, and that's evidenced through this documentary film.
You credit at least in part Coretta Scott King.
Tell me more about that.
>> I had made a decision that I was going to build an organization and I wanted to build it clearly around the principles of Dr. King, because sometimes as we fight in these cases, you get people from other ideological and tactical backgrounds.
And I said, "But I want a church base defined movement.
I began working very closely with Martin Luther King III, who was about three or four years younger than me, and he bonded me with his mother.
And I remember his mother was in New York, and we got into a conversation, and she had a way of talking to you where it was very clear what she was saying, but it wasn't offensive.
And she said her own majestic way, "Al, let me ask you something.
Why did you say this or that?"
And I said, "Well," and I was trying to explain it.
She says, "But that's not in the tradition of Martin and what we do."
I said, "Yeah, but you gotta understand, people are angry and I was angry."
She says, "In Christianity, we don't try to go for the crowd.
You're going for the applause.
We go for the crown -- to bring people to the level God would want us to be."
And this is Mrs. Coretta Scott King.
This is Martin Luther King's widow.
I think if anybody else had said that, I would probably be debating them till now.
But for her to take time and invest in me, I started changing a lot of how I would deal with language.
My tactics didn't change, but I didn't allow myself to use excessive language.
I was using the N-word and calling whites names, all of that.
I said, "That does not represent the message that we're doing."
And I think Mrs. King was the one that really made me have to deal with that.
>> She helped you change your rhetoric?
>> She helped me change my rhetoric, and she helped me take more seriously the tradition that I was representing that I grew up in.
>> Move out the way!
Stop the lies!
Women of color on the rise.
>> Of all the cases you've been front and center in, there's one that you write in your own words that you're indelibly linked to.
Of course, you know that the case is the case of Tawana Brawley.
>> Of course, she was a, at the time, a 15-year-old girl who alleged that she was kidnapped and repeatedly raped by six white men, including by law enforcement officers.
>> We are not going to let this girl be the scapegoat of a corrupt system!
>> You served as an adviser to her family and throughout the grand jury investigation, which ultimately found her story to be a hoax.
The recent film, you say to the camera that your position in the case has been distorted.
>> My position was that there was this allegation from this young lady.
There was really questionable behavior by some that she accused.
She deserved to have a day in court.
Let us bring the case to court.
And this prosecutor would not do that.
>> 35 years later... how do you understand what happened to Tawana Brawley?
>> I don't have any different understanding because a grand jury is not a trial.
And there's a famous saying by a judge in New York.
"You can indict a ham sandwich if you want to."
That same prosecutor charged me with taking money from my youth group, and we beat him in court.
So why would I believe what he did with the grand jury when I saw what he did to me?
>> You mean nothing has changed in 35 years?
>> Absolutely nothing.
>> Do you think that you were misled in the case of Tawana Brawley?
>> I have no evidence that I was misled.
>> But do you think she told you the truth?
>> Her lawyers who I've talked to.
I not going to ask a 15-year-old girl with all the details that you said.
I have no reason to feel she misled the lawyers.
>> If you believe nothing has changed in 35 years to Tawana Brawley, why wouldn't you be agitating for justice?
>> I would -- I believe that it never went to court.
And therefore we do not know what evidence was presented that backed up what he presented to a grand jury.
>> But the justice process determined that her accusations were a lie.
>> That is not the justice -- The justice system has a grand jury that says that they either believe or disbelieve what the prosecutor presents.
>> There is a sense that... well, this case, in your words, is indelibly linked to you, that the best posture for you and that you've decided is just not to apologize.
You said... That's a quote from you.
Tell me more about that.
>> Well, I think that you have to characterize me saying that in the right context.
First, what am I apologizing for?
Believing two lawyers that had just helped to win the case in Howard Beach?
So I should apologize?
I shouldn't believe them?
Should I apologize for believing the Central Park Five who was exonerated?
So what is -- tell me what an apology would sound like.
>> 35 years later, nothing has changed for you?
>> I think I've answered that.
In 1999, NYPD officers fired on an unarmed Black man, Amadou Diallo, 41 times.
They killed him.
All four officers in that case were acquitted.
And yet, 20 years later...after the death of another unarmed Black man, George Floyd... this time the officer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted.
Was the death of George Floyd a tipping point in the progress for American civil rights?
>> I think that it became a tipping point.
When I saw people all over the world, literally, marching.
And I remember when we used to do these cases, we may get a crowd in one or two cities, but this went global.
And I think the thing that struck me is that I would go to some rallies to speak, and there were more whites than Blacks.
And that's when I said, "This is something different now."
And unlike the Diallo case in 1999, we had a grand jury led by a prosecutor, indicted them, and then there was a trial.
And I remember preparing the family of George Floyd, and I was saying to them on the way to see the verdict, "Now, you know, they may get acquitted," because we'd gone through so many years of that.
And when I stood there and heard that judge say all three guilty, tears just started rolling down eyes because I believed maybe it all wasn't for nothing.
>> There's a record number of Black candidates who ran for Senate and governor in the midterm elections, but Black voter turnout actually fell.
Support for Democrats amongst Black men has fallen in every national election since 2012, as you well know.
You've warned about the trend.
Why are Democrats losing ground with nonwhite voters?
>> I think that a lot of Democrats have began trying to stay away from issues that are concerning to Blacks, thinking it will cost them votes in other areas.
And I've said to them that you cannot sacrifice your base, Black voters, to try to get people that may or may not vote for you.
And I think the evidence of it is that a lot of Black turnout went down.
Some of it may be caused by voter suppression tactics, some of it by a lack of enthusiasm.
And we say address our issues.
Talk to us.
People respond when you talk to them about their concerns.
>> And Democrats aren't doing that well enough?
>> And I don't think they've done it well enough.
Ironically, one person that has done it pretty well is Joe Biden.
Joe Biden has dealt forthrightly with the issue.
Joe Biden, the night he won, unprovoked by any of us, got on that stage and said, in the Black America, "I owe you because you came through for me."
You don't hear a lot of Democrats saying that in state races.
>> Well, he has a historic vice president in Kamala Harris, who actually polls lower amongst Black voters than Joe Biden does himself.
Why has she not been a catalyzing force for Black voters?
>> I think that the media puts her in a tricky position.
If she becomes too aggressive, she's not acting like a vice president because a vice president doesn't get out ahead of the president.
If she doesn't, then why isn't she doing more?
What did Joe Biden do when he was vice president?
He didn't get out ahead of Obama or what did Pence do?
>> Maybe he did on gay marriage.
>> Well, but that came -- that was leaked out.
That was not -- >> He said it in a "Meet the Press" interview!
>> He didn't go holding rallies.
I mean, they act like they want Kamala Harris to go out there and lead the charge.
She's doing what vice presidents do, and I think she's doing it well.
But I will say this.
I've known of Vice President Kamala Harris since she was running in California.
And one thing I can advise you is don't ever underestimate Kamala Harris.
>> Another person you've known for decades is Hakeem Jeffries, the new minority leader of the House of Representatives.
He was involved in National Action Network early on.
>> Tell me about your relationship with him.
>> I met Hakeem when he was a young man, a lawyer, was involved when we did the Diallo movement in the '90s and others.
And he would always say to me, "Now, Reverend Al, I'm not the guy to go to jail with you.
I'm not the guy to lay down in front of the barricades, but I will deal with policy, and I'm a lawyer."
He was always very balanced, very studious, very serious.
The Hakeem Jeffries you see now is the one we knew in Brooklyn 25 years ago.
He will tell you yes or no and stand behind what he says.
And I think he is probably one of most engaging political leaders we have on the American scene.
>> You mentioned Jesse Jackson.
Reverend Jackson appeared on the original "Firing Line" with William F. Buckley Jr in 1971 in a discussion about how to achieve progress in this country.
>> Is the very fact that as much progress has been made, as you have pointed to, testimony to the flexibility of the American system and its general hospitality to -- to what it is that you desire to achieve?
>> Well, it appears to be more hostile to change than hospitable.
However, I'm not sure that that phenomenon is in any different anyplace else than here.
People in power tend to be hostile to change.
The thing that's most disappointing about America is that America has the potential to be the greatest country in the history of the world.
The question is how soon will this country actualize her potential?
>> How soon will it take to actualize our potential?
>> One thing before we deal with the consequence of what he said, look how he used to dress in '71.
That was the Jesse Jackson I knew -- big afro, chain around his neck.
You wonder where I got it from?
Maybe I was just a good student.
>> I don't wonder at all.
>> [ Laughs ] But, no.
When will it realize?
And here I am, 52 years after Reverend Jones and Reverend Jesse Jackson brought me into the movement, asking the same questions and raising them in my own way.
>> You say it's improved.
>> It's improved, but is not there yet.
We're better than we was, but we're not where we need to be.
[ Cheers and applause ] No justice!
>> No peace!
>> No justice!
>> When we look at those pictures of you in that documentary...where you once weighed over 300 pounds, and your image is just such a stark contrast.
Everyone always wants to know, how did you do it?
>> You know, they used to do cartoons on me about how fat I was.
And my youngest daughter one day, she touched me on the stomach and said, "Daddy, you're fat."
That hurt my feelings.
None of the cartoons in the tabloids bothered me.
So I said, "I'm going to lose weight."
And I dieted a little here and there.
But in 2001, I helped to lead a protest in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
And we sat in on the Navy base and they arrested us, and a federal judge gave me 90 days in jail, three months.
And I fasted 40 of those days.
I lost a lot of weight.
When I came out, I began changing my diet, and now I'm a vegetarian.
I do not eat any meat.
I eat only a couple of slices of whole wheat toast.
That's my only starch.
I eat raw salads and fruits and I work out every morning about 35 minutes.
No surgery, nothing.
And I've lost in the last five years 178 pounds.
The hardest part is keeping it off.
But now I've settled in on this diet and this workout routine, and I'm fine.
>> On Monday, the nation will be celebrating Martin Luther King Jr Day.
How will you be celebrating?
>> I will have all of the public officials in New York state speak at our headquarters, the House of Justice, about what they have done to make Dr. King's dream more reality, trying to keep the King dream alive.
>> Reverend Al Sharpton, I very much appreciate your candor and your being here on "Firing Line."
>> And I appreciate yours, and I appreciate you asking me questions that people want me to answer.
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ >> You're watching PBS.