It’s not easy to sit back and reflect on your life, but that’s what I did last week as I celebrated my 63rd birthday. It was a time to examine 50 years of activism, lessons learned both personally and for civil rights work more generally.
Raised by a single mother, I began as a boy preacher in Brooklyn under the tutelage of the Revs. William Jones and Jesse Jackson. At 13, I became youth director of the New York branch of Operation Breadbasket (founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and headed nationally by Jackson), and have been in the movement since.
There have been moments of extreme challenge, sacrifice and difficulty — many of which have been splashed on pages such as these — but the reward of helping the voiceless and moving society forward are immeasurable. So after five decades, I’d like to share some of the things that I’ve learned with future freedom fighters.
First, and essential to remember in times like these, when some call for resisting the powers that be with the fist or the gun: Nonviolence is the key.
And that’s not just because King said so — it’s because strategically, only nonviolence helps advance your goal, and helps ensure that your message and your purpose are never overshadowed.
Even when we were called disparaging words, even when we had pieces of watermelon and other objects thrown at us, even when police arrested us, and even after I was stabbed, I and other civil rights advocates have pushed for peace.
In fact, after I was stabbed during a demonstration, I went to court, forgave the man who stabbed me, asked the judge for leniency (the man still did nine years), and later even visited the man in prison. Those who consider themselves messengers of a righteous cause can never stoop to the level of those attempting to stop them.
The spirit of nonviolence should extend to the language we use. I admit: On this point, I may have faltered at times. Opponents will always try to tear you down; Colin Kaepernick, who has tried to use his platform to focus attention on police killings of unarmed black men, knows this well. All the more reason to ensure that our words, while impassioned and forceful, never advocate for the use of force.
It is also essential for all those working for equality to resist turning petty. That can be difficult when foes are intent to vilify, mock and misrepresent you.
Stooping to ad hominem insults in return may seem satisfying in the short term, but it doesn’t get us anywhere. It’s essential to remain steadfast. They tried to drag King himself down into the muck. First, they accused him of stealing money out of the movement, then of tax evasion. He remained loyal to the victims he was fighting for. He never abandoned the cause.
Over the years, I have also learned that there is more than one lane to fighting for justice — which is to say, activists should readily admit that their way isn’t the only way. The long-term battle for fairness and equality takes all people of goodwill to join together, even when our strategies and tactics diverge.
As such, intersectionality — a term that’s now roundly derided on the right side of the political spectrum — is also a key part of any movement for progress. What it means is that you cannot fight for the rights of one group in isolation. We African-American activists must simultaneously stand alongside Latino, Asian, Native American and LGBTQ people in their fights for equality, and with those in the white community who are subjected to prejudice. A movement only interested in its own is parochial, not transformative.
But the most important lesson, I think, is never, ever, ever to succumb to cynicism. Progress is real. Fifty years ago, we had profound economic and criminal justice challenges along with political disenfranchisement. Over a half-century, I’ve witnessed the election of a black mayor of New York City and a black President. I’ve seen blacks rise to become CEOs of major corporations, blacks in the highest level of the judiciary and more. I’ve seen social and economic progress up and down the ranks of society.
I’ve also seen setbacks in many areas. The first black mayor was replaced by Rudy Giuliani, and the first black President by Donald Trump. For every advance, there is going to be a reaction.
Today, we have a President who openly flirts with white supremacists. Those who know the battle well and know him well need to work with younger forces as well as older ones to preserve the gains we won from the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Affordable Care Act and beyond.
I was in Johannesburg in the 1990s and watched as South Africa lowered the flag of apartheid and raised the African National Congress flag. I sat on stage four rows behind President Barack Obama as he placed his black hand on the Bible and was sworn into office.
I’ve seen too many victories to ever doubt we can win. I am no longer a teenager, but I’m just as determined at 63 as I was at 13. I hope all young people share my optimism.
Sharpton is founder and president of the National Action Network.