How James Brown Became a Father Figure to Al Sharpton

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Why you should care

Because from Donald Trump to James Brown, Sharpton has stories.

If there is anyone who has seen it all it’s the Rev. Al Sharpton. The 66-year-old New Yorker is an activist with work that dates back decades. He’s been stabbed; he’s the president of the National Action Network and the host of PoliticsNation on MSNBC. Today, Sharpton stops by The Carlos Watson Show. Here are the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast channel.

On Recent Racial Unrest

Carlos Watson: I hate to go right to it, but I have to obviously ask you about Breonna Taylor and the decision that came out. I assume you were not surprised, even if you were heartbroken?

Al Sharpton: I was not surprised, and I was heartbroken. I think that there was enough evidence there to go to trial, and from the beginning, when the attorney, Ben Crump, who represents the family called me before it became that well-known nationally.

Watson: So, what does it say to you that this keeps happening? Because I grew up in Miami, and you may or may not remember Miami in the ’80s, but sadly, we had a lot of these situations. So much so that my mom was always scared when I left the house. We had Arthur McDuffie, we had multiple situations where unarmed Black men were shot and killed. In McDuffie’s case, he was a former Marine, insurance salesman, they followed him home, into his garage. Killed him in his garage, in part with a flashlight, and then a jury let the police officers off.

Sharpton: We have supported, and at the big March on Washington that Martin Luther King III and I co-convened, we supported the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would outlaw … killing anyone by compression, which is either chokehold like Eric Garner suffered in New York, or George Floyd did. But it would also remmove this immunity police have from being sued. All these lawsuits, $12 million lawsuit with the Breonna Taylor case in Louisville, is paid by taxpayers. When policemen know they’re going to lose their house, their car, I think they are a little more cautious in how they’re going to use deadly force. Also, they must have transparency in their background.

Too often, when we see someone killed by police, we learn of the background of the victim. But what about the police? Do they have a background of other harassment complaints or other complaints about aggressive policing? So, we need federal law. What did they do in the ’60s when I was a child? They would get federal law, because if you have to go state by state, that will take forever. We have the chokehold law now in New York … Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to his credit, signed it. But if you go through the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey, that’s not the law anymore. We need federal law. Then we need enforcement, because I think that the way you deter police from crossing the line is the way you deter citizens from crossing the line. If they know they will go to jail and can be sued, they will stop because there’s a penalty.

On Becoming a Preacher

Watson: How did you manage to be an effective boy preacher for a meaningful period of time?

Sharpton: When I was a boy preacher, and when I started, Bishop [F.D.] Washington, who was my pastor, let me preach at 4. I just wanted to preach. I used to preach at my sisters’ dolls at home. It was all inspiration. I would go home from church service on Sundays and get my mother’s bathrobe and put it on like it was the bishop’s robe and preach. [Washington] let me preach a church. Nine hundred people was at the first service. So I developed a reputation and you’re right: 4, 5, 6, 7, it’s cute. But you get around 10 and 11, it ain’t as cute. You get in your teens, it’s not cute anymore.

That’s why I give credit to the Rev. [Jesse] Jackson. Jesse said to me, “Boy preacher, you better learn some content because you can get away with that fluff when you’re young. But when you start coming into age, you’re going to have to have something to say. You can’t get up there and holler and scream.” That’s when I would start reading books. I think as I grew, I let my ministry grow and my intellect grow and my commitment grow. My passion was the same, but I had more content.

Chatting With Trump

Watson: Rev., tell me a little bit about Trump, because Trump was active in New York circles for years. I know you’ve probably known him for a long time, known him deeply. I know there were even times when he was an active financial supporter of various elements of the civil rights movement. I know it surprises some people, maybe not today, but when he first emerged in the way that he is emerged more recently. It surprised some people because it felt like that was a different person than maybe the person they had once known. Why the transformation and what have you seen?

Sharpton: I think Donald Trump is the ultimate opportunist. He will do whatever works for Donald Trump. He’s a narcissist and it’s all about him. In the ’70s, when I was a kid, he and his father were sued by the Justice Department for discrimination. That was the first I heard of him and went to some of the marches against him.

He always had a chip on his shoulder because the Manhattan crowd, the Park Avenue crowd, looked down on the Queens guys like his father and him. And that resentment is what he could translate to the guys in Appalachia and in Kentucky and all of that who voted for him. They felt he was one of them because he could run against the elite. Because even though he had all this money, he wasn’t one of the club.…

We were having a board meeting that morning on National Action Network. In the middle of the board meeting, my cellphone starts ringing. I have it on silent and I look down at the number. I didn’t recognize the number and it rang again. So I’m like, “I don’t know who this is,” but I picked up and quietly said, “I’m in a board meeting, you got to leave a message.”

And the voice on the other side said, “Would you hold on for the president-elect?” And I got up and I left the room and Trump comes on. “Al, I saw you this morning. You got me right. You know me. It’s us against them, these guys.” And he starts using profanity and all, and he invites me to Mar-a-Lago. And I said, “You know I’m not coming to Mar-a-Lago. You’re not going to set me up for a photo op. That’s all you want is a —” “No, no, no. And there’s a lot we can do.” I said, “I’m not doing it.” And that was the first time I talked to him after the election.

The Godfather of Soul

Watson: Who are two or three of the most interesting people you’ve ever come across?

Sharpton: When I was 18 years old, I had my own youth group in Brooklyn. And a guy came in to New York from the South, who was the same age as me, 18, and he joined my youth group. And we found out his name was Teddy and he was James Brown’s son. And he wanted to go to law school in New York. We got to be kind of friendly, and about seven or eight months later, he was killed in a car accident. This was ’73. James Brown was at that time No. 1 soul artist in the world, but he had gotten some flack because the year before, in ’72, he had endorsed Richard Nixon for president, and a lot of people were angry about it. He had appeared at the Apollo, there was a few picketers outside, even though he sold out. Some of the disc jockeys in New York said, “There’s this teenage preacher, 18, same age as your son, that your son joined his youth group. If you want to do something to memorialize your son and they won’t picket you, you should do it with this kid.”

They sent for me, I met James Brown. My father left when I was 10. But the only memory I had of my father, recreational memory, is he used to take me to see James Brown at the Apollo. So it meant a lot to me personally, and it meant a lot to me in terms of this was the biggest Black artist in the world. And first time I met him, he talked rapid-fire, people couldn’t hardly understand. James Brown said, he said to me, “If you do what I tell you, you’ll sell the place out.” So I did what he said. I did everything he told me. He pulls up in the limousine that night. It was at the Brooklyn Albee Theater. The theater is not there anymore. It’s a mall now, in downtown Brooklyn. It was two shows, and he looked at his manager, Mr. Charles Bobbit. He said, “How did we do?” Bobbit said, “The kid did what you told him. He sold out both shows.” Brown said, “What?” Bobbit said, “Both shows.”

“Any picketers?” “Nobody.” He went in there and did both shows. Miles Davis came to see the show in the wings. So I’m in heaven. Now, I grew up in a Black church, boy preacher, and all that. You got Miles Davis in the wings, James Brown performing and the money going to my youth group, and James Brown come on stage in support of my youth group. He slid off the stage, that famous slide he does into the wings, and looked at me. He said, “I’m going to take you with me to California to help you build your youth movement.”

We started building this relationship. He took me on Soul Train, and soon I became like a surrogate son to him. He became the father I didn’t have. So he was a very entrepreneurial guy, a demanding guy. I was not allowed to hang out with the band. “You’re a preacher. You’re going to stay. I promised your mother I would keep you in the church.” James Brown was probably the most interesting person I ever met, I would say hands down.

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