Civil rights figure Rev. Al Sharpton called on today’s young generation to continue the activism for civil rights and carry on “the struggle” in a dialogue and discussion event presented to Ohio State students at the Ohio Union on Wednesday night.
“In this time, with these challenges, do what Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) did in his challenges,” Sharpton told The Lantern in an interview after the event. “Do what Dr. King did…and lead to real change and lead to lasting change.”
The college-age generation, Sharpton added, “has come into its own and we’re counting on them to continue to the struggle.”
Sharpton earlier talked on stage to Jamal Watson, who wrote “The evolution of Al Sharpton: The provocative politics of the people’s preacher,” a biography of Sharpton which is set to be released later this year.
The talk was part of the Frank W. Hale Jr. Black Cultural Center’s 43rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, which also featured the African American Voices Gospel Choir of Ohio State, spoken word artist Searius Addishin and poet Quartez Harris.
During the dialogue, Sharpton argued that today’s civil rights movements still need the media to get their message out, drawing parallels to the Howard Beach incident of 1986.
In 1986, a black man was killed by a car in Howard Beach, a neighborhood in the southwestern portion of Queens, New York, when he was chased onto a highway by a mob of white youth who had beaten him and his friends. The incident sparked heightened racial tension in New York City.
Sharpton recalled the black community’s reaction to the incident.
“We would dramatize the issue and make clear that this is racism and not just a car accident. The media would have to come,” Sharpton recalled on stage. “We use media as part of the strategy … Nobody calls me to keep their problem a secret. They call me because they want the world to know about it.”
Sharpton said he has been called to help gain publicity for more recent issues of racial tension as well.
In August, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot by a police officer, prompting riots in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury brought no criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Brown.
In Staten Island, New York City, an unarmed black man named Eric Garner was killed by a police officer’s chokehold in July. Officers were looking to arrest Garner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. In a video of the incident, Garner can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” as an officer put him in a chokehold. Earlier this month, a grand jury ruled not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo, who used the chokehold, in Garner’s death.
In Ferguson and Staten Island, Sharpton said the families of Brown and Garner called him “to bring in national publicity.”
“If you cannot nationalize and dramatize an issue, it becomes local and they can cover it up,” Sharpton said.
During the discussion, Sharpton also offered advice to young activists.
“Don’t ever let them tell you to keep the media out,” he said. “You need to try and control the message, but you need to expose the problem. If you don’t expose the problem, they will never solve it.”
Sharpton said he was “very encouraged” by recent events in Ferguson and throughout the country, but alluded to some differences in opinion when it comes to how protests against events should be organized, saying sometimes the young activists “don’t do it my way and think they need to do differently.”
“I’m excited that we’re arguing about how to do it. For so many years, we were arguing about doing anything,” he said. “I’d rather see people do something that I may not tactically agree with rather than be asleep in an era where a man can be choked to death on tape and nobody is going to do nothing about it … The fact that the debate is now front and center again is healthy for us.”
In the streets of Ferguson, though, there is not only disagreement about the methods and strategies to use, but also a very sharp generational divide, Sharpton said.
In October, a group of young activists stormed the stage at an interfaith service in St. Louis featuring Cornel West, an activist and prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and complained that older civil rights leaders tried to hijack their grassroots movement.
“There has always been these differences in generations,” Sharpton said, addressing the differences observed in the protest groups. “(But) a lot of it is not even generational. You have a lot of young people that argue with each other about tactics.”
In her introduction, Valerie Lee, vice provost for the office of diversity and inclusion and vice president for outreach and engagement, said Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a “day that increases in importance every day.”
During the discussion, Javaune Adams-Gaston, vice president for Student Life, told the audience that Martin Luther King Jr.’s work “is far from being done.”
“Justice and equality have not been achieved, they are still aspirations,” she said. “But I remain optimistic for our future.”
The event also honored this year’s class of Martin Luther King memorial scholars: Christopher D. Carson, Presney Edwards, and Shannon Jeffries.
“We look for students in the spirit in Dr. King’s work,” Shannon Gonzales-Miller, director of the ODI scholars program, told The Lantern. “Students that are leaders, have provided service and are engaged in the work he was so compassionate about.”
At the event, Sharpton was also presented the Kente Award, which is a long-standing tradition for the Hale Center and a high university honor.
“(I’m) very proud to receive these honors,” Sharpton told The Lantern. “Particularly on the day after they (the Buckeyes) won the National Championship.”