We baby boomers have many examples in our long lives of exceptional citizens, in the United States and abroad, who have turned their nations’ moral compasses north. In this excerpt from his new book Rise Up, Reverend Al Sharpton, a controversial boomer in American politics but who, as head of the National Action Network, is a highly respected civil rights leader nationwide, writes of his personal encounter with perhaps the best of those exceptional people.
(Excerpt from Rise Up: Confronting a Country at the Crossroads by Reverend Al Sharpton):
In 1990, Nelson Mandela, newly released from his twenty-seven-year jail sentence, visited Mayor David Dinkins and other prominent Black leaders in New York City. I was fortunate enough to be included in this meeting. As I shook Mandela’s hand, I couldn’t help but think that for sixteen of those twenty-seven years, he wasn’t allowed to touch the hand of his wife, Winnie. When she was arrested and sentenced to solitary confinement herself for sixteen months, Mandela didn’t know of her sentencing until a prison guard told him. When his mother died, he asked permission to bury her. In order to do so, he was told to denounce the objectives of the ANC, the African National Congress. He said he would not, and so he missed seeing her laid to rest. He also missed the burial of his eldest son, Thembi. He missed watching his other children grow up. He endured twenty-seven years of court-ordered pain while his country and its people suffered, too.
When I met Mandela, New York City was still roiling from the trial of the Central Park Five: a group of five innocent boys—Latino and Black—charged with the assault and rape of a white jogger. The case had caused a media firestorm and had stirred up lingering racial animosities, prompting Donald Trump to take out his now-famous, one-page ad in the New York Daily News calling for the state to kill the boys. (In 2002, they were found innocent, and the state formally withdrew the charges.) Racial tensions were high, and I was feeling especially bitter about the state of things. I was embroiled in my own controversy and was still recovering from being stabbed while marching in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to protest the killing of sixteen-year-old Yusef Hawkins. It was during this backdrop of unease that I listened to Mandela explain that he never doubted South Africa would be rebuilt. He knew things would change, and he would not rest until they did. His struggle gave me a much-needed sense of perspective: change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, vigilance, and courage to root out ugly truths.
A few years later, Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, chief of staff for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., asked me to be an election observer with him in South Africa. I will never forget witnessing South Africa’s first free national election: lines of people—some of whom had been standing under the heat of a blistering sun for over eighteen hours—snaked the city streets. It was the first election in which all races were allowed to take part. That night in my hotel in Johannesburg, I learned that the ANC had won the election. I watched as the Afrikaners’ flag was lowered in the courtyard of the hotel. In its place, the ANC flag rose against the night sky. It seemed to me that the collective cheers of South Africa were lifted up and carried high by shifting wind currents, both literal and figurative.
Later, I thought of election day in America, how Blacks and women had fought for the right to vote. Compared to the endless lines of people waiting to vote in South Africa, Americans have it easy. I remember begging people to vote in Brooklyn when I was a young organizer, and all it took was a fifteen-minute walk to the voting booth; I still have to beg people to vote today. My mother couldn’t vote in the United States until she was in her thirties. This wasn’t “back in the day.” It wasn’t that long ago that Blacks and women couldn’t vote in this country. It wasn’t that long ago that my mother dropped out of school to pick cotton for a living. My right to vote is dependent on the lives of those who came before me, people who fought against the injustices of second-class citizenship by legal and institutional enforcement. And I can’t walk fifteen minutes out of my way to vote?
South Africa was seemingly without hope or power under the constraints of apartheid, and yet in the shadows of that darkness, Mandela died as the country’s first free president. Think of where we were as a nation after the Bush administration: still reeling from 9/11 and mired in the beginnings of war. Dark days. Barack Obama, a Black man from a single-parent home, ran a political campaign on a message of hope and went on to become the country’s first Black president. These aren’t isolated moments. When Obama’s hand touched the Bible on Inauguration Day of his second term, he reached back into history. He took the oath of office not on a single Bible but on two—one owned by Martin Luther King Jr. and the other by Abraham Lincoln, symbolically linking the progress of our past with the promise of our future. Where are we now? Where is the soul of this country?
Our moral compass is out of whack; we need to do some serious soul-searching and repair. To put it another way: we don’t need a filling. We need a root canal. Both the Coronavirus pandemic and the recent protests to address systemic police reform have illustrated a profound truth: we’re more connected than we realize, our safety is interdependent, and our worth is only as good as the Golden Rule. Because we’re so connected, we can’t afford to live in silos. This applies to our sense of morality as much as it does to our political thinking. If we are to build a clear and just path forward, we must take a hard look at our collective failures and work to reclaim our moral conviction and core values—those ideals upon which America promised to be a shining city on a hill. While a president with sound moral judgment and a resolute ethical mind can help redirect our modern-day ills, this work will continue no matter who is in office. We must redefine what’s right and what’s fair, not only for the few and the powerful but also for the most vulnerable among us.