Stevante Clark clung to the Rev. Al Sharpton’s neck as Sharpton delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Stevante’s brother, Stephon, who was gunned down by Sacramento, Calif., police officers on March 18. At one point during the service, Stevante took the mic from California NAACP President Alice Huffman and asked the audience if they loved him. For many, Stevante Clark’s behavior was jarring—inappropriate, even.
But Sharpton made it clear during the funeral that “you don’t tell people how to handle their pain. You don’t tell people, when you killed their loved one, how to grieve.” Stevante Clark’s raw, emotional actions were the first time a mourning family member had reacted that way in the decades that Sharpton has been called to comfort the families of black men and women shot and killed by law enforcement.
“It tested me emotionally,” Sharpton told me during a phone interview.
Sharpton’s organization, the National Action Network, still has staff on the ground working with the Clark family.
With the 2018 NAN Convention set to run April 18-21 in New York City, one would think that Sharpton—who has run NAN for more than 27 years and at one point considered retiring from his post—would be thinking about slowing down. In reality, he can’t. As the nation reflects on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death (Sharpton marched with King’s family last week in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was shot and killed), Donald Trump’s residence in the White House is threatening King’s legacy.
Besides encouraging police officers to abuse people taken into custody, Trump has threatened to reverse the progress that former President Barack Obama made on civil rights: repealing the Affordable Care Act, weakening the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, relaxing standards against housing discrimination and increasing harsh prosecution of drug crimes.
Civil rights progress made over the past 50 years is under threat more than ever, making this year’s NAN conference more critical than previous ones. That’s why this year’s leading keynote speakers include Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder—all possible presidential candidates—and Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Each of them will be pressed on their commitments to black people, who overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party.
“I’m very concerned that the party takes firm positions on police brutality that we worked with the Obama administration on: commutations, mass incarceration and commutation of low-level drug offenders; that they take firm positions on black economic conditions,” Sharpton said. “Firm, vocal positions. No ‘We’re better than the other guy.’ We’re gonna challenge that. We want specifics.”
Over the years, Sharpton has focused on developing young leaders within NAN, with all of the national chapter leaders younger than 40. NAN’s youthful voices are coming in handy as the organization operates alongside the Black Lives Matter movement. The generational differences between BLM and Sharpton have led to clashes at times. During a march in December 2014, BLM protesters took the stage and the mic, saying that Sharpton “was a distraction to their work in Ferguson[, Mo.],” according to Vice.
The past few years have proven to be a learning curve for Sharpton, but he appears to be making efforts to forge those ties. This year’s NAN Convention will feature younger activists and more-progressive political leaders, including Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
“We’ve got to make alliances where we don’t necessarily agree on all tactics,” Sharpton said. “I want to be able to help build that bridge of having a kind of unified understanding, even if we don’t agree on tactics and how we get there, but agree that we’re not getting in each other’s way.”
Sharpton planned on stepping down from NAN at the end of 2019 to focus on building a civil rights museum in Harlem, since he believes that the efforts of activists above the Mason-Dixon Line haven’t been celebrated enough. But now he plans on running NAN at least through 2020, after the board asked him to stay on (he’s still working on the museum). Wisdom and age should benefit the 63-year-old Brooklynite as he and NAN press forward.
Sharpton isn’t the brash activist who made headlines in the 1990s for his confrontational tone. A recent New York Times profile of Sharpton outlines his trajectory from sharp-talking street activist in sweatsuits to a refined political power broker in three-piece suits. One can easily Google video clips of Sharpton to catch a glimpse of a younger, more bombastic personality who was outright reckless at times.
That person is long gone, replaced by a sober civil rights icon who is looking to leave a legacy and an organization that will outlive him.
“I grew in terms of weighing what I say more carefully because I feel it has implications on [NAN],” he said. “I don’t shoot from the hip. I try to move in a way that’s leading towards progress, not just trying to get a sound bite.”
Editor’s note: This year’s NAN Convention will take place at the Times Square Sheraton in New York City. Registration is free. There will be a livestream for those unable to attend.