Editor’s note: During Black History Month, the focus is usually on historical figures who loomed larger than life, paving the way for the progress we experience today. But black history isn’t just about telling stories of our past. History is being made every day and has been made throughout our lives; it’s not just in books. It walks among us. So this month The Root is asking a group of writers to tell us about the personal and pivotal events from their own lifetimes in a series we call My Black History. The Rev. Al Sharpton is 60 years old.
Supreme Court Rules That Congress Must Seat Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
When you’re on the right side of history, people will go to great lengths to stop or hinder your progress—but eventually, justice will prevail. This lesson hit home for me in 1969 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had illegally attempted to exclude Adam Clayton Powell Jr. I was almost a teenager at the time, and an admirer of Rep. Powell (D-N.Y.), whose war on poverty, efforts to increase hiring of black workers and fight for affordable housing made him one of the most revered leaders in the community. As a congressman, he was one of the most effective and dynamic this country has ever had.
After winning his 12th term, Powell was asked to refrain from taking the oath of office by House Speaker John William McCormack, who stripped Powell of his committee chairmanship and stopped him from taking his seat. It took a ruling from the nation’s highest court to mandate that the House did not have the authority to exclude a duly elected representative from membership. The attempt by the House to exclude Powell was the first time I witnessed people in power breaking the law to advance their own interests. Thankfully, the ruling kept the most productive congressman in history in a position to continue fighting the good fight.
Michael Jackson’s Victory Tour
In 1984 Michael Jackson’s Victory Tour would redefine how the nation and the world supported black artists. I was fortunate enough to have a front-row seat to it all as head of community affairs for the tour. I watched firsthand as Michael moved beyond acts like Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and others to a new level of universal acceptance. People from all races, backgrounds, ages and demographics paid to see the King of Pop do his thing. It was a game changer.
It’s hard for young people today to imagine a time when black artists couldn’t get their videos played on TV, or when they could only perform on the chitlin circuit, or when only black audiences supported black musicians. M.J.’s Victory Tour (and his career, for that matter) broke social barriers on a level unseen till that moment. Traveling on that tour and witnessing his ability to connect with people in every corner of the world is something that I will never forget.
President Barack Obama Nominates Eric Holder
For a significant portion of my life, I’ve dedicated much of my time and my efforts toward fighting inequality in the criminal-justice system, particularly in the areas of racial profiling and police brutality. When President Barack Obama nominated Eric Holder for attorney general in 2009, it was a seminal moment. To watch a black man become the head of the Justice Department under a black president was more than historic; it was proof that progress can and will come to fruition.
Many of us in the civil rights community and the black community didn’t think we would personally see this day in our lifetimes. But it happened, and it has truly transformed our nation for the better. There is no attorney general who has demonstrated a civil rights record equal to Holder’s. As one who has spent substantial time fighting for justice for the marginalized and disenfranchised, I sat and watched enthusiastically in Washington, D.C., as President Obama nominated Holder for this crucial position after taking office. It was an unprecedented, incomparable moment—one for the history books.
The Rev. Al Sharpton is founder and president of the National Action Network. Follow him on Twitter.