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Rev Al Sharpton gives address to Parliament

MEETING OF MINDS: Rev Al Sharpton, right, with Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote

WHEN THE Rev Al Sharpton sat down to talk with a national newspaper during his UK visit last week, he related a conversation with an American journalist, who pointedly quizzed: ‘Aren’t you, Rev Sharpton all about drama?’

The inquisitor clearly hoped to put Rev Sharpton on the ropes and make him feel defensive. Instead Sharpton responded on the front foot ready for the knockout blow, “Yep, you’re absolutely right", Rev Al Sharpton is all about drama’.

He went on to say, “When Trayvon Martin’s parents came to me to keep alive the fight for justice for their son’s killing, they didn’t say, 'Rev Sharpton can you go out there and be quiet about our son’s case? Maybe you could keep it secret'. No,".

Now Sharpton was in full flow, “the family asked me to make as much global noise as I possibly could, so that I could draw attention to this plight for justice, not just for Trayvon, but also to avoid others being gunned down for no other reason than for being black."

He went on to tell the gathering: “And by the way, I’m not the first to use drama to highlight injustice."

He told the story of Dr Martin Luther King, who was, in Sharpton’s eyes, the best at using real theatre to dramatise injustice, by explaining that early civil rights movements were initially going to use a pregnant woman to play the ‘Rosa Parks’ role of not getting up from the seat, but decided against that because they calculated that the pregnant woman, who was unmarried, might not evoke the nation's sympathy as much as a mild mannered seamstress.

ON A MISSION: Rev Sharpton, centre, on a visit to the UK in 1991

And when they did the Birmingham Alabama march, they chose that city because they knew they would get the fiercest resistance from a bigoted racist governor.

What Sharpton was brilliantly articulating was the simple fact that without dramatising shocking inequality and racism, no one is listening. If it was simply a matter of pointing out the obvious the world, he suggests, would be a very different place.


But during Sharpton’s frenetic 24 action-packed hours in the UK – to which I spent much of the time with him – it was abundantly clear that Sharpton was much more than whipping up a storm. His detail of political strategy and policy is almost second to none.

And during his visit to Downing Street he had some sage advice for perhaps the most powerful black man in British politics today, Nero Ughwujabo the Prime Minister's special advisor on race.

Speaking in the prestigious Margret Thatcher library, he told Ughwujabo that, by design, black communities have historically been kept away from the heart of government, power and policy. “Our interaction with all three elements has been to complain about being on the receiving end of power and policy such as austerity, policing, and more recently the Windrush scandal."

He told Ughwujabo that, “you now are in a unique position, with the Prime Ministerial mandate to dramatically influence the race equality debate and policy spectrum." But he warned: “If you don’t take your communities along with you on this journey, they will be the first to criticise you for letting them down."

Sharpton gave him the example of when he was President Obama’s advisor that he regularly brought in black groups to better understand the levers and the broader mechanisms of power. “How would we know when, where, and how you get policy to change, when we’ve always been on the outside?"

During that hectic day, Rev Sharpton prepared to cross swords with the Good Morning Britain host – and President Trump cheerleader – Piers Morgan who, it turned out, fawned over Sharpton. From there to government meetings, celebrity dinners and a myriad of interviews. But what Sharpton enjoyed most of all was speaking to black community leaders.

There you saw him in a different mode; laying his soul bare so that he might encourage, and inspire a generation to understand and believe that with unity, knowledge and passion – racism, driven by the last elements of white supremacy, will finally be defeated.

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