Whatever the reasons for selecting the Rev. Al Sharpton as the keynote speaker at the “Bloody Sunday” commemoration at Brown Chapel A.M.E. church in Selma last Sunday, it proved to be a wise decision, because the reverend gave the assembly the full extent of his impassioned sermon. In fact, it was replete with several expectations of a Baptist sermon, with its multiple endings and a preacher on fire with Scripture, current events and personal intimacies.
From the very start, Sharpton, whose popularity has been fueled by his television show on MSNBC, his ceaseless commitment to the bereaved and as his connection to the White House, did something none of the previous speakers had done, including civil rights stalwarts Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder—he acknowledged those in the audience who had participated in the historic march in 1965.
After waiting three hours to speak, Sharpton began by citing from the Book of Joshua and then recounting a moment he spent with civil rights legend Amelia Boynton on the Edmund Pettus Bridge Saturday. “She addressed the crowd on the bridge, telling them about the time she was beaten 50 years ago trying to register folks to vote,” Sharpton told the packed church. “She said she kept registering voters because she believed their vote would bring about the end of poverty and unfairness.”
He used Boynton’s dedication and unswerving commitment in the face of danger to make his point about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and its ongoing journey for justice. “Some of us are so caught up in what they are going to get out of the journey than the journey itself,” he said to loud applause.
Sharpton briefly recalled his own journey from boy preacher in Brooklyn to being introduced to the Civil Rights Movement by Jackson—“I liked his big Afro and style”—and with the youth wing of Operation Breadbasket. It was there, he said, that he learned “you can’t transform a nation without transforming yourself.”
And watching the event on C-SPAN, you could see a few shared smiles from those in attendance when Sharpton talked about his personal transformation.
“We are not here just for the commemoration,” he said, returning to his theme, “but for the continuation” of the movement for change. “You can’t fight for anybody’s right unless you are fighting for everybody’s right.” It echoed what President Barack Obama had said the day before.
When he turned his attention to the subject of hypocrisy, he received the strongest ovations. He said it was hypocritical for legislators to participate in the march to Montgomery and then go vote on laws that would strip Blacks of the franchise. “It is hypocritical for you to honor Dr. King and then go and take the core out of the Voting Rights Act,” he said, a direct reference to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision.
His comment on Congress’ treatment of Holder also drew a warm response. “[Republicans were] talking about holding the attorney general in contempt of court because he was contemptible to them in the first place,” Sharpton charged.
There were moments after more than 90 minutes of sermonizing that Sharpton was about to close only to whoop into another false ending. With each whoop and recitation, the crowd seemed to urge him on, and he welcomed the invitation.
Having reached a third or fourth crescendo, he spun in a full circle in the pulpit, Thelonious Monk style, and faced the choir. It was done, and Sandy Ray, C.L. Franklin, Gardner Taylor, and the Rev. William Jones, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King would have loved the moment.
The event’s coordinators got what they wanted—chapters and plenty of verses.