The Rev. Al Sharpton says his thousand-minister march is all the more urgent now than when he began planning it months ago.
The Pentecostal-turned-Baptist minister says the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va., has sparked more interest and a greater need for clergy of many faiths to speak up at the march set for Aug. 28, the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington.
The march will begin at the Washington memorial honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and end at Justice Department offices to protest increased hate crimes, discrimination and mass incarceration.
The 62-year-old president of the National Action Network, a predominantly black, Christian organization, talked with RNS about his plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you sum up your reaction to the events of Charlottesville over the weekend?
Charlottesville was a very startling and repulsive reminder to us of the issue of hate and the issue of racism and anti-Semitism that is still alive and practiced in the country. It seems now to have been revived and, in many ways, given moral equivalency with those that protested by the president of the United States. We need a president that’s clear that anti-Semitism and hatred and the kind of public display of bigotry that we saw is unacceptable.
How do faith leaders need to respond to President Trump’s series of comments about the violence in Charlottesville?
We had already called for 1,000 ministers of all faiths — Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim — to meet at King’s memorial and march to the Justice Department, saying we do not want to see the moral authority of Dr. King’s dream undermined no matter who the president. And we’ve had several hundred ministers already sign. After Charlottesville happened — and then the president’s reaction — it has intensified and we’re getting calls from all kinds of ministers from all faiths saying we must make a statement.
Our hope is that when you looked at those Nazis carrying torches talking about “You will not replace us,” we can contrast that with rabbis linking arms with Baptist ministers and Muslims marching in the spirit of Dr. King. They went to Robert E. Lee’s monument. We’re going to King’s monument and marching to the Justice Department. I heard growing up that the best way to expose a dirty glass is put a clean glass next to it. Faith leaders must stand up and show a dignified, nonviolent way.
Have your plans for the Ministers March for Justice changed in light of Charlottesville, whether in numbers or logistics or security?
Our security concerns have grown ’cause we always now have to be concerned about whether some people will try and do a counter thing — I’m talking about from the right. I get up every day facing death threats. That’s normal when you’re high-profile. So our security concerns increase although we’ve had no direct threats.
As I’ve talked to a lot of the ministers that have called and joined in now, a lot of them said that, yes, we always agreed with the idea of a march but I think we didn’t understand the urgency until we saw that footage on Saturday night. I think what that has done is brought back, into everyone’s living room, why we need to keep marching. This is much worse than we thought in terms of a spirit of hate and immorality.
How does this march compare to some of the previous ones you were involved in – including the march just before the Trump inauguration and the one on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington?
This one is for faith leaders. We’ve only asked for ministers. Now, others might come but it will be led by — and the program will be — rabbis, clergy members of the various parts of Christendom, Muslims and Hindus. Because we want to make a statement that hundreds of faith leaders came to Washington on the day of Dr. King’s dream. That is a big difference from us bringing tens of thousands of people — we want to make a clear statement from the moral and the faith leaders of this country.
Don’t forget Dr. King’s organization was named the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was very specific that it was religious-based and National Action Network is that as well. We’ve not heard from the faith community in a very public, united way and that’s the difference this march is.
What does it say to you about where we are as a country, or about its people of faith, that ministers are going to gather this way?
It gives hope that there are people that are willing to stand up. We’ve gone through rough periods in our history before and faith leaders lead us through. What do we remember about the ’60s? We remember when Rabbi (Abraham Joshua) Heschel joined Dr. King in Selma. We remember how it was a rabbi that was the speaker right before Dr. King at the March on Washington. When we all started coming together and raised the high moral questions, it set the climate for change. And you will always have other things going on, but when people know that those whom they go to on their Sabbath to get guidance are standing up, it brings it to another dimension. And I think it is extremely important that we do this, particularly at this time.
What do you think clergy and other people of faith should be doing at this time beyond sermons and marches?
I think that they’ve got to get into the community. They’ve got to get into the schools. They’ve got to get into the local gatherings, the town halls, the planning board meetings. And we’ve got to beat back this spirit of hate. We’ve got to go and do the work. Faith without works is a dead thing, the Bible says. And I want to lay that challenge out at the march: We’ve got to come off our pulpits and out of our cathedrals and save the soul of this nation.