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Sharpton: Keep Debate Passionate, Not Poisonous

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's the Friday before the holiday celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So we decided to spend much of today's program taking up the challenge that Dr. King laid down years ago and that the president reiterated earlier this week. Specifically, we decided to talk about the whole question of how to talk about that which divides us without causing more harm than good.

This is President Obama on Wednesday in Tucson.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BARACK OBAMA: We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country. And that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern, so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

MARTIN: Of course the president was not the first to call for a more civil discourse. In this hour, we will speak with the rabbi, Brad Hirschfield. He was a former settler in Israel's fiercely contested West Bank, and we'll talk with him about he learned to think about reaching agreement on matters that fuel intense passions.

We'll speak with that civil rights icon, the congressman from Georgia, John Lewis. He's been making pleas for more compassionate political dialogue for some time.

But first, we go to former presidential candidate and the civil rights leader, the Reverend Al Sharpton. He wrote a piece in the Washington Post op-ed page earlier this week about being on both the giving and receiving end of sometimes venomous discourse. The Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network. He's with us here in Washington. Reverend Al, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (President, National Action Network): Thank you, glad to be with you.

MARTIN: Just briefly wanted to get your reaction to President Obama's speech. Do you think that he accomplished something with that?

Rev. SHARPTON: Oh, I thought it was an amazing speech. I thought that he set the right tone. And I think that he raised the country's mindset to a higher level, exactly what we needed at the exact right time.

MARTIN: You wrote a piece for the Washington Post earlier this week that's titled, "In MLK's Honor, Let's Strive for Dialogue that's Passionate, but Not Poisonous." And you pointed out that you've been on both sides of the dialogue that many people have considered over the top. You've also been the victim of violence from people who sort of had passions enflamed, probably unstable also, but enflamed by that. Tell me why you wanted to write this piece.

Rev. SHARPTON: Because I think as we all appeal to people to be civil and not -being civil doesn't mean to agree. It doesn't mean not to dissent, but that let's have boundaries to how we disagree. I wanted to share some of my own personal wrestling with this. It's easy to lecture. It's easy to, you know, get on a pulpit and preach as I do. I wanted to say, I'm saying this because I've been on both sides of this.

I remember many years ago I was leading a nonviolent protest in a section of Brooklyn, New York called Bensonhurst, where there had been a racial killing. And we marched to protest the killing. And a white male ran out of the crowd and stabbed me. And I almost died. And I had to come to terms with, if I really was trying to be in the tradition of Dr. King's movement, which I grew up in the aftermath of his death, I had to forgive this man, which is a very difficult thing to do.

I had to admit to myself I was angry. I had all kinds of thoughts. This man almost killed me, almost made my children fatherless. But I ended up forgiving him. I went to court and asked for leniency. The judge gave nine years in jail anyway. I went and visited him in jail. We exchanged letters.

MARTIN: What was his motivation?

Rev. SHARPTON: He said that he would have been a hero in his community for killing Al Sharpton because at that time, his community felt that they were under siege because we were fighting this race case. He ended up understanding our protest because this kid, Yusef Hawkins, a black kid, was only killed because they didn't want blacks in that neighborhood.

But then I also pointed out in the Post piece, a couple years later when there was a protest in Harlem around a businessman in our community that was evicting one of the legendary businesses, that I actually never decided to support the protest against this businessman.

MARTIN: And you used some language, which you later came to regret. And we actually have that on tape.

Rev. SHARPTON: Right.

MARTIN: And I'm going to play it for you.

Rev. SHARPTON: Right.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Rev. SHARPTON: We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business on 125th Street. And we're asking of our black community to go down there. And I'm going to go down there and do what is necessary to let them know that we are not turning 125th Street back over to outsiders as it was done in the early part of this century.

MARTIN: And then you go on to say in your piece that two-and-a-half months later, a disturbed man went to a neighboring store, set a fire and a number of people were killed, including himself. And that your words were raised in response to this. Similar elements to what we've seen here was somebody who was unstable, but you feel that there might have been a context. So tell me what you would have done differently.

Rev. SHARPTON: No, what happened was two-and-a-half months later, this man, who was disturbed, who by the way was a guy that used to be up and down 125th Street in Harlem criticizing me. I don't believe in non-violence. Why are they coming, marching? We ought to be doing something. But it didn't matter. What mattered was when the man did what he did, that even killed himself, critics of mine brought out what I said.

And I said, well, one, your first instinct is to be defensive. How could you say this guy was inspired by me? We talked about a protest. Clearly you just (unintelligible) nobody talked about any violence at all. But the fact is the fact that I raised the fact that he was white was wrong. It had nothing to do with his color. It has something to do - we disagreed with his eviction. And if you pour any kind of poison, you can't limit where a disturbed person is going to take that poison.

So I had to come to terms with years ago, and I said it then, that I used the wrong language and that we cannot, in our passion, not have caution on how far we should go. So the reason I wrote this piece this week is I was saying to all of those in the right wing that is now being accused of setting some kind of a pattern that led to Arizona, that we don't know whether it did or not.

I understand being defensive because I was there. The best thing to do is don't take it defensively. Learn from this moment and say, well, maybe even if I didn't cause this, which I didn't cause the situation, maybe I should check that I could have caused it or that I could have added to a general poisoning. Rather than everyone being so defensive, we should really be more reflective and more cautious. And I think that's what the president was saying.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask if you have any - you didn't raise her in this piece, but Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate who posted an eight-minute video on YouTube specifically attacking and defending herself and her movement, those who support her, against the criticism that her language, specifically her use of the kind of gun sites on specific congressional districts, which she says has been used by both sides, had anything to do with this.

I mean, her argument is individuals are responsible for what they do as individuals. And that the sort of the broader political context has nothing to do with it.

Rev. SHARPTON: I mean individuals are responsible. Public figures, though, ought to be more responsible. If we're given the pleasure, honor of having a public hearing, we ought to be more cautious.

And I'm not saying Sarah Palin is guilty or not guilty, did or didn't. I'm saying that on my own example, if you're in public, you've got to be more careful and not just have a defensive kind of reaction all the time. But say, well, maybe even if that was nowhere near my intent, even if I don't follow that logic, maybe I ought to check myself, which is what I had to do years ago because I chose to.

And I could and did say right away, how could y'all think I would want that when I just forgave a man for almost killing me? But logic doesn't come into a poisonous situation. You've got to deal with how people respond, some who are unstable. So that's why I wanted to write that piece to be instructive. And maybe if I did it in a way that I had to bear some of my own personal anguish and wrestling, I would hope maybe some of them would feel like, well, this is not really that personal. We've all gone through this in public life if you stay out here long enough.

MARTIN: Reverend Al Sharpton is a former presidential candidate. He's the president of the National Action Network. That's a civil rights organization based in New York. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Reverend Sharpton, thank you so much for joining us and happy Martin Luther King Day to you.

Rev. SHARPTON: Same to you, Michel, happy Martin Luther King Day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.