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An Intersectional Movement is Key to Social Justice Progress Says Reverend Al Sharpton

Conversation with NYU Silver Centers Unfinished Business of Social Justice
Composite of three images from the conversation between Reverend Al Sharpton, Dean Michael Lindsey and Visiting Scholar Jennifer Jones Austin: one of the three speaking at the front of the room; one of the three standing together before the conversation, and one of the audience listening attentively.

“Unless you have an intersectional movement, you don’t have a movement at all,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, previewing his announcement with Martin Luther King III of a March on Washington on the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The 2023 march, he said, will have a broad civil rights agenda and is “not to commemorate the [1963] march but to say the work is not over.”

Reverend Sharpton made his remarks on the eve of the 55th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in a candid conversation with NYU Silver Visiting Scholar and FPWA CEO and Executive Director Jennifer Jones Austin and Dean Michael A. Lindsey about the unfinished business of social justice 60 years after the 1963 March on Washington. Dr. Victor C. Mullins, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at NYU Stern, introduced the conversation, which was held at Stern’s Gardner Commons.

Red and black slide with the NYU Silver logo and the text Unfinished Business: Centering Social Justice in Society, Monday, April 3, 2023, 6:00-7:00pm
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Dr. Victor C. Mullins stands behind a podium with a silver plaque with the NYU Stern logo in front of a beige wall with the NYU Stern logo
Dr. Victor C. Mullins, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at NYU Stern, introduced the discussion

Among the issues Reverend Sharpton said need to be centered to, as Ms. Jones Austin put it, “give life to the dream” are preserving voting rights, addressing criminal justice reform, securing a woman’s right to choose and gender equality, and combating homophobia and xenophobia. He recalled that in 1963, no women were among the speakers and march organizer Bayard Rustin was asked to stay in the background because he was gay. The march Reverend Sharpton and Martin Luther King III are organizing will “be for everybody” because “you can’t free yourself unless you’re going to fight for everybody else.” 

A Commitment to Service

Reverend Sharpton recounted that he started as a boy preacher in Brooklyn at age 12. Soon after, Reverend Dr. William A. Jones Jr., chair of Operation Breadbasket and Ms. Jones Austin’s father, named him as the New York chapter’s youth director. Under the tutelage of Reverend Jones and Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., he said, “I learned that the value of your ministry was the service that you did.” Like Reverend Jackson, Reverend Sharpton has never pastored a church. When people question him on that, he explains “there are different types of ministries, so my civil rights activism is my ministry.”

The work of service and activism are not for those who are career driven, said Reverend Sharpton, it’s work you have to be moved to do. He said that Martin Luther King Jr. had a PhD from Boston University, won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom “and still went down to march with garbage workers, and still said we’re going to have a Poor People’s Campaign. It’s a calling.”

Asked by Dean Lindsey what new social work students about to go into the field should be considering, Reverend Sharpton said, “You should ask yourself, am I going to go and try to make a difference for somebody person by person? Am I going to serve because I believe in service or am I just checking off a box? And if you’re checking off a box, don’t do it. You need to find something else to do. Service in and of itself is a reward.” 

The Long Fight for Social Justice

A lot of today’s activists are impatient for change, said Reverend Sharpton, but it took nine years from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “I tell a lot of young activists, you can’t do three rallies and think we’re going to change the world … Nelson Mandela was in jail for 27 years. A lot of the young people that were with us with George Floyd two years later said ‘nothing happened’ and went on to something else. It never happens that quick.”

Not only is there still much progress to be made but Reverend Sharpton also noted that 55 years after Dr. King’s assassination, signature achievements like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act are under threat. “They are literally disassembling the Voting Rights Act, literally gerrymandering districts, literally putting up different [barriers] to people voting. So in many ways, we can’t commemorate [the anniversary of his assassination] as much as we’re challenged to continue. I think that is what Dr. King would want us to do.”

Maintaining Well-Being

In a question from the audience, NYU College of Global Public Health Dean Debra M. Furr-Holden expressed concern for the mental health and well-being of the young people who leave the movement when change doesn’t happen fast enough. She noted that her own daughter told her that “not seeing [that change] fulfilled is damaging to my spirit.”  

Dean Lindsey said that “well-being begins with a sense of purpose and understanding what your mission is and being able to be intentional about it.” At the same time, he said, you have to be intentional about taking care of yourself. “We have to replenish our battery. We have to sort of step back from [the work] in order to be able to go back to it with a sense of renewed purpose.” He urged adults to help young people both tap into their sense of purpose and strike that balance between activism and self-care.

“I think we have to be patient,” said Dean Lindsey, “because we do live in, as I frame it, a ‘microwave society’ where we want to have it quick and fast. That’s why I really appreciate Reverend Sharpton being with us this evening, because he started at 12 years old and the work still remains. As Martin Luther King Jr. said [in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech] ‘I may not get there with you’ ... owing to the fact that this is a very long journey, but I think if you carve out that sense of mission and what your unique role is in terms of making our society better, it becomes a bit more manageable.” 

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The conversation between Reverend Sharpton, Ms. Jones Austin, Dean Lindsey concluded our three-part series on Centering Social Justice in Social Work. Recaps and video from the first conversation, featuring Ms. Jones Austin, Dean Lindsey and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Linda Lausell Bryant, and the second conversation, featuring NYC Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom, Ms. Jones Austin, and Dr. Lausell Bryant, can be found at socialwork.nyu.edu.