"Most people never figure out why they were born"

Rev Al Sharpton has advice for students

By Matthew Moss 3min read

Homerton yesterday hosted an energetic and penetrating talk by the Reverend Al Sharpton, the US civil rights leader - with great advice for students derived from a vocation of advocacy and campaigning.  

He started by considering the end of life.  Reverend Sharpton famously gave the eulogy for George Floyd, killed in 2020 by a police officer kneeling on his neck - and he was in the UK the week after giving yet another eulogy, at the funeral of Tyre Nichols, a young Black man beaten to death in by police in Memphis.  His remarks to a full Great Hall at Homerton drew on those and many other experiences of funeral orations:

I've given eulogies too for Michael Jackson and James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Rosa Parks.  But the most difficult funerals I've ever spoken at are the funerals of people who never did anything in their life.  So what is your life's meaning?  What will it mean?  What if you accomplish something, but do nothing with those accomplishments?

He quoted Mark Twain - "the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why" - and said:

At the end of your life no-one will care how many degrees you had or how many cars you had.  They will remember those who served more than themselves.  Service is the real reason to be alive.

Rev Al Sharpton speaking from a lectern at Homerton College

Reverend Sharpton was in the UK for the launch of a documentary film, Loudmouth, which traces his journey from firebrand "rabble-rouser" to a campaigner trusted by US Presidents - without losing the passion and vision for a more equal society that motivated his early career as a preacher.  Lord Simon Woolley, the Principal of Homerton College, has known "Reverend Al" for 30 years, and campaigned with him in the US and UK for voter registration. 

The audience experienced the power (and wit) of Reverend Sharpton's rhetoric at first hand, hearing for example that "to have education without character is like putting on cologne without bathing".  And he brought his audience up short by observing,

Sharpton was not our name - it was my great-grandfather's owner's name.  I don't know my name.  And you have the option of being bitter, you have the option of being angry, you have the option of being getting revenge, or you have the option of taking the country the other way, and choosing not to duplicate that [hate] within yourself.

Commenting directly on the recent murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis by five Black police officers, he said "It doesn't matter what colour the people doing the beating are - but the colour of the person being beaten does matter.  I don't think they would have done that to a white man...  I'm not looking for better or darker slavemasters." 

Eager questions ranged from the role of the church in the US civil rights movement to the gospel music that inspires him.  He finished to a standing ovation.

Lord Woolley said of his guest:

"He's been my friend, a mentor and a spiritual guide in a world full of beartraps and complexity.  Working and collaborating together means both that we support each other, and that we get greater things done.  I was especially pleased that his core message to students was - as his mentor Rev Jesse Jackon would say - "Be Somebody".

Lord Simon Woolley speaks from a lectern with Rev Al Sharpton seated at his left
A Black woman audience member in a headscarf is seated and listening attentively
A white man in a suit is chatting to a Black woman and an elderly Black man dressed in a light-coloured winter coat
A young Black woman stands with a microphone to ask a question
Rev Al Sharpton and Lord Woolley standing together on the podium
A young Black man with a beard stands with a microphone to ask a question
A photograph from the back of the hall showing audience members from the back, with Rev Al Sharpton and Lord Woolley seated on the dais in the background
The audience crowds around Rev Sharpton at the end of the event
Rev Sharpton stands with his hand on the shoulder of a shorter Black woman wearing a blue winter coat

Photographs in the gallery are by Jane Liechty (Homerton PGCE 1995-96)