Mainstreaming Demagoguery: Al Sharpton's Rise to Respectability, Part 1
By: Carl F. Horowitz
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, June 05, 2009
This is part one of an in-depth report on Al Sharpton. It originally appeared on the website of the National Legal and Policy Center and appears with the author's permission. To download the full document as a PDF, click here. -- The Editors.
Al Sharpton, civil-rights activist, racial politician and ordained minister, is an angry man. And he’s not going to “mellow” anytime soon. Anyone doubting as much need only have been around his home base of New York City on April 25, 2008. After a seven-week trial, a state Supreme Court Justice had just acquitted three police detectives, two of them black, on all counts related to the November 2006 shooting death of a young unarmed black man, Sean Bell, leaving his bachelor party. Sharpton quickly swung into action. “This verdict is one round down, but the fight is far from over,” he announced. “What we saw in court today was not a miscarriage of justice. Justice didn’t miscarry. This was an abortion of justice…We are going to close the city down in a nonviolent, effective way.”
On May 7, less than two weeks later, he and his followers made good on the threat, blocking streets and entrances to the Triborough, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. More than 200 marchers, including Sharpton and Bell’s parents, were arrested. Though the facts of the case were a good deal more complicated than Sharpton had led the public to believe (as this report later will explain), Bell’s fate, he insisted, could have been that of any young black man in America. It was another command performance for Sharpton, who with several other defendants, were convicted for disorderly conduct.
Since the mid 1980s Reverend Al Sharpton, known to friends and allies as “the Rev,” has been a fixture in American public life. His calling is “justice.” Unfortunately, he defines the term in ways that defy common sense and moral integrity. As a preacher, politician and media manipulator, he stokes the fury of black audiences prone to viewing reality through a lens of black victimhood at the hands of white victimizers. Through his Harlem-based nonprofit organization, National Action Network (NAN), Sharpton relentlessly plays offense against any person or organization he believes has perpetrated, or turned a blind eye from, injustices against blacks.
Though he won’t say it, his actions underscore his belief that the ends justify the means. Thus, if he evades taxes (as the IRS and New York State and City officials now allege) or slanders the reputations of innocent persons (as he has done more than once), in his mind such actions
are legitimate because his ulterior motives are noble.
Despite a not-unexpectedly poor showing in his 2004 Democratic Party presidential run, Sharpton’s stock continues to rise. He leads marches, hosts a syndicated radio show, travels extensively,
and meets with leading public figures. NAN, which began on a shoestring budget in the early Nineties, has become a major political voice. That raises an interesting question: Who’s
backing him? It takes serious money to keep someone like this in high gear. Much of the explanation can be found in the suites of our largest corporations. Here is a partial list of companies
sponsoring National Action Network’s 10th annual conference, held in Memphis in early April 2008 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King: Abbott Laboratories, Allstate, Anheuser-Busch, Citigroup, Colgate-Palmolive, Comcast, Continental Airlines, Daimler-Chrysler, FedEx, Ford, General Motors, Home Depot, Johnson & Johnson, Macy’s, Pepsico, Pfizer and Wal-Mart. Colgate-Palmolive, singled out as “Corporation of the Year,” admitted at its annual shareholders’ meeting in New York several weeks later that it had donated $50,000 to National Action Network. It wasn’t just major corporations who lent their imprimatur to the event. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose agency manages roughly $140 billion in public-employee pension funds, announced early in 2008 his intent to earmark a large share of assets to causes supported by Sharpton. That commitment earned him a “Keeper of the Dream” award. Labor unions also made their presence felt. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), plus a few New York
City-based unions, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Locals 1199 and 32BJ and the United Federation of Teachers (the local affiliate of the American Federation of
Teachers), were co-sponsors. Clergy included NAN Chairman Reverend W. Franklyn Richardson and Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, lead pastor of Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church
and a co-recipient of a “Keeper of the Dream” award.
By attracting support from prominent individuals and organizations, Sharpton effectively has joined their ranks. His image refurbishment campaign, by any reasonable measure, has been a success. During the Eighties and much of the Nineties, he was the enfant terrible of the civil-rights movement, a public-relations agent’s nightmare. But he’s evolved into a media celebrity. He’s published two autobiographies.1 He served as guest host for the December 6, 2003 segment of NBC-TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” during which time he was an active candidate for U.S. president. During 2004-05, he hosted the Spike television network show, “I Hate My Job,” a working stiff ’s version of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” He’s appeared as a guest in episodes of such popular television series as “New York Undercover,” “My Wife and Kids,” and “Boston Legal.” For the last few years he’s hosted a syndicated daily radio talk show, “Keepin’ It Real with Al Sharpton,” operating out of the studios of WWRL-AM (New York City) and broadcast by the XM (satellite) and Radio One networks. In 2008 he appeared in a frequently-aired TV promotional spot alongside conservative televangelist Pat Robertson, part of former Vice President Al Gore’s anti-global warming campaign, “We Can Solve It.” This campaign for personal reinvention
has helped make Al Sharpton arguably the nation’s top civil-rights leader—even more prominent than his fellow publicity-seeking elder ally, Jesse Jackson. Sharpton’s base of operations is National Action Network, located at 106 West 145th Street in Harlem, N.Y. The group’s motto is “No Justice, No Peace” and has dozens of active chapters around the nation. Through NAN, he goes into attack mode, tossing aside his made-over image. Today’s Al Sharpton no more hesitates to inflict war upon a person or community supposedly guilty of injustice toward blacks than the Al Sharpton of 20 years ago. To “the Rev,” what matters is maintaining the illusion that blacks are second-class citizens. Armed with moral indignation, selective facts, and contempt for law, Sharpton relishes the opportunity to generate mass outrage over any incident appearing to confirm this view. His recent campaign to exploit tensions in a Louisiana town underscores why he can’t be trusted.
On September 20, 2007, Reverend Sharpton and several other prominent activists led an estimated 20,000 marchers through Jena, Louisiana, population 3,000, to protest a supposed denial of justice.2 The county prosecutor had filed attempted murder charges against a half-dozen local black high school students who, unprovoked, had severely beaten a fellow student, a white, on school grounds. The details of the incident, which occurred the previous December, were not in dispute. What had aroused Sharpton’s fury was that the defendants were facing criminal charges, yet the prosecutor had declined to take similar action against three white students who in September
2006 had been suspended by their principal for hanging a pair of nooses from a tree on school grounds. This double standard, he stated after the rally-march, is a reminder of the oppression blacks face every day:3
You think we brought thousands to Jena. You wait ‘til we go to D.C. and bring the whole country, because there’s Jenas all over America. There’s Jenas in New York. There’s Jenas in Atlanta. There’s Jenas in Florida. There’s Jenas all over Texas. Here was Reverend Sharpton doing what he does best—engaging in wild distortions of fact and context in the service of mass action. Quite aside from the absurdity of his conception of America as a vast cauldron of white-on-black oppression, there happened to be much more to the Jena story than he let on. First, some of the accused assailants had a prior criminal record. Second, the students who hung the nooses were unaware of the racial connotations of their act—that is, of the numerous recorded incidents in Southern history of an accused black publicly hung by vigilante whites.4 And third, there was no recent evidence of local denial of rights to blacks.
These and other details, however, hardly mattered to Sharpton. Indeed, he had every reason to ignore them. To have admitted they were pertinent would have been to doubt the black-as-victim narrative and thus his political importance. Sharpton didn’t overtly condone the felonious assault of an innocent white teen by six black peers. But he did argue that the hanging of the nooses was at least as egregious as act, never mind that the white victim was not even among those who’d hung the noose. Indeed, given the preponderance of signs at the march that read, “Free the Jena Six” (as opposed to “Reduce the Charges Against the Jena Six”) and Sharpton’s lack of any concern for the welfare of the beaten white student, it’s fair to say he saw the noose hangings as much worse offenses.
The Jena incident—actually a series of incidents occurring over several months—was vintage Al Sharpton: Take certain details of a supposedly incriminating (against whites) event out of context, recite them incessantly as evidence of how the deck is stacked against blacks, and demand immediate and unorthodox steps to obtain “justice.” It speaks volumes about this nation’s current political culture that Sharpton not only enjoys the support of many leading corporations, but has the Democratic Party’s top tier virtually groveling for his endorsement. That is real power. But to understand how he got that power, it’s necessary to understand who he is and what motivates him.
Who Is Al Sharpton? An Overview
Al Sharpton is a distinct occupational type: the black civil-rights leader. Like past and present figures such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond, Sharpton’s job is to press grievances on behalf of his people. The inevitable frame of reference is black victimization at the hands of whites. This frame, in a contemporary context, is a distortion of reality. Systematic denial of rights to blacks, in the South or anywhere else in America, is a decades-old relic. Since the mid 1960s, blacks in no meaningful sense can claim they have been relegated to pariah status, a fact in large measure owing to generally tolerant white attitudes.5 Moreover, white victimization at the hands of blacks is also real—and indeed much worse, using crime rates as a basis.6
Most black civil-rights leaders are fully aware of this. But they know that to retain their political credibility (especially to their black audiences), they either must downplay or deny it. From their view, when blacks commit crimes, they are responding, consciously or not, to accumulated generations of injustice. Such behavior thus becomes “understandable,” and requires whites to make special moral allowances. Oppression of blacks is as bad as it ever was, the argument goes. It’s just now more subtle.
In a nutshell, this is how Reverend Sharpton sees the world. He explains:
Martin Luther King, Jr., and others faced Jim Crow. We come to Jena to face James Crow, Jr., Esq. He’s a little more educated, a littlemore polished, but it’s the same courthouse steps used to beat down our people. And just like our daddies beat Jim Crow, we will win the victory over James Crow, Jr.Paradoxically, Sharpton is also an advocate of black self-help and moral responsibility. In the conclusion to his second autobiography, Al on America, he writes:8
We have to be just as aggressive, just as hard on ourselves as we are on others. In fact, the only way we can have the moral authority to challenge others is if we first challenge ourselves. We have to be just as vocal about those who use racism as an excuse for failure as we are about the individuals and system that use racism to knock us down. We must take responsibility for ourselves. In a lot of ways we have become our own worst enemy.On the surface, this quote is at odds with the previous one. Yet in fact there is no contradiction. In the first statement, Sharpton is denouncing white America for its legacy of injustice. In the second statement, he is calling upon fellow blacks to do their best, lest they lend credibility to their white oppressors.9 In each case, he operates on an assumption that white racism is ever-present. The two sensibilities—denunciation of white perfidy and exhortation to black excellence—go hand in hand.
What makes Sharpton an especially incendiary figure is his confrontation-oriented narcissism. The man lives for stoking and avenging grievances. Even where a grievance is real, Sharpton makes sure to rub salt into wounds. A slight committed against a single black, intended or not, becomes a grievous crime “done” to all blacks. Should his activism produce troubling, even tragic consequences, he will portray himself a decent, misunderstood seeker of justice. And should an interviewer remind him of those consequences, he responds with aggressive evasion. Several years ago, NBC’s Tom Brokaw asked Sharpton if he would apologize for his role in the Tawana Brawley case, which centered upon the (false) accusation that several white men, including a police officer and a prosecutor, over several days back in 1987 repeatedly had assaulted and raped a black teenaged girl in upstate New York. Sharpton, despite an eventual defamation judgment against him, responded with obfuscation so pronounced that Brokaw dropped the subject.10
Sharpton knows that his ability to connect with his audiences depends on such choreographed denials. To admit responsibility for wrongdoing would undermine his credibility and discourage clients from coming to him. In his world, reputation is everything. His reputation is what enables him to bill himself as an “adviser” or “spokesman” for alleged victims and their family members. His reputation enables him to line up or provide counseling, financial support, media coverage and legal representation so he can make life miserable for the alleged perpetrator(s).
It sounds like a racial reparations racket. Indeed, that’s what it is. Yet remember this: Al Sharpton does not care what anyone thinks of him. As he puts it, “You cannot be a true leader if you care about what people think or say about you.”11 Even the prospect of assassination does not deter him. He received a glimpse of his own mortality early in 1991 when he was knifed by an angry spectator just prior to one of his marches through the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Roughly a half-year later Sharpton recovered enough to fan the flames of a black riot in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights that resulted in property destruction, numerous assaults and a murder.
Sharpton’s civil-rights career has included several quests for elective public office. In this, he has pursued a course similar to that of his boyhood hero-mentor, the late Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, D-N.Y. Sharpton ran for U.S. senator in 1992 and 1994, and mayor of New York City in 1997,12 picking up a huge black vote in each case.13 And in this decade, during February 2003-March 2004, he ran for U.S. president. Even in the Nineties, the thought of Al Sharpton as a presidential candidate might have been good for a laugh. Yet here he was, precisely that. Though his inability to secure the Democratic Party nomination for the highest public office in the land was a foregone conclusion, he managed to get 2 percent of the more than 16 million votes cast in the primaries, much of it after his withdrawal from the race in March 2004. He did especially well in Michigan (7 percent), New York (8 percent), South Carolina (10 percent) and the District of Columbia (20 percent), each with a high black population.
Al Sharpton is never going to be elected U.S. president. But he does wield extraordinary power as a party gatekeeper. All Democratic presidential candidates now solicit his support. In 2000, Bill Bradley and then the eventual nominee, Al Gore, practically genuflected before him at his Harlem headquarters. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry repaid Sharpton for his endorsement by giving him a primetime speaking slot at the national party convention and opportunities to make stump speeches.14 The 2008 election cycle was just as bad. On the eve of the party’s Iowa caucuses, presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and/or high-ranking campaign managers repeatedly called Sharpton for an endorsement.15
There was nothing surprising here. All three had spoken at National Action Network’s 9th annual convention in New York City in 2007, expressing open admiration for their host. Senator Obama, now the nation’s 44th president, said this of Sharpton:16
Reverend Sharpton is a voice for the voiceless, and a voice for the dispossessed. What National Action Network has done is so important to change America, and it must be changed from the bottom up.His main opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, now Secretary of State, if anything, was even more forthright in her support:17
I have enjoyed a long and positive relationship with Reverend Al Sharpton and National Action Network, and I don’t ever remember saying “no” to them and I intend to remain their partner in civil rights as I clean the dirt from under the carpet in the oval office when I am elected president.Most Republicans have been unwilling to fawn over Sharpton, something he acknowledged when he called upon black voters to punish any GOP candidate not showing up at presidential debate forums hosted by the National Urban League and the NAACP. (“We can only assume you weren’t courting us.”)18 But even here are key exceptions. For starters, there is Roger Stone. A longtime Republican operative, Stone for whatever reason helped manage Sharpton’s 2004 presidential campaign. Not only did he give advice, he also put together Sharpton’s application for federal matching funds, raised private funds for the candidate in battleground states, and arranged six-figure loans to National Action Network.19 Even more significantly, President George W. Bush on February 12, 2008, welcomed Sharpton as an honored White House guest, part of the administration’s Black History Month celebration. Alluding to events in Jena, Louisiana, the President cautioned the American people: “The noose is not a symbol of prairie justice, but of gross injustice. Displaying one is not a harmless prank. Lynching is not a word to be mentioned in jest.” Bush made no mention of the beating administered by at least a half-dozen black high school students in Jena of an innocent white classmate. Sharpton expressed his approval of the president’s remarks.20
Al Sharpton indeed has come a long way. A street provocateur with a long history of financial impropriety, character assassination, and incitement to riot, his ability to corral high-level benefactors is uncanny, but in some measure could have been predicted. Media-generated hysteria has become a dominant style of political discourse. And reigning white elites, petrified of being tarred as “racists” or enemies of “diversity” (and subsequent exile to the margins of public life), too often yield to their accusers. Sharpton, like Jesse Jackson, exploits this fear under the guise of “civil rights.” Calling him a rabble-rouser does no good, for he will reply that Jesus of Nazareth, Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King, Jr. also were called rabble-rousers in their day. Numerous corporate, labor, philanthropic and other leaders, whether out of agreement or acquiescence, open their checkbooks.
Sharpton has taken King’s message and given it an extra dose of street theater. He shouldn’t be underestimated. To reach the pinnacle of power takes savvy, energy and an ability to size people up. And Sharpton, as his 2002 autobiographical campaign tract, Al on America,21 attests, has these traits. Often, people who should know better come under his spell. New York Times national political correspondent Adam Nagourney, reviewing Sharpton’s book, called its author “smart, articulate and eloquent...perceptive, funny and fearless.” He added: “As anyone who has heard him talk from a pulpit can testify, Sharpton is a man with a heart and firm ideological beliefs...He has a command of politics that rivals some of the great New York party bosses. No less significant, he has an understanding of the way the press works that rivals more than a few city editors in this town.”22 Former New York City Mayor Edward Koch, who often feuded with Sharpton during his tenure, now says of him: “Al Sharpton is maligned by a lot of people, but I happen to like him. He is a bona fide black leader, and by leader I mean someone who can say, ‘I need people to mobilize and to picket,’ and 5,000 people will come out.”23
When it comes to Al Sharpton, National Legal and Policy Center also believes in a need to mobilize—in opposition. In 2004, the center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Sharpton and a major backer, La-Van Hawkins, a Detroit-based fast-food entrepreneur, citing fundraising and expenditure violations. The FEC eventually ordered Sharpton to return $100,000 in matching funds and denied him access to another nearly $80,000. With this report, the center is continuing its pressure. The goal is to identify, understand and challenge sources of institutional support for Al Sharpton. This support has not been good either for the donors or America as a whole. But to build a case against it, one first must build a case against Sharpton himself. And that means dissecting his lengthy track record as a racial politician.
A Legacy of Demagoguery: The Devil's in the Details
The Early Years
It’s a manifestation of human nature’s dark side: The most appalling and infamous of lives provoke fascination. Countless people who know Al Sharpton only through headlines and newsreels can’t seem to get enough of him. Many have asked: “Why is Sharpton a public spectacle?” “Why can’t he be a sensible civil-rights leader like Martin Luther King?” Actually, there are some very logical reasons for Sharpton’s chosen path in life.
Alfred Charles “Al” Sharpton Jr. was born on October 3, 1954, in Brooklyn, New York to Alfred and Ada Sharpton. The father, a building contractor who in young Al’s own words was a “slumlord,” made enough money to move the family to a large home in the middle-class Queens neighborhood of Hollis. “At one point,” Al Jr. writes, “my father was doing so well he bought two Cadillacs every year, one for my mother, one for him.”24 Young Al wasn’t poor, but he was rambunctious:25
I yelled when I was hungry. I yelled when I was wet. I yelled when all those little black bourgeois babies stayed dignified and quiet. I learned before I got out of the maternity ward that you’ve got to holler like hell sometimes to get what you want.
He would find an outlet for all that hollering early on. At age 4, he discovered he could preach. Encouraged by his parents, young Al was delivering sermons regularly at a local Pentecostal church, the Washington Temple of God in Christ. Dozens and even hundreds of worshippers would gather every Sunday to hear this “wonder-boy preacher” tell it like it is. By age 10, he was ordained as a minister by the church’s pastor, Bishop Frederick Douglass Washington, himself a public figure with his own radio show. Sharpton already had been an opening act for Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, astonishing audiences with his Bible-thumping oratory. At Brooklyn’s P.S. 134, Al would sign his school papers “the Reverend Al Sharpton,” annoying his teachers to no end. Reverend Washington expressed a fervent hope that his prodigy one day would marry his daughter and become temple pastor. The job was for the asking.
It was not to be. And the main reason lay on the home front. Around the spring of 1964, Al Sharpton Sr. left his wife for a younger woman. The added kick was that the woman happened to be his own stepdaughter—that is, his wife’s daughter from a previous marriage. Young Al was dumbstruck; his dad and half-sister, Tina, had run off together. They would have a child, Kenny.26 Meanwhile, Mrs. Sharpton and her two children from her second marriage, Al Jr. and Cheryl, found themselves struggling. They moved out of their Hollis home and into a cheap Brooklyn apartment. She worked as a maid, supplementing her income with public assistance. Young Al sought a father substitute. He soon would find one.
That leads to Sharpton’s first major influence, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the charismatic Harlem clergyman and Democratic New York Congressman.27 Powell, who was born in 1908 and died in 1972, was an enigma. He had extensive white ancestry on both sides of his family, so much so that at first glance it was easy to mistake him for Caucasian. Yet he trumpeted his blackness. He distrusted whites and positively loathed black “Uncle Toms” who took orders from them. Adam Clayton Powell never took orders. And for decades, black America rallied around him because of that.
Powell, who held a master’s degree in theology from Columbia, became a public figure during the Depression. His father had been lead pastor at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Powell inherited the position in 1937. By then, he’d already acquired a reputation as the firebrand chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Employment, in a real sense a precursor to Sharpton’s National Action Network and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Through the committee, Powell organized mass meetings, rent strikes, and threats of boycotts against white employers who didn’t hire enough blacks. The last activity proved especially effective against the management of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the city’s bus transit authority, and white owners of Harlem drug stores.
Politics was a logical next step. In 1941, Powell ran for New York City Council and won, becoming the first black ever to hold a seat. In 1944, he ran for Congress, campaigning for a new seat encompassing Harlem. Again, he won. Almost as soon as he arrived, Powell proved a formidable legislator, applying his taste for brinksmanship to a wide range of issues. He was instrumental—far more than people today realize—in generating support for progressive legislation, especially after becoming chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee in 1961. Many of President Kennedy’s New Frontier and President Johnson’s Great Society initiatives might not have come to fruition without Powell’s persistence.
Adam Clayton Powell, never one to duck combat on Capitol Hill, frequently came home to preach. At age 11, Al Sharpton became part of his audience. Having read a biography of Powell, he was determined to see him. He recalls the first encounter:28
I’ll never forget to this day the first time I actually laid eyes on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He walked out of the side door into the sanctuary in his robe, with that straight, long posture. He walked up those marble stairs to the semicircular pulpit. I thought I had seen God...He had this magnetism and this majestic air. He was very elegant, but at the same time defiant—a real man’s man.
After the sermon, Sharpton screwed up the courage to seek a personal meeting. After persistent pleading with Powell’s secretary, he met his idol face to face. And to Sharpton’s own surprise, Powell recognized him, exclaiming, “Alfred Sharpton! Boy preacher from Brooklyn.” The Congressman, it turned out, was a fan of F. D. Washington’s radio program. It was the start of a long friendship.
But if Al Sharpton learned lessons from Adam Clayton Powell, they weren’t necessarily the right ones. Powell enjoyed flaunting his power, and the money that went with it, regularly shuttling between Washington and his island vacation home in Bimini, the Bahamas. The money for the good life came out of illegal withdrawals from committee funds—or so Powell’s colleagues had determined following an investigation. The House Democratic Caucus in January 1967 stripped him of his chairmanship, and two months later, the full House of Representatives voted 307–116 to exclude him from their ranks. His seat now vacant, Powell campaigned the following month in a special election to get it back. He won. His House colleagues disallowed him from taking his seat. Powell promptly sued to rescind that decision, eventually winning in the Supreme Court in June 1969,29 following his re-election the previous November. He emerged from self-imposed Bimini exile and returned to Congress, but minus his seniority. He ran for re-election in 1970, this time losing in the Democratic primary to Charles Rangel, who would go onto victory in the general election and retain the seat to this very day. Powell, meanwhile, died in April 1972 of acute prostatitis.
Sharpton defends Powell’s legacy, despite the blemishes. He writes: “What I learned from Powell about leadership…is that you can’t care what people think. Adam Clayton Powell did not care about being accepted by society.” In a defining moment, he recalls advice Powell gave him sitting in a car:30
Kid…Don’t ever forget this: If you expose your own weaknesses, they can never use them against you. ‘Cause can’t nobody tell what everybody already knows. What might appear to be reckless behavior on my part is really defense. They can never threaten to expose me, because I expose myself.
Powell also inculcated in Sharpton a hatred of blacks who projected weakness:31
These yellow Uncle Toms are taking over the blacks in New York. Don’t you stop fighting. If you want to do something for Adam, get rid of these Uncle Toms.
Nobody can doubt that Al Sharpton has taken these words to heart.
The second great influence on Sharpton was Martin Luther King, Jr. Around age 13, Sharpton got his initiation into the world of civil rights activism, working as a youth minister in the Brooklyn, N.Y. office of King’s Operation Breadbasket, a multi-city boycott of white businesses owners who allegedly refused to hire blacks or buy from black suppliers.32 Sharpton on occasion did meet King, though the significance of the encounters wouldn’t sink in until after the latter’s assassination. He writes:33
I met Dr. King a couple of times. He knew me as “the boy preacher.” When he would see me, he would say, “There goes that boy preacher!,” and a big grin would break over his face. I felt good being a part of something he was involved in, and the loss (of his life) was definitely felt. But my mother’s reaction—how hard she took it—confused me….
I understood her intellectually, but I didn’t feel what she was saying until about a year later. I went to see a movie at the Loews Theater on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. They were showing “King: From Montgomery to Memphis,” a documentary on his thirteen-year career. At the end of the movie, Nina Simone sang this song: “Why? The King of Love is Dead.” “Turn down your TV set; love your neighbor was his plea,” and she asked, “What we gonna do now that the king of love is dead?” That’s when it hit me…
What we gonna do? We couldn’t just act like, now that King was gone, everything he worked for would stop. As Nina Simone sang her song, they showed Dr. King’s funeral procession. There were horses carrying his body, a horse-drawn wagon with his casket in a glass case trotting through town. That image was all I could think about for days.
I sat there and made up my mind that there was something I had to do. I had to try and keep his legacy alive. I was only fourteen years old, but I knew I could do something, that I must do something. I went back to Breadbasket and asked if I could be youth director and began my journey to carry on Dr. King’s legacy.
A brief revisionism is necessary here. Sharpton’s liberal critics, such as journalist Juan Williams, commonly charge that he has “betrayed” King’s vision. Where King was a selfless crusader who built bridges across humanity, goes the argument, Sharpton is a publicity-seeking buffoon tearing those bridges down.34 This charge isn’t entirely false. King steered clear of anti-Semitism;35 Sharpton (though he vociferously denies it) more than once has encouraged it. King was modest in his tastes; Sharpton is flashy and stays in deluxe hotel suites.36 And King, if mainly because of the era in which he lived, challenged real injustices. Sharpton, by contrast, invents or exaggerates them.
But there are similarities as well as contrasts, and all too often they are lost in our current time. For one thing, the surviving members of the King family long have been among Reverend Sharpton’s staunchest allies. In 2001 King’s now-deceased widow, Coretta Scott King, called Sharpton “a voice for the oppressed a leader who has protested injustice with a passionate and unrelenting commitment to nonviolent action in the spirit and tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr.” King’s oldest son, Martin Luther King III,37 marched alongside Sharpton in Jena and again, two months later, in Washington, D.C., at a rally encircling U.S. Justice Department headquarters. The younger King also co-hosted with Sharpton National Action Network’s “Keeping the Dream Alive” awards ceremony in Memphis.
Second, Sharpton’s tactics aren’t that different from those of Martin Luther King, Jr. King, after all, was Sharpton’s first employer. Sharpton learned from King the importance of creating dramatic effect, especially in the television age. He also learned the value of networking, of building ties to labor, business, religious, philanthropic and other organizations not normally focused on race. King, through his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), fused moral-religious narrative, media savvy and political pressure. Sharpton added to that legacy.
King’s eventual heir, Jesse Jackson, would be another defining influence on Sharpton. Jackson headed the Chicago office of Operation Breadbasket, on occasion visiting New York. It was through the group’s Brooklyn office, headed by a Baptist minister, Reverend William Augustus Jones (eventually Sharpton’s pastor until his death in 2006),38 that Sharpton and Jackson met. “I met the Reverend Jesse Jackson for the first time when I was about twelve years old,” Sharpton recalls. “I was still very much the boy preacher in Brooklyn.”39 Jackson, whom Sharpton calls “my teacher,” seemed impressive because he wasn’t concerned about respectability in any conventional sense:40
He was in his late twenties, and right away we identified with each other. Jesse was younger than the other preachers of that time. He wouldn’t even wear a suit and tie. Jesse always used to wear a medallion like Adam. And he sported the buck vest and a big ‘fro.
I later learned that he had been born out of wedlock and came from a broken home, like I did. He didn’t come out of the seminary, wasn’t one of those collegiate types. He wasn’t like that. Jesse was regular…We just hit off. I became his protégé.
Jackson also provided Sharpton with a job, making him youth director of Operation Breadbasket in 1969. In 1971, near the end of that group’s existence, Sharpton left to form another nonprofit group, National Youth Movement (NYM). He openly acknowledged his debt to Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson in pursuing projects such as: urging black children in Harlem to participate in the then-new Christmastime black holiday, Kwanzaa; organizing and getting arrested at a sit-in demonstration at City Hall to demand more summer jobs for black teenagers; getting arrested for sitting in front of the New York City Board of Education president during a protest; and leading a group of demonstrators along Wall Street who painted red “x” marks on office buildings which he claimed (without basis) were fronts for drug dealing. Sharpton stated NYM had 30,000 members in 16 cities and got drug dealers off the streets. But Victor Genecin, a New York State prosecutor and a now private-sector litigator, countered that the group was “never anything more than a one-room office in Brooklyn with a telephone and an ever-changing handful of staffers who took Al Sharpton’s messages and ran his errands.”41
Sharpton and Jackson would continue their friendship over the years. “Jesse Jackson is probably the smartest person I know,” Sharpton writes. “There’s no one I know who has a more brilliant, fertile mind.”42 While the two have had their disagreements—Sharpton, for example, is far more sympathetic than Jackson toward black nationalists—in the end they have reconciled. When they first met, Jesse instructed Al, “All you got to do is choose your targets and kick ass.”43 Sharpton has shown he’s adept at both.
Throughout his career, Sharpton has emulated Jackson, going so far as to assemble a videotape library of his performances.44 What Sharpton learned is that a combination of media-friendly ambition, intimidation and charisma can go a long way in extracting concessions from whites and covering one’s past. For four decades, Jackson has built a reputation as a leader, telling blacks, and eventually many whites, things they wanted to hear, whether or not these things corresponded to reality.45 As much as Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King, Jackson has displayed a gift for mobilizing crowds into enthusiastic fervor, while keeping messy details of money and power in the background. This sounds like Al Sharpton, too, which is why a closer look at Jackson is in order.
Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr. was born in 1941 in Greenville, South Carolina. Like so many civil-rights leaders, from the beginning he has shown high fluency in the language of the street and the church. In the immediate aftermath of the King assassination in April 1968, Jackson, a newly self-anointed “Reverend,” saw an opportunity to put his skills into practice, though by unorthodox means. He enlisted the help of a violent Chicago gang, the Black Stone Rangers, to intimidate local business owners into making “contributions” to Operation Breadbasket. Under the guise of promoting social justice, Jesse Jackson and his cronies, especially Black Stone Ranger leader Jeff Fort, effectively ran a robbery and extortion racket. Kenneth Timmerman, author of an exhaustive biography of Jackson, quotes a Chicago criminal justice official:46
Jeff Fort and the Jester would make the rounds of the small business owners, telling them that if they didn’t contribute, ‘We’ll burn you down,’ another official recalled. ‘It was a shakedown, pure and simple. They called themselves ‘community organizers.’ In those early days, Jackson boasted of his ties to the gangs. ‘I get a lot of them to go to church. I baptized Jeff Fort at Fellowship Baptist Church,’ he told one reporter.
The Black Stone Rangers would change their name to El Rukn (Arabic for “The Foundation”).47 If this was part of an image makeover, it didn’t work. Its leaders, including Jeff Fort, eventually were arrested and successfully prosecuted for murder, extortion, drug dealing and racketeering. With the Fort-controlled faction in federal prison, a new crop of thugs took over the El Rukns. One of those thugs was Noah Robinson, Jr., Jesse Jackson’s half-brother. Robinson was an unusual character. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance, he came to Chicago in 1969 to become full-time director of Operation Breadbasket’s commercial division. His seemingly respectable credentials ensured ample cover for El Rukn—and for Jesse Jackson, who now headed his own group, Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity).48 “There was one very powerful reason why none of us spoke out more loudly against Jesse for all those years,” remarked one local black minister. “It was fear of the long arm of the black mafia that Jesse’s half-brother controlled.”49 Years later, in 1988, Robinson was arrested in Greenville, S.C., and eventually received life in federal prison for arranging a pair of murders. Jackson, on the presidential campaign trail when the news of the arrest broke, proved the consummate actor, disavowing any connections to his half-brother.
If Jackson has been circumspect about his underworld ties, he’s been positively exhibitionistic in his friendships with present and former leaders of Third World dictatorships and terrorist movements, whom he sees as articulating legitimate grievances. Jackson at various points has drawn close to Fidel Castro (Cuba), Yasser Arafat (Palestine Liberation Organization), Charles Taylor (Liberia), Jose Eduardo Dos Santos (Angola), Ibrahim Babangida (Nigeria) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe)—tyrants one and all—providing support for their causes and securing support for his own. Bill Clinton’s election and subsequent re-election as U.S. president proved to be a boon to Jackson, who had grown close to the president. In October 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appointed Jackson “Special Envoy for the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa.” For years, he would enjoy virtual carte blanche in building a power base among African leaders, on occasion applying face-to-face shakedown tactics he’d practiced on Chicago’s mean streets. He demanded and got, for example, a share of assets privatized by the government of Zambia.50
Jackson’s religion-themed hard-Left egalitarianism also would inform his views on domestic policy. No American welfare state, it seemed, was sufficiently large for him. Even the modest steps that Congress and the Republican White House took to curb federal spending were subterfuges for neglect. Looking back on the Eighties, Jackson noted: “The Reagan years were devastating to us all. For eight years the lights were turned off.”51 This was errant nonsense,52 but his audiences loved it.
During the Nineties and this decade, Jesse Jackson has used his connections and financial backing to go on corporate treasure hunts. Texaco, Nike, Toyota and Anheuser-Busch have been among the companies who, following spurious accusations of racial “discrimination” by Jackson and his allies, have capitulated to exorbitant Justice Department-enforced settlements. Jackson also took on the nation’s citadel of public trading, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), through a new gambit, the Wall Street Project. Setting up shop rent-free in New York City’s Trump Tower, Jackson coaxed large donations from such financial titans as First Boston, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and the Travelers Group in preparation for the project’s grand opening of January 14–16, 1998. President Bill Clinton, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Donald Trump paid their respects to Jackson at the January 15 gala fundraising event on the NYSE trading floor, timed to coincide with Martin Luther King’s birthday. It was the first in a continuing series of extravaganzas.
Al Sharpton proved an apt pupil. Having observed Jackson sanitize his past by ingratiating himself with the pillars of American life, he figured he could succeed in this endeavor as well. Since “powerful” whites had shown themselves to be weak-kneed, Sharpton recognized that merely hurling an accusation of racism could reap big rewards; a company could make its problems go away by making a generous donation to National Action Network. The Memphis confab of April 2008 is a measure of that power.
If Jesse Jackson was Al Sharpton’s teacher, then James Brown was his surrogate father. Brown, more than anyone, came to define Sharpton’s personality and motives. As a child, Sharpton often would accompany his biological father (in front-row seats) to concerts by the late rhythm n’ blues artist at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He, like countless audiences, was entranced by Brown and his band’s manic energy, precision playing and tight choreography. Brown was a Hollis local, too.
In 1973, about a year after graduation from Brooklyn’s Tilden High School, Sharpton met Brown backstage at a concert in Newark, N.J. The two hit it off instantly, especially as one of Brown’s sons, Teddy, was a member of National Youth Movement (tragically, the latter would die not long after in an auto accident). Sharpton took Brown up on an offer to work as a full-time tour manager.53 Sharpton would make Brown’s musical revue the focus of his social and professional life for the next decade, setting up NYM chapters around the country. Here he also would meet his future wife, Kathy Jordan, a backup singer with the band. Sharpton recalls the experience:54
(T)he person who had the greatest influence over me and is most responsible for the man I am today is James Brown. He had more impact on my life than any civil rights leader—maybe even more than my own mother. What I learned from him makes it possible for me to do the things I do today...(My) job was to carry his bag (of cash) around the country. But my real job was just to be his son. James Brown taught me about being a man. He gave me life skills that I never got from my own father. He taught me about self-respect, dignity, and self-definition.
What Sharpton won’t admit, unfortunately, is that his mentor, who died of natural causes at age 73 in December 2006, was himself highly deficient in certain life skills. While it was hard to ignore Brown’s prodigious musical talent, physical energy and business acumen, it was downright impossible to look past his sociopathic tendencies.
“Dissent” was not a word in James Brown’s vocabulary—at least if someone else was dissenting from him. He would levy frequent fines on band members for being late, missing notes, violating his strict dress code, and engaging in back talk, eventually prompting a permanent walkout in 1969 of nearly all members of his original band, the Famous Flames. “James was bossy and paranoid,” recalled former trombonist Fred Wesley. “I didn’t see why someone of his stature would be so defensive. I couldn’t understand the way he treated his band, why he was so evil.”55 Brown’s bullying style also was manifest in his insistence upon an extreme formality of address. In Al on America, Sharpton favorably recalls a backstage incident on “The Tonight Show” in which Brown angrily ordered his band to pack up their gear and walk off rather than play; host Johnny Carson apparently had committed the cardinal sin of addressing the singer by his first name rather than as “Mr. Brown.”56
Brown’s behavior wasn’t simply controlling; on occasion it was criminal. During his teenage years in Augusta, Georgia, he’d done a stint in reform school for a series of car break-ins and burglaries. One might be tempted to overlook these transgressions in light of his youth and extreme poverty. Far less easily ignored were his frequent criminal acts well into adulthood, the best-known of which occurred on September 24, 1988, several years after Sharpton’s departure. High on PCP and armed with a shotgun, Brown led police on a high-speed motor vehicle chase through the streets of Augusta, Georgia and then on Interstate 20 in Georgia and South Carolina until the cops managed to shoot out three of his tires. He was convicted of carrying an unlicensed pistol and assaulting a police officer, plus various drug and driving offenses. He received concurrent six-year sentences from Georgia and South Carolina, serving 15 months in prison and another 10 months in a work release program.57
Brown easily might have gone to prison for another 1988 offense. His then-publicist, Jacque Hollander, alleged that while riding with Brown in a van in South Carolina, the singer suddenly pulled her to the side of the road and raped her at gunpoint. Ms. Hollander, to her regret, did not file a criminal complaint until 2002. The judge dismissed the case on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. Three years later, Hollander filed a civil suit, but again statute-of-limitation requirements precluded introduction of DNA and other evidence. 58 James Brown lucked out.
Brown also generated an impressive domestic rap sheet from his Beech Island, South Carolina mansion, again emerging unscathed. His third wife, Adrienne Rodriguez, had him arrested for assault four separate times, dropping charges in the first three instances and dying of natural causes (in 1996) before following through in the fourth.59 Brown’s old habits would die hard. His fourth wife, Tomi Raye Hynie, had him arrested in January 2004 after he’d pushed her to the floor during an argument. He pleaded no contest, but served no jail time. It wasn’t just wives who had to be careful. On July 3, 2000, police were summoned to Brown’s home after he brandished a steak knife at a South Carolina Electric & Gas repairman, Russell Eubanks, and held him against his will. Eubanks had come to the estate in response to a report of a power outage. An officer from the Aiken County Sheriff ’s Office questioned Brown for about two hours, but did not arrest him.60
Even putting the best face on all this—i.e., allowing for the possibility that some of his offenses were triggered by extenuating circumstances—the fact remains that Brown’s pattern of criminal behavior was not out of line with his banana republic dictator personality. With James Brown, it was either his way or the highway. And since not doing his bidding was a mark of “disrespect,” Brown would have an instant rationalization for exacting retaliation against the “offender.” His accumulation of wealth, fame and power did not mitigate this pattern. Indeed, it likely reinforced it.
Brown’s penchant for crime might not have rubbed off on Al Sharpton, but his narcissism did. Sharpton always has had enormous difficulty understanding the practical limitations of power. He cannot grasp that intimidating others in the pursuit of justice is itself an injustice. Nor can he grasp that his mentor’s legal problems were the result of real crimes. “James Brown in jail,” Sharpton has said, “was the biggest cultural insult to a race that has ever happened.”61 Assault with a deadly weapon, rape, and reckless driving apparently don’t qualify as insults.
What Sharpton grasped from observing Brown’s life, in other words, is that a person can get away with illegal or outrageous acts if he is sufficiently famous, talented, intimidating, or supportive of the “right” causes. In 2003, the State of South Carolina granted James Brown a full pardon for prior convictions. That same year, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. All was forgiven. He was, after all, James Brown.
Al Sharpton left the Brown entourage around 1983–84. It had been a long and productive apprenticeship. Now it was time to do his mentor proud. Through National Youth Movement, Sharpton was going to take “justice” to a new level and in a voice loud enough for the whole country to hear. An incident in a New York City subway car would give him that launching pad.
Bernhard Goetz: The Subway "Vigilante"
By the mid-Eighties, much of the New York City subway system had descended into disarray. Trains and infrastructure were aging; transit union demands were creating fiscal hardship; vandalism was rampant; and violent crime was on the rise. On average, nearly 40 reported crimes occurred daily on the subways. Every New Yorker knew the situation had gotten out of control. What’s more, they knew blacks and Hispanics were disproportionately driving it. Subway riders were taking all manner of precautions, save for one that in almost all cases was illegal: carrying a gun. One man, previously a subway crime victim, was unimpressed.
The afternoon of December 22, 1984, was unseasonably warm. An independent home-based electronics repairman, Bernhard Goetz, 37, boarded a southbound Manhattan Number 2 train at the 14th Street Station. Little did he know, he was about to make history.62 Seated to his immediate right were four black youths—Barry Allen, 19; Troy Canty, 19; James Ramseur, 18; and Darrell Cabey, 19. Approximately ten seconds after Goetz had taken his seat Canty asked him, “How are you?” Goetz responded, “I’m fine.” At that point the four men signaled to each other. They walked up to and menacingly surrounded the seemingly hapless passenger. Canty, acting as the group’s spokesman, instructed Goetz: “Give me five dollars.” Goetz asked, “What did you say?” Canty repeated his words: “Give me five dollars.” Goetz’s response this time wasn’t in the script. He stood up, drew a five-shot, J-frame .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver from under his blue windbreaker, and began shooting. The bullets wounded all four youths, two of them critically.
Only two passengers—women who briefly fainted—remained in the subway car besides Goetz and the four youths. A conductor, having heard the high-decibel commotion, came over to ask the women if they had been injured. They were not. Then he asked Goetz to hand over his gun. Goetz refused, stating, “They tried to rob me.” The conductor left. Goetz, anticipating an arrest, quickly exited at the Chambers Street Station, rented a car, and drove to Bennington, Vermont where he buried his gun and windbreaker.
Word of the shootings and the physical appearance of the shooter quickly spread: Here was this quiet, unassuming white guy who stood up to a group of menacing hoodlums daring to do in real life what only Charles Bronson had the guts to do a decade earlier in the movie, “Death Wish.” The mail pouring into Mayor Koch’s office was running 80-to-1 in favor of this “subway vigilante.” His anonymity would be short-lived. On December 31, 1984, Goetz, believing his discovery was imminent, turned himself into Concord, New Hampshire police.63
Upon his return to New York, the camera-shy Goetz received a hero’s welcome. Dozens of people, including comedienne Joan Rivers, offered to help pay his $50,000 bail. The Guardian Angels, a heavily black and Hispanic red-bereted volunteer crime patrol, spoke in full support of Goetz. New York Daily News columnist Lars-Erik Nelson favorably compared Goetz’s volley to “the first shot fired at Lexington and Concord.”64 The Chicago Tribune’s Mike Royko had some choice words of praise:65
As some of you recall, a few months ago a couple of young men, seeking to increase their net worth, put a gun to my nose. That wasn’t the first time I was robbed or mugged, but it was the closest I’ve come to croaking—either from a twitch of a trigger finger or my own fright.
So as a recent victim, I have a different perspective than that of a reporter…
It goes like this: To hell with the questions. I’m glad Goetz shot them. I don’t care what his motives were or whether he has all his marbles. The four punks looked for trouble and they found it. Case closed.
Further contradicting the notion that Goetz was motivated by “racism” were comments by sympathetic blacks:66
I’m black, and I was mugged twice by punks in Mt. Morris Park going to church services. What is a person to do when they can’t even go to church without getting assaulted? It’s time the decent citizens of all races stop this crime problem and give the police a helping hand.
Another letter read: 67
I’m a black woman. I have been robbed twice, both times by blacks. I didn’t feel safe because they were black boys or the fact that I recognized one of them and thought maybe they wouldn’t hurt me…Bernhard Goetz didn’t see black boys. He saw the color of fear, the color of his life being at stake.
A prominent black civil rights leader, Roy Innis, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, also expressed support: “Bernhard Goetz was about to be mugged and we know it. If I was there I would have done the same thing, with the only possible difference—[the crooks] probably would have been dead.”68 Innis’ anger was justified: A son of his had been murdered in a street crime; another nearly had met the same fate.
Some New York blacks, however, were not sympathetic. Among this group was Al Sharpton. With youthful followers in tow, he launched a full-court press against Goetz. He recalls:69
So I called a news conference on the steps of City Hall and denounced the situation...I went to his apartment house in (sic) 14th Street and immediately we started getting press coverage. We held prayer vigils; we went to all the court proceedings. I had learned those things from the civil rights movement, so to speak…We had never gone to white people’s houses or to their neighborhoods to picket and march. We created drama.”
The drama would prove crucial after a grand jury announced on January 25, 1985, that it would not indict Goetz except for illegal gun possession. Sharpton continued to lead public demonstrations to railroad Goetz. Possibly swayed, the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest) reversed the action, concluding that a reasonable person in Goetz’s position would not have resorted to violence. A second grand jury then convened, this time indicting him for numerous felonies, including assault and attempted murder.
Let’s understand something about Goetz’s “innocent victims.” At the time of the shootings, his four tormentors already had amassed a combined nine criminal convictions. What’s more, they admitted their purpose for boarding the train that day was to rob a video arcade. Robbery wouldn’t have been too difficult either, given that at least two of the youths were packing sharpened screwdriver shanks. Moreover, the Goetz experience made little subsequent impression on the career paths of three of the youths. After his release from the hospital, James Ramseur raped, sodomized, beat and robbed a pregnant 19-year-old woman on a Bronx building rooftop, eventually receiving a prison sentence of between 100 months and 25 years. Barry Allen would go on to commit at least two muggings. Troy Canty continued his career as a petty thief. Only Darrell Cabey, paralyzed from the waist down, was out of commission.
At his criminal trial, Goetz confessed to the shooting, but argued that his action fell under New York State’s self-defense statute. It proved a sound strategy. In 1987, a jury, consisting of 10 whites and two blacks, convicted Goetz on a weapons charge but not on any of the more serious charges. The jury believed the defendant acted reasonably, especially given that back in January 1981 he had been mugged and badly injured by three youths in a subway station. He applied for a gun permit not long after, but was denied. Al Sharpton was not a happy man.
Goetz received a sentence of six months in jail, a year of psychiatric treatment, five years probation, 2,000 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine. The New York State Court of Appeals upheld the conviction the following year. Goetz wound up serving eight months. But peace and tranquility were not to be. Representing Darrell Cabey, radical lawyers William Kunstler and protégé Ron Kuby filed a civil suit in 1985, well before the criminal case had been decided, arguing that Goetz acted recklessly and inflicted emotional distress on Cabey, possessed racial motivations and was a drug user. Though evidence undercut such claims, a jury, after many delays, in 1996 awarded Cabey a princely $43 million, almost as much as the $50 million his lawyers originally sought. Goetz, unable to pay, declared bankruptcy.70 He lived in relative obscurity until this decade, when he made a run for New York City mayor in 2001 and public advocate in 2005. A vegetarian and animal-rights advocate, the mild-mannered Goetz now sells and services electronics equipment through his company, Vigilante Electronics. The man even has a sense of humor.
Al Sharpton, by contrast, does not have much of a sense of humor—or a grip on reality. In Al on America, he calls Goetz a “vigilante who shot two blacks on the subway who were allegedly trying to rob him.”71 Aside from the ironic undercount, Sharpton writes as if Goetz had boarded the train for the sole purpose of shooting blacks. As for the word “allegedly,” Cabey at the civil trial admitted he and his friends had intended to rob Goetz, whom they saw as “easy bait.” Goetz’s action, by any reasonable standard, constituted self-defense, not a “hate crime.” To Al Sharpton, the two concepts were identical—as applied to whites.
A Death in Howard Beach
Even before the Bernhard Goetz criminal verdict, Al Sharpton had moved onto his next project: justice for three young black men, one of whom had been fatally hit by a car while allegedly trying to flee a group of whites in the Queens neighborhood of Howard Beach. On the surface, Sharpton appeared to be in the right. Yet key details, especially those downplayed by major media, revealed him once more to be a racial demagogue.
Howard Beach is a stable, middle-class and mainly white community in southwest Queens located along Jamaica Bay. Though more provincial than Manhattan, it was hardly a haven for “hate crimes.” Any number of blacks lived here without incident. Woody Guthrie, the late folksinger, called the place home for many years.72 Yet during the late Eighties, the neighborhood gained a national reputation as an incubator of white racist brutes. Al Sharpton, more than anyone else, shaped that reputation.
It was the wee hours of December 20, 1986. Three young black men had been riding through Howard Beach, when their car broke down in an isolated marsh-like area along Cross Bay Boulevard. Three occupants—Michael Griffith, 23; his stepfather, Cedric Sandiford, 36; and Timothy Grimes, 20—walked toward a commercial area in hopes of finding personal help or a pay phone (a fourth occupant, Curtis Sylvester, 20, stayed behind to watch the car). The trio found an open restaurant, New Park Pizza, at 156-71 Cross Bay Boulevard. A counter employee told the men there was no phone available. They ordered few slices of pizza anyway and sat down to eat.
Shortly after, two police officers walked in, responding to a call of “three suspicious black males.” Convinced the call was unwarranted, they left. Just outside the pizzeria, however, lay a ticket to mayhem. A carload of white teens accosted the trio. One allegedly asked, “What are y’all doing in this neighborhood?” After a heated exchange, one of the whites attacked the blacks. Grimes escaped uninjured. But the white teens got out of the car and chased Griffith and Sandiford through residential streets all the way to 90th Street, whose dead end abutted the Belt Parkway. The teens split into two groups, one chasing Griffith and the other chasing Sandiford. One of the youths beat Sandiford with a metal bat. But Sandiford would fare better than Griffith, who in seeking refuge crawled through a three-foot hole in a fence and ran onto the parkway. It was a tragic move. An oncoming motorist traveling at about 55 mph, unable to stop or swerve, struck Griffith, killing him instantly.
This, in a nutshell, was the official story. It gave weight to the view that white racism was well and alive even in the most cosmopolitan of American cities. Mayor Koch called the incident a “murder” and a “lynching.” Among New York blacks, the fires of outrage rapidly grew. Al Sharpton stood ready to supply the gasoline.
Sharpton first learned of the incident from a 3 a.m. call from a National Youth Movement worker, Derrick Geter.73 Nicknamed “Sunshine,” Geter was a cousin of Griffith. “Reverend Al,” he said into the phone, “they just killed my cousin out in Queens. Will you come over to the house?” Sharpton wrote down the address and came over. After talking to Mrs. Griffith and Cedric Sandiford, he quickly concluded this was “clearly a racial killing.” New York, he insisted, was at least as bad as the old South.
Now Sharpton, as a matter of principle, always has refused to obey local laws requiring a permit to march. For him, marching in the street is a “human right.” He practiced what he preached on December 27, 1986, a week after Griffith’s death, leading a march through the heart of the neighborhood. “I was standing there at the head of the march of thousands,” he recalled, “...and I’m the one who has called the march. I had arrived as an activist.”74
Indeed, he had. Sharpton and an estimated 1,200 followers proceeded to inflict as much tension and shame as possible upon an entire community. It didn’t matter that the weight of public opinion overwhelmingly was with Michael Griffith anyway, and that the criminal justice system gave every indication that justice would be served. Police already had arrested more than a dozen teens, charging them with murder, manslaughter, assault and riot. Sharpton wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to put all of Howard Beach on trial, baiting them into acting like bigots before TV cameras. Aware of this heralded “Day of Outrage” ahead of time, many local residents lined the boulevard—and took the bait. Many jeered and some even yelled the epithet, “Nigger!” Voila! Howard Beach suddenly became a metaphor for the racism afflicting all of America. Reverend Al had played these people like a fiddle. Many years later, he wrote that his actions were necessary to a healing process:75
In 1986, in New York City, a young black man was killed for being in the wrong neighborhood. In 1950 (sic), Emmitt Till was murdered, lynched, for being on the wrong sidewalk in Mississippi.
We haven’t come that far.
To many in America, racism is a thing of the past. It’s something that happened “back then.” To millions of blacks in this country, it is something we live every day. We know it exists—much to America’s detriment. We must begin to have an honest and open discussion about race in America.
Two people not interested in an open discussion—at least about the events of December 20—were Cedric Sandiford and Timothy Grimes. They had been persuaded by two close allies of Sharpton, black attorneys Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, not to cooperate with the Queens district attorney. Because the criminal justice system supposedly was racist, only a special prosecutor would suffice.
After weeks of pressure, New York Governor Mario Cuomo agreed to appoint a special prosecutor armed with broad subpoena powers. That set the wheels in motion. About a year later, Jon Lester, 18, Jason Ladone, 17, and Scott Kern, 18, were convicted of manslaughter and assault, and received lengthy prison sentences. Three other defendants were sentenced to community service; three others were acquitted; another, Michael Pirone, 17, pressured into turning state witness, got six months in jail.
Yet somehow things didn’t add up. The conventional wisdom had Howard Beach standing as a metaphor for the sickness of white America. The widely-watched NBC movie docudrama, “Howard Beach: Making the Case for Murder,” airing initially on December 4, 1989, echoed this view (though without depicting Sharpton). A closer look reveals that even the guilty white kids had endured excessive punishment. Consider the following facts:76
That certain whites committed crimes was indisputable. And their behavior was all the more reprehensible by their use of baseball bats. Yet their actions must be understood as a response, however inappropriate, to a sense of being humiliated by the blacks’ behavior. The notion that these whites were out-of-control “racists” on the prowl for blacks, any blacks, is ludicrous. But Sharpton did believe this, and worse yet, pointed a moral finger at all of Howard Beach. Residents understandably did not like their community publicly stigmatized. Fitting the facts to the conclusion rather than the other way around was Sharpton’s style. That style would fully bloom nearly a year later.
- The incident had its roots before, not after, the arrival by foot of Griffith, Sandiford and Grimes at the pizza parlor. It was they who had accosted the white occupants of the car, not the other way around. The car consisted of several white males, plus a female friend, Claudia Calogero, whom they were driving home. Griffith, Sandiford and Grimes walked in front of the car, prompting the white driver to yell, “What the hell. I almost hit you—get out of the way.” The remark had no racial overtones.
- The blacks at this point became highly agitated. Sandiford later admitted he said, “F*** you, honky.” Miss Calogero testified that he banged on the car and stuck his head inside a window. Another witness in the car, Jon Lester, testified that Sandiford spat in his face. Worse, one of the other blacks, either Griffith or Grimes, flashed a knife.
- The whites who chased after Michael Griffith did not pursue him all the way to the Belt Parkway; i.e., Griffith had other means of escape. Indeed, some of the pursuers didn’t learn of his death until hours later.
- According to a toxicologist testifying for the defense, an autopsy showed Griffith had a “near-lethal level” of cocaine in his system. In other words, his spatial judgment was impaired to the point where he was unable to make sound decisions regarding his own safety.
- Sandiford’s attackers received first-degree assault convictions, though the assault itself produced only minor injuries. The NBC docudrama depicted him as suffering a severe concussion and requiring 67 stitches, yet hospital records indicated he had no concussion and required only five stitches.
- Jon Lester, the white youth who received the harshest punishment—15 to 30 years—had a black girlfriend, Ernestine Washington, with whom he had broken up about a month before the incident. “Jon was railroaded,” she later said, “for two reasons: the pretrial publicity and the fact that the judge knew the prosecution had to win because they were afraid the city was going to blow up.”
Tawana Brawley: The Girl Who Cried "Wolf!"
Of all the campaigns that have defined Al Sharpton, one still sticks out: his attempt to destroy the careers of several men, including a police officer and a county prosecutor, for their alleged 1987 abduction, beating and rape of a black teenage girl, Tawana Brawley. Ms. Brawley, Sharpton and legal advisers Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, were virtually inseparable during the entire media campaign, demanding arrests and convictions. A grand jury, however, after months of reviewing evidence, refused to indict. And a decade later, a court slapped Sharpton, Maddox and Mason with a combined defamatory judgment of nearly $350,000.
Sharpton has remained unrepentant. Asked in a 1999 interview if he ever regretted his involvement in the Brawley case, he responded: “No. I think if I had to do it again I’d do it in the same way. I probably wouldn’t have gotten into such a personal pissing contest with [New York State Attorney General] Robert Abrams. But I would do the whole thing again.”77 He later reiterated this view in his autobiography. “For me,” he wrote, “it (the Tawana Brawley case) defines my character, because I refuse to bend or bow—no matter the pressures. I took the word of a young girl, and if I had to do it over, I would do it again.”78 And in an April 10, 2007, interview with guest host David Gregory on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Sharpton asserted, “I still don’t apologize.”79
Reverend Sharpton and his followers are free to entertain their illusions, but the body of evidence overwhelmingly leads to only one conclusion: Tawana Brawley made up her story. All her marks of physical abuse were self-induced. Nothing underscores Sharpton’s lack of credibility more than his nonstop campaign to railroad the “assailants” into prison. The facts of the case, fully reconstructed, speak for themselves.80
It was Saturday morning, November 28, 1987, in the town of Wappingers, Dutchess County, N.Y., about an hour’s drive north of the Bronx.81 Local residents were waking up to a horrifying discovery in their midst: a 15-year-old black girl, lying in a garbage bag, smeared with feces, clothing torn and burned, and covered with racial insults drawn in charcoal.
Mrs. Joyce Lloray, a resident of the Pavillion Condominiums, by chance had observed outside her apartment’s sliding glass door a black girl climbing into a big green plastic garbage bag and then lying still on the cold, muddy ground. Mrs. Lloray called the Dutchess County Sheriff ’s Department. When officers and paramedics arrived, they found her in what appeared to be a ravaged state. The girl was named Tawana Brawley. And she had a story to tell. Unfortunately, the key parts of the plot were pure fiction.
Four days earlier, Miss Brawley explained, she had skipped school to visit an ex-boyfriend, Todd Buxton, who was being held at the Orange County Jail in nearby Newburgh, N.Y. That evening she took a bus back to Wappingers, where she previously had lived with her mother, Glenda Brawley, in Apartment 19A at the Pavillion Condominiums complex; they now lived in the nearby Village of Wappingers Falls. According to Brawley, several white men, one of whom wore a badge, abducted her shortly after she got off the bus on her return trip, took her to a remote wooded area, and continuously sexually abused her over several days. Her physical appearance, at least, suggested her story was plausible.
Following the initial encounter with Miss Brawley, a sheriff ’s detective took her to St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, and requested that a rape examination be performed. He later was joined by a detective lieutenant, a detective who specialized in juvenile cases, a uniformed lieutenant, and other uniformed personnel. Dutchess County law enforcement officials clearly were taking this case seriously. Unfortunately, neither Tawana Brawley nor her family had any intention of providing help.
During the early evening of November 28 in the hallway of the emergency room, the boyfriend of Brawley’s mother, Ralph King, was causing a commotion. According to several eyewitnesses, he yelled at the younger Brawley: “Don’t talk to those white fucking cops, they’re not going to help us. We’re going to hire a lawyer and get all those white cops in court and make them tell us what they done.” Three law enforcement officers and the emergency room physician all later testified to a grand jury that Mr. King, a nasty-tempered ex-con who had done time for murder, reeked of alcohol.
Not long after, Sharpton became the Brawley family’s “adviser.” Quickly, he lined up Maddox and Mason to provide legal help, effectively snatching away representation of the girl from NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers. This was a crime beyond all imagination, Sharpton and his friends declared to anyone within shouting distance. Worse yet, they said, the government was covering for the assailants who included: Harry Crist, a part-time police officer in nearby Fishkill, N.Y.; Scott Patterson, a New York State Trooper; and Steven Pagones, a Dutchess County, N.Y. assistant prosecutor and a friend of Harry Crist.
Under enormous pressure from Sharpton and other “civil-rights” leaders, New York Governor Mario Cuomo appointed New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams as special prosecutor. Additionally, a Dutchess County grand jury convened to decide whether to recommend prosecution. Sharpton instructed Brawley to refuse to cooperate with authorities, most of all, Abrams. To cooperate with Abrams, said Sharpton, would be as if “to sit down with Mr. Hitler.” Alton Maddox declared, “Robert Abrams, you are no longer going to masturbate looking at Tawana Brawley’s picture.”82
The grand jury would spend seven months combing through police and medical records, and hearing the testimony of 180 witnesses. Sharpton, Maddox and Mason used this period as an opportunity to stage the ultimate media circus. Sharpton and his friends bused in protestors to the county courthouse on an almost daily basis, leading them in chants outside demanding punishment of the “real” criminals. Television and newspaper coverage was strong even if the evidence wasn’t.
One target, Harry Crist, Jr., already was gone from this world. Only three days after the announcement of the “hate crime,” Crist, 28, reportedly despondent over the breakup with his girlfriend and the news of his ineligibility to become a New York State trooper, committed suicide by gunshot on December 1, 1987.83 Al Sharpton announced to the world that Steven Pagones had murdered Harry Crist to keep his crime against Miss Brawley a secret. What’s more, Sharpton, Maddox and Mason accused Governor Cuomo of protecting Pagones through his allegedly close connections to organized crime and the Ku Klux Klan. “Mr. Pagones and his organized crime cronies are suspects,” Sharpton ranted on ABC’s “Geraldo Rivera Show.” Very publicly, at a March 1988 news conference, he accused Pagones of participating in the “assault” on Miss Brawley and, with the help of another assistant prosecutor, William Grady, of covering up the crime. “If we’re lying, sue us, so we can go into court with you and prove you did it. Sue us—sue us right now.”84 Sharpton also demanded that Governor Cuomo immediately arrest these two “suspects.” When asked for evidence of a cover-up, Sharpton answered, evasively, that they would reveal the facts only when the time was right. Cuomo and other state officials had the good sense not to oblige him.
The grand jury also would be possessed of good sense. On October 6, 1988, the jury released a 170-page report stating, in forceful language, that the case was a complete fabrication. It summation read:
We the grand jury of the Supreme Court, State of New York, County of Dutchess impanelled on February 29, 1988, having conducted an investigation, and based on the preponderance of the credible and legally admissible evidence, conclude that the unsworn public allegations against Dutchess County Assistant District Attorney Steven Pagones are false, have no basis in fact and that he committed no misconduct, non-feasance or neglect in office.
If actual events hadn’t motivated Miss Brawley to come forth, what did? Since she chose to remain mum, nobody knew for sure. But based on the evidence, the most widely accepted explanation was that, having been grounded on the day she visited her former boyfriend, she feared a beating at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. She and her mother had staged an abduction and assault to keep domestic “peace.”
Al Sharpton, to this day, insists the crime was real. Yet all evidence suggested this was a hoax. Consider the following facts:
The June 1988 statement of a former Sharpton aide, Perry McKinnon, ought to have erased any doubts that this case was a planned hoax by Brawley and her “advisers.” A 39-year-old black Vietnam vet who had served as a police officer, private investigator and hospital security director, McKinnon made this astounding admission to federal investigators:86
- Brawley never backed up her initial allegations with an official statement—and even those allegations were sketchy and often self-contradictory.
- Unlike nearly 200 other persons, neither she nor her mother testified before the grand jury, which had subpoenaed the pair. Defying a subpoena happens to be a felony, which explains why they chose to relocate out of state (to Virginia), taking along $300,000 raised by their “defense fund.”85
- Forensic tests revealed no sexual assaults of any kind.
- Brawley exhibited no evidence of hypothermia, odd for someone supposedly held against her will outdoors for days during a time of year when temperatures regularly drop below freezing at night.
- Various witnesses swore they had seen her at parties in a nearby town during the period when she was “missing.”
- Miss Brawley’s mother was seen at the same residential complex, and only shortly before, at which she (Tawana Brawley) was seen getting into a garbage bag.
- Damage to the younger Brawley’s clothing occurred inside her apartment. The grand jury report stated: “The items and instrumentalities necessary to create the condition in which Tawana Brawley appeared on Saturday, November 28, were present inside of or in the immediate vicinity of Apartment 19A.”
- Renowned forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, an expert witness, concluded, “Tawana Brawley’s physical appearance when she was found is consistent with self-infliction and false accusation.”
Sharpton acknowledged to me early on that ‘The Brawley story do (sic) sound like bullshit, but it don’t matter. We’re building a movement. This is the perfect issue. Because you’ve got whites on blacks. That’s an easy way to stir up all the deprived people, who would want to believe and who would believe—and all [you’ve] got to do is convince them—that all white people are bad. Then you’ve got a movement…It don’t matter whether any whites did it or not. Something happened to her…even if Tawana don’t (sic) it to herself.’
The grand jury acquittal four months later would be a disaster for Sharpton, but he would not be deterred. At Pagones’ press conference immediately after the acquittal, an uninvited Sharpton marched in, announcing, “Your accuser has arrived!” Apparently, he wouldn’t leave either. For years, Sharpton continue to hound Pagones, who remained the target of hate mail. Reeling financially, physically and personally, Pagones eventually sued Sharpton, Maddox and Mason in 1997 for defamation of character. In July 1998, after an eight-month trial, a state jury—four whites and two blacks—ruled that Sharpton, Maddox and Mason had made a combined 10 defamatory statements87 and ordered them to pay respective damages of $65,000, $95,000 and $185,000.88 Sharpton refused to pay his share. With accumulating interest and penalties, the judgment against him rose to $87,000. Pagones had managed to collect a portion of that money by garnisheeing his income. Finally, in 2001 a group of wealthy black men, including lawyer Johnnie Cochran, New York City broadcasting mogul Percy Sutton and Black Enterprise magazine publisher Earl Graves, paid off the debt.89
As for Tawana Brawley, Pagones already had won a default judgment against her in 1991 after she repeatedly had ignored subpoenas. The presiding judge, however, waited until after the civil verdict to assess damages. In October 1998, New York State Supreme Court Justice S. Barrett Hickman ordered Brawley to pay Pagones $185,000. “It is probable that in the history of this state,” wrote Justice Hickman, “never has a teenager turned the prosecutorial and judicial systems literally upside down with such false claims.”90
Tawana Brawley wasn’t about to pay up. But prior to the trial, she did come out of the woodwork to speak at Brooklyn’s Bethany Baptist Church, where Sharpton had organized a rally. She told the audience: “It happened to me, and I’m not a liar…What happened to me happens to hundreds of thousands of women every day.” She claimed, without any evidence, that law enforcement paid off certain people posing as witnesses to portray her as a liar.91 Miss Brawley had grown older but not wiser—much like Al Sharpton.
The central players in this sordid drama eventually receded into the background. Alton Maddox was disbarred by the State of New York in 1990; he remains a radical activist today, contributing articles to black-oriented publications such as New York City’s Amsterdam News.92 C. Vernon Mason was disbarred by the State of New York in 1995,93 and is now an ordained minister, serving as CEO of a nonprofit youth-mentoring group, UTH-TURN.94 Steven Pagones became an assistant attorney general for the State of New York. Tawana Brawley converted to Islam and changed her name to Maryam Muhammad.
Al Sharpton, regrettably, did not recede into the background.
In Part II, the author will trace Sharpton's career from the siege of Bensonhurst, Crown Heights, and Freddy's Fashion Mart, to his status as a power broker within the Democratic Party. This originally appeared on the website of the National Legal and Policy Center and appears with the author's permission. To download the full document as a PDF, click here.
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