Should Al Sharpton Apologize?

The racial politics of reconciliation in New York

His legion of white critics believe it's so easy: all Al Sharpton has to do is mount his soapbox and come clean about the lowdown, dirty, spontaneous utterances elicited from him in the heat of black advocacy. As the rhetoric intensifies in the wake of the Steven Pagones defamation verdict—which declared Sharpton, along with Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, had libeled the former Dutchess County prosecutor by accusing him of raping Tawana Brawley over a decade ago—some maintain it is foolhardy of the millennium-bound black mayoral hopeful to continue to frown on sound political advice.

But few of them are privy to the enduring sense of despair in one who could never hope to overcome Steven Pagones. Few of them live in Al Sharpton's world, one in which kowtowing or genuflecting to the dictates of whites likens him to a black servant.

The classic epithet for such conniving is a "boot-lickin', buck-dancin' Uncle Tom."

Indeed, such a rebuke awaited Sharpton last week when he was portrayed as being ready to curry political favor with white voters. Three days after the verdict, the Daily News's Pulitzer prize–winning columnist Mike McAlary speculated, following an interview with Sharpton, that the Baptist minister was "within weeks of apologizing to Steven Pagones." He quoted Sharpton as saying, "I believed somebody. Maybe that's the worst thing I did. I believed Tawana Brawley. . . ."

McAlary wrote that the Brawley affair remains "the only chapter in his story, it is argued, that keeps the reverend from being recognized as a great civil rights leader."

McAlary's controversial interpretation of Sharpton's remarks seemed to widen a rift between Sharpton and Maddox, who has long feared that Sharpton was being used by forces intending to break down black political coalitions such as the one between his ultra-militant United African Movement and the minister's more mainstream National Action Network. In the past, Maddox's supporters have accused Sharpton of undermining the interests of black voters in an attempt to broaden his political base.

In a rare interview with the New York Post, Maddox warned Sharpton that he would not only alienate supporters but commit political suicide if he apologized to Pagones. "It would concern me about Rev. Sharpton politically if he did that," Maddox said. "It would be a problem with his base if he apologized."

At a packed rally at his House of Justice in Harlem Saturday, Sharpton moved swiftly to downplay rumors of an apology, while taunting the jury, which was considering how much of $395 million Pagones should get for damages. "Charge me with whatever you want," Sharpton dared. "I will not be silent; I will not sit down."

He said in an interview with the Voice afterward that protocol within black activist political culture mandates that protecting black people's interests comes first.

In this case it's Tawana Brawley's.

"I would never, ever apologize for what I felt was right," he says. "I had no gut feeling that told me Tawana did anything wrong. There is no logical reason why I would not have advocated on her behalf when she pointed out Steven Pagones as one of the white men who raped her."

He says he won't be influenced by pressure from whites, who want to make an example of him. "It's all about submission," he asserts, rejecting the call for him to be a model black penitent.

Sharpton reminded his critics that he had apologized for using the phrase "white interloper" to describe a Jewish businessman whose Harlem clothing store was firebombed after a boycott Sharpton participated in. But in the case of Pagones, "they are asking me to grovel," he claims. "They are asking me to submit to them. They want black children to say they forced a black man coming out of the hardcore ghetto to his knees."

Since the verdict, he has come to the conclusion he would "never live down Brawley," in the same way that rumors he was a Mafia front man and an FBI informant, who tried to supply authorities with information on fellow black activists, have dogged him at various high points in his political development.

Apologizing for malapropisms or fighting words is an issue all too familiar to blacks, says Sharpton, recalling how the Reverend Jesse Jackson's reference to some Jewish leaders as "Hymies" and New York as "Hymietown" came back to haunt him during his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. That transgression spawned other attacks on Jackson. Several Jewish leaders criticized Jackson for what they claimed was his pro-Arab, anti-Israel point of view. They were especially outspoken after Jackson visited the Middle East in 1979, and when he was photographed embracing Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasir Arafat.

"I remember the pain of 1994 when Jesse went to the Park Avenue Synagogue and tried to make a speech about reconciliation," recalls Sharpton, a political ally of Jackson. "People got up in the audience and heckled him. I saw a guy I respected humiliated."

The humiliation of Jesse Jackson is not the only poignant reminder to Al Sharpton that apologizing to Steven Pagones isn't worth it. He's been thinking a lot about Jitu Weusi, a former adviser to his political campaigns and leader of the controversial black power Unity Party.

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