Should Al Sharpton Apologize?

The racial politics of reconciliation in New York

In 1989, at the zenith of David Dinkins's campaign to become the city's first black mayor, a political firestorm erupted around Weusi, who was head of a pro-Dinkins group called African Americans United for Political Power. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith accused Weusi of writing "scores of anti-Semitic articles" and of having referred to Jews as "vile money-changers" and "shylocks."

For Weusi, 58, the charges opened a deep wound he believed had been healed by the passage of time. In 1968, Weusi, then known as Leslie Campbell, was one of the rising black educators in the New York City school system. Then he became involved in the controversial struggle around the education of black children in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville School District.

He says he was invited by Julius Lester to appear on his program on radio station WBAI to talk about "what can come as a result of this type of struggle." Before reciting a poem written by a 14-year-old high school student, Weusi recalls, he issued a disclaimer that they were the views of the student and in no way reflected his thinking.

"Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head," the poem began. "You pale-faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead." In January 1969, a New York Post article accused Weusi of reading an anti-Semitic poem on a radio program and suggested that he was an anti-Semite.

In retrospect, Weusi says he read the poem, despite his better instincts, at the urging of Lester—who is now a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Massachusetts. Recalling "the havoc that was wreaked in 1969" as a result of the Post story, Weusi says he received death threats and returned to his Brooklyn apartment one day to find the front door firebombed. The incident became one of the hallmarks of black-Jewish tensions in those days.

"This went on for some time, not to mention the damage to my professional career as a teacher," Weusi says. "I was denied consideration for scholarships and programs. I had to watch people who were less effective as teachers become administrators and supervisors. The irony was that I was raised around Jewish people. Some of my parents' earliest friends were Jewish. I had been to a Jewish camp. I knew more about Jewish culture than many Jews knew. But nobody looked at that and said, 'Oh, how could this guy be anti-Semitic with all the stuff he's been exposed to?' It was just a cold-blooded, 'You read the poem; you're anti-Semitic.' Bam! Labeled!"

According to Weusi, during the '70s he repudiated the poem many times "but that whole thing just tarnished my ability to make a living in the field of education." (The ADL claims in 1971, Weusi, under the pen name "Big Black," wrote that Jews had to be eliminated "by any means necessary"and authored other anti-Jewish articles in a publication called Black News. Weusi denies using the alias.) Unable to rectify the damage to his reputation, Weusi left the public school system in 1970 and founded one of the city's first independent elementary and high schools for black children—the Uhuru Sasa Shule. He stopped calling himself Leslie Campbell.

Twenty-one years later, he was a campaign worker trying to get David Dinkins elected mayor. After a story in The New York Times suggested that Dinkins's campaign was faltering in the boroughs, Weusi organized a massive show of support for Dinkins in Brooklyn.

"The next afternoon I get a call," he says. "Somebody tells me, 'Hey man, you better be careful, they're looking at you. They're revealing that you're the guy who 20 years ago read that anti-Semitic poem. They're getting ready to drop that on Dinkins.' "

Although it was 1989, Weusi felt like he had time-traveled back to 1969. The story didn't begin to surface until it looked like Dinkins was a real threat to the incumbent, Ed Koch. Dinkins beat Koch in the Democratic primary and was at that point headed for a showdown with Rudy Giuliani.

"I guess they had to pull out all the stops," Weusi says. The ADL also began to target Sonny Carson's role in the campaign. In a letter to Dinkins, the ADL complained that Carson, who was a volunteer worker, had made anti-Semitic remarks in 1967. Meanwhile, Newsday broke the story about the infamous 1969 poem.

The bad publicity threatened to derail Dinkins's chances. Weusi says that he and campaign manager Bill Lynch mutually agreed that he should step down. "They were trying to smash Dinkins with this anti-Semitic thing, and Dinkins, who had a good record in the Jewish community, needed the Jewish vote," he says. In a letter to Lynch, Weusi said, "I harbor no anti-Semitic views now, nor have I in the past." Weusi called the poem anti-Semitic and "inflammatory."

Lynch told the Voice that Weusi made the ultimate political sacrifice, and that Dinkins had no role in deciding Weusi's fate. He emphasized, "Jitu fell on his sword for the good of the campaign."

After Dinkins was elected, Weusi harbored no illusions of being appointed to his administration. "The mudslinging that had associated my name with anti-Semitism barred me from access to any job that Dinkins wanted to reward me with for the 99 percent turnout in the black community, which enabled him to win the election. How could he do that with the way the media bashed me?"

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