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.

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?"

He charged the attacks on him and Carson were nothing more than a smear campaign engineered by Giuliani. (The mayor's office did not return a call for comment.) In an attempt to rescue Dinkins's campaign, Weusi called on about 20 Jewish women, who wrote letters to the media repudiating the attacks on him. Even his old friend Julius Lester failed to sway Weusi's critics. "I've had all kinds of disclaimers, rejoiners, apologies, and still, whenever the media wants to pull this old anti-Semitism bone out of the bag, boom! I get hit over the head with it," Weusi laments.

In 1990, Weusi founded the Unity Party and became its gubernatorial candidate. Because of the continuing controversy his involvement in the Dinkins campaign engendered, some Democratic Party candidates were pressured against running on the Unity Party line.

After reading McAlary's column suggesting that Sharpton would apologize, Weusi predicted that the same troubles he has seen would soon be visited upon Sharpton if he caved in to media pressure. "I don't see anything that Reverend Sharpton has to apologize for," Weusi says. "I think that in his conduct as a civil rights leader he has been very responsible."

Bill Lynch, too, has been studying the Sharpton debacle in the aftermath of the Pagones verdict. "Will an apology heal? Historically, it has shown it doesn't heal anything," declares Lynch. "I'm as frustrated as Al is about what he has to do."

The 1991 riots in Crown Heights, which followed racial incidents throughout the 1980s in other parts of the city, were a major blow to New York's always-explosive race relations. Dinkins was harshly criticized by Jewish groups for failing to take stronger action—criticism that helped destroy his 1993 reelection bid.

In April of this year, Giuliani apologized for his predecessor's alleged lack of action, saying it was Dinkins's fault the city had to pay $1.1 million to settle a lawsuit by Jews who claimed Dinkins failed to protect them during three nights of rioting in which Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic Jew, was fatally stabbed.

"I was in the hospital at the time that they had the settlement," scoffed Lynch, a deputy mayor in the Dinkins administration, who is recuperating from a kidney transplant. "Do I need to tell you how traumatic that apology was for me? Part of my illness was caused by Crown Heights."

Lynch warned that the political enemies of those who sometimes consider themselves "too black, too strong" never forget when they are slighted. He recalls that when Dinkins contemplated making a political comeback in last year's Democratic mayoral primary, his critics dredged up the tragic events in Crown Heights and were prepared to remind voters all over again of Dinkins's association with reputed anti-Semites like Weusi and Carson. "For us, race is politics," he says.

He predicts that Jesse Jackson will suffer the same fate if he decides to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. "Although folks understand his role in the country a little better, the situation hasn't gotten better for him," Lynch declares. "Generally, people feel like they did in 1984 after the Hymietown remark."

For now, Al Sharpton broods in his Garden of Gethsemane. Was it his God or a jury of his peers—which says he must pay for the vicious things he's said about Steven Pagones—that finally brought the reverend to his knees? Should he apologize to Pagones, whom he now acknowledges is "a man with a family, a man who has got to live in a community"? What will happen to Sharpton if he apologizes? What will happen if he doesn't? God knows how much he has struggled with those $395 million questions.

"I am listening to my own conscience," he says. "It is my decision. I have seen what they did to Jesse Jackson and Jitu Weusi, who were counseled into apologizing. The same people who urged them to do it turned around and continued attacking them. Now my critics in the Pagones case are saying, 'Trust me!' Trust you?"

Research assistance: W. Michelle Beckles

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