Father of the Movement

How Al Sharpton rose from 'racial arsonist' to racial healer, and changed New York City

Since the reverend no longer "injects himself" into every potentially high-profile case that reaches his headquarters daily, he was wary of the February 5 phone call an aide received from Mohamed S. Jalloh, the head of the Harlem-based Guinean Community Association. Jalloh, according to Sharpton, told Moses Stewart, the head of the Network's crisis-intervention center, that police were trying to cover up the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Diallo, and that this was a perfect case for Sharpton.

In the course of Stewart's inquiry, a detective from the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau allegedly called Sharpton to assure him that the department would leave no stone unturned in its investigation, and that the reverend should convey that message to the African American community.

"They never call me," Sharpton sneers. "That got me suspicious." Sharpton felt himself being sucked into the maelstrom that now was swirling around the incident. He organized a vigil at the site where Diallo was killed and, after a minor uproar within the Guinean Community Association over Sharpton's role, he got the green light to act as an adviser to the family.

Manhattan, 1999: Sharpton, with Jewish support, leads a multi-ethnic sit-in against police brutality.
Andrew Lichtenstein
Manhattan, 1999: Sharpton, with Jewish support, leads a multi-ethnic sit-in against police brutality.

On Monday, February 8, when it was reported that Mayor Giuliani had contacted Amadou's father in Vietnam, and that he was on a plane to New York, Sharpton feared that City Hall would try to upstage him. "I said to myself, 'Oh my God, the father may be persuaded by the mayor.' " He subsequently learned that Amadou's mother also was headed to America. "Oh God, what are they trying to do here?" Sharpton asked an aide.

Sharpton devised a plan to wrest control of the distraught mother from Giuliani. "You and other members of the Association need to go to the airport and explain to the mother the politics of what's happening because the city is gonna try to separate us," he told Jalloh during a rally at Foley Square. That's the plan, Sharpton insisted. If Giuliani gets hold of Mrs. Diallo, it will be a public-relations victory. Jalloh delivered his remarks and left promptly for the airport.

About an hour later, he called Sharpton on his cell phone. "They took the mother off the plane," Sharpton recalls Jalloh saying nervously. "We can't talk to her! The police have her!"

"My heart sunk in my shoes," Sharpton says. "I went back to my office and waited for the other shoe to drop. I turned on the TV and there she was. Amadou's mother had been taken to Wheeler Avenue by the police. TV captured her collapsing. I'm sitting there saying, 'Well, they got them now.' I don't think the Diallo family is going to understand this picture; the city will feed them its version of the killing of their son."

Around 5:30 p.m., Jalloh and Dr. Delois Blakely, the African American community's "ambassador to Africa," walked into Sharpton's office. They said that Mrs. Diallo wanted to meet Sharpton. Miffed by what he viewed as Giuliani's attempt to control Mrs. Diallo, the reverend snapped, "About what?"

"We don't know," Jalloh responded. Sharpton paused. Either Mrs. Diallo was summoning him to tell him to butt out of the investigation or to ask him to help her seek justice for Amadou. Sharpton accompanied the emissaries to the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue, where the city had put Mrs. Diallo.

He was greeted by a phalanx of cops and Karl Waters, an attorney who had represented Amadou. "The ranking officer looked at his men and said, 'That's Al Sharpton, should we let him in?' " Waters vouched for Sharpton and he was allowed past the cops. On seeing Sharpton, Mrs. Diallo reportedly pleaded, "Reverend Sharpton, I know who you are and what you do; would you please get these police away from me? They killed my son!"

"My heart came back to my chest and that's when I knew she was with us," Sharpton recalls.

For the next three hours, Sharpton consoled Mrs. Diallo, offering to move her out of the hotel, take care of her financial needs, and defray the cost of flying Amadou's remains back to Guinea. Sharpton reached out to Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker and Frank Mercado-Valdez, two members of his board, asking them to raise money.

At about 11:30 that night, Mrs. Diallo called Sharpton at home. "Reverend Sharpton? Madame Diallo," he remembered her saying. "I changed my mind."

Sharpton's heart sank again.

"I thought the city got to her," he says.

But Mrs. Diallo wanted no part of Rudy Giuliani. "I don't want to move tomorrow," she cried. "I want to move tonight! Get me out of here! Now!"

Sharpton pleaded with Mrs. Diallo to spend the night at the Stanhope at the mayor's expense; he still had not raised the money. "She was determined to leave then," he remembers. The next morning, the reverend escorted Mrs. Diallo out of the hotel in the full glare of the cameras, denying Rudy Giuliani the photo op he was hoping for to diffuse mounting anger in the African American community, and the chance to send a message that Amadou's mother had accepted his explanation of how her son was killed.

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