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Some of Sharpton's confrontations involved hardcore racist and anti-Semitic overtones. In December 1995, a black man barged into Freddy's Fashion Mart in Harlem, shot and wounded four people, then set a fire that killed him and seven others. The man was protesting the eviction of a black-owned record store by Fred Harari, the Jewish owner of Freddy's from whom the black businessman had subleased space. Sharpton, who did not know the assailant, had attended one protest and said during his weekly radio broadcast, "We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business." The tragedy became the buzzword for racial and economic tensions in Harlem. Sharpton has since apologized for making the remark.
In contrast, supporters of Khallid Muhammad view the incident at Freddy's as one of the more effective examples of confrontational politics. Khallid, they contend, will never publicly apologize to Jews, whom he calls "bloodsuckers" of the black community. An apology, they say, would dishonor the memory of the Egungun, Khallid's African warrior ancestors.
Even when black politicians and black community activists come together, as they occasionally do in New York City, both sides are suspicious of each other. At first glance, they would seem to be natural allies, but that's not the reality.
For example, it took years for black politicians and black Muslims to see eye to eye on the direction of blacks in America. In the early '60s, at the height of the attraction to black nationalism and black power, black politicians and Muslims grew wary of each other. But some, like Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., maintained a mutual though fragile relationship with the Muslims. The audacious Powell was singled out by Nation of Islam patriarch Elijah Muhammad as one politician deserving of the Muslims' support.
"To my knowledge, the strongest politician of our kind, or the one who comes nearest to giving you political justice in the white courts (if he had our complete backing) is Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. though he is not a Muslim," Elijah said in "The Time and What Must Be Done," a 1964 speech. "A Muslim politician is what you need. But Congressman Powell is not afraid and would not be easily bribed, for he is not hungry. . . . We must give the Black politician, who is for us, the total backing of the 22 million. He must be under an oath to do for you, as near as possible, what you elect him to do or die, if necessary."
Black Muslims began to ask a lot of questions of black politicians, like Powell's successor, Charles Rangel, who was often in the company of Malcolm X. Rangel also knew Louis Farrakhan. "I knew young Farrakhan, so we go way back," the congressman recalls.
Just before the 1993 mayoral election, Farrakhan tried to hold a "Stop the Killing" rally in Yankee Stadium. The incumbent mayor, David Dinkins, welcomed the Minister, but his opponent, Rudolph Giuliani, opposed the rally, declaring that if he were mayor, he would not allow it. Although Farrakhan eventually had his rally, and delivered his message, at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, it was Rangel who worked behind the scenes to ensure the NOI's rights were protected.
"The interesting thing is that while the newspapers were so busy saying that the Muslims were coming to Yankee Stadium, I was on the phone talking with Chicago and working out something because the last thing they wanted was to get involved in the mayor's race," Rangel recalls. "They wanted to have a rally, and what happened was that the contract said that they could have this space unless there was a sport event. The scheduling then went back to the city, and they gave the date to the Department of Parks. They're blaming them for trying to upset Dinkins, but I have never met with any group that is more dignified and courteous than the Nation of Islam. In the eye of a tornado created by the press they never got involved in that."
Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir, AP, and UPI.