Bigger and Blacker

How the former mayor made Al Sharpton kosher and is winning back the hearts of African Americans

'Do you miss me?' the gangly figure chimed, his nutcracker face, once pudgy and jowly like a self-described overweight 'Jewish god,' beaming in response to a standing ovation from a jam-packed, predominantly black audience at Al Sharpton's 45th birthday celebration in Harlem last week.

'Rudy Giuliani has made their memory of me affectionate,' asserts former mayor Edward I. Koch as he reminisces about the "generous reception" he got at the historic Canaan Baptist Church after David Dinkins introduced him. In many ways, Koch's appearance at Canaan was a stunning achievement for the former top politician and Sharpton. Their joint advocacy of a Second Chance initiative— which would wipe clean the criminal records of mostly black non-violent offenders— became the turning point in ending years of feuding, testing the depth of racial reconciliation in their beloved city.

"I got calls from people saying, 'What are you doing? You're making him kosher!' " the 74-year-old Koch remembers. "I said, 'Look, if we can find people who are leaders, he is a leader. When he asks 500 people to get out in the streets to demonstrate they come. Most people can't do that. That's a leader. If I can change him so that he recognizes that he has a responsibility to [quit being] a demagogue, isn't that helpful to New York?' The people say, 'Yeah, it is.' "

Photograph By Robin Holland

But Ed Koch soon discovered that black people can be wary of putative pariahs like him, even though he and Sharpton had been united in declaring that black men and women are facing a social crisis and need the Second Chance project as a way out. Some of the strongest opposition has come from members of the nearly all-Democrat black caucuses.

"I am discouraged by the lack of interest displayed by a number of advocacy organizations, all of which like the concept, but, for whatever reasons, will not add the proposal to their agendas," Koch complains. "We have attempted to interest the NAACP, the Black Caucus in Washington, and the Black Caucus in Albany, but we have not been successful."

The trip to Canaan could have been disastrous for the bad-ass "Citizen Koch" turned racial conciliator. Despite his call for healing, Koch contends in his latest book, Giuliani, Nasty Man, that Dinkins— who defeated him in the 1989 Democratic primary and then beat Rudy Giuliani to become the city's first black mayor— "egregiously mishandled the response to the pogrom in Crown Heights," and that's why he threw his support behind Giuliani in 1993. In fact, Koch did not know what to expect as he traveled late uptown to Sharpton's birthday party in a shiny, black Lincoln with tinted windows.

He'd long sensed that his controversial tenure still might ignite strong feelings among some African Americans, particularly over the issue of, in the words of one critic, "Koch-era police brutality." But as he strode boldly to the podium, warmly embracing Dinkins, Koch did not look like a fearful man. "The last time I felt this brotherhood was in 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi, when I went there to defend blacks and whites who were fighting for the right to vote," Koch recalls. "I felt very secure in that church."

At Canaan, Koch felt safe in the company of an eclectic black and Latino leadership that included activist attorney Alton H. Maddox Jr. and the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, two of his fiercest political rivals. Neither Maddox nor Daughtry showed any evidence of the hostility that sparked years of warfare in which Daughtry often referred to Koch's policies as "anti-black," and Maddox depicted the ex- mayor as "a racist." As Koch reflected on his greeting of Maddox and Daughtry, he remembered "mulling over" their racially charged battles. "I used to fight with these guys," he says. Koch intimates that he felt sorry for Maddox, the ultranationalist who chairs the United African Movement, which bars whites from its weekly rallies. "I kept thinking about him and how awful it must be for him," says Koch, referring to Maddox's now nine-year suspension from practicing law for refusing to cooperate with a lawyers' disciplinary committee and for controversial comments he made during and after the Tawana Brawley investigation.

"When I saw him, all kinds of emotions ran through me," says Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn. "Obviously, my mind went back to the battles we've had."

Daughtry led a group that disrupted Koch's mayoral inauguration in Brooklyn in 1978. "I snatched the mike and said, 'You can't speak in Brooklyn until you address the police killing of 15-year-old Randy Evans.' " Although the alleged police brutality had occurred under the administration of outgoing mayor Abe Beame, Daughtry felt that Koch— "with whom we had been friendly"— should have taken up the cause for justice. Koch recalled the incident in a 1994 Daily News column: "I turned to Daughtry and asked, 'Why are you doing this? I just got elected. I didn't have anything to do with that police matter.' Then I offered to meet with him at City Hall to discuss it. He agreed and left with his entourage."

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