Bigger and Blacker

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

Koch's relationship with the African American community began its downward slide in 1978 with the death in police custody of popular black businessman Arthur Miller. Two years later, Koch and Daughtry would clash over the closing of the city-run Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. Declaring that the hospital was losing money and did not deliver effective medical services, Koch shut down the facility, calling protesters "rabble-rousers." To Daughtry and other community leaders, the closing symbolized the mayor's indifference to the needs of the black community.

Then there were the congressional hearings on police brutality in 1983, which became a bitter symbol of racial animosity. Black leaders had called for the hearings to probe what the Reverend Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church called "an alarming rise [in] racial violence and racially motivated police misconduct." Koch dubbed the hearings a "circus." He recalled in an interview this summer with NY1's Dominic Carter that subcommittee chair John Conyers, who presided at the sessions, "had to apologize for his earlier statements" that brutality and corruption in the NYPD under Koch was "systemic and pervasive."

Embracing Ed Koch at Canaan was intended to reinforce recent calls by Sharpton for black leaders and their supporters to forget past disputes. Koch's popularity, Sharpton says, has a lot to do with the way African Americans now view him. He is gaining viability as an anti-Giuliani firebrand and winning back their hearts. If they have forgiven him, how did this happen?

Photograph By Robin Holland

Shortly after Ed Koch was elected mayor for the first time, many blacks felt that the man who'd had a distinguished career as a trailblazing First Amendment attorney, Democratic district leader, councilman, and congressman had turned his back on decades of civil rights struggle.

In assessing "the Koch years," some black leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, argued that Koch was one of the first politicians in New York to figure out that if you moved to the right on race and you were loudmouth about it , you benefited, particularly if you were Jewish or Italian ("I'm for capital punishment, are you?" he asked a white woman in an oft-quoted 1977 campaign appearance in Brooklyn). He was one of the first to openly declare that not all Jews are liberals.

These unyielding critics of the former mayor contend that his Machiavellian politics helped to create a a robust Jewish-Italian constituency of closet racists that Rudy Giuliani eventually was able to tap into when he ran against David Dinkins. "Koch laid the groundwork for someone like Giuliani," one Harlem leader claimed. "Some people compare him to [former Alabama governor] George Wallace, who tied together racism and populism and transformed the result into a national movement."

But other blacks resent the characterization of Ed Koch as a stiff-necked Southern cracker. "Indeed Rudy Giuliani is Ed Koch's Golem," says a former Koch insider, but Giuliani exploits his populism and "does things that Koch never would have done" to the African American community. In recent years, Koch has unleashed criticism of Giuliani's stewardship with a vengeance. "You know he turns down demonstration permits," Koch told one interviewer, "he doesn't let people come to the steps of City Hall to petition their representatives. He's running the city like a petty tyrant, which may be appreciated in some Third World countries, but not here."

But why now? Koch's black critics ask. Is he making amends for creating the monster? What has changed him? The answers may be found in what Koch himself attributes to "my Lazarus heart" in an upcoming book entitled, I'm Not Done Yet!

"I've had a stroke," Koch writes in the book, which is to be published next year coinciding with his 75th birthday. "I have a pacemaker to correct an erratic heartbeat. I take seven different prescription medications every day: one to keep my blood thin, another for my benign prostate condition, several beta-based drugs for my arrythmia . . . you get the idea."

It is possible that in his waning years, Ed Koch is trying to reconnect with his roots. (He is supporting Brooklyn councilmember Una Clarke for Congress.) Maybe, some argue, he feels guilty about breaking the covenant that liberal Jews are supposed to observe regarding social justice. By forging an alliance with Sharpton and other black activists and speaking out against the repressive policies of the Giuliani administration, Koch has performed what religious Jews call T'shuva. He has repented. He has atoned for his political sins.

African Africans have come to understand the concept of atonement as laid down by Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, and now some are beginning to view Koch's sudden shift toward them as an act of atonement. You can come back as a new person and black people will accept you. It worked for Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry, who was caught in an FBI sting smoking crack with a woman in a hotel room. Political pundits said Barry was finished, but he begged for forgiveness and was swept back into office by his core constituency.

"I come out of a people who at times go too far in forgiveness," says Daughtry. "However, I must confess that when people express a sincere desire to want to move on from the past— who recognize that they might have made mistakes— I'm prepared to say, 'Fine, let's move on from here,' provided that the person has exhibited sincere behavior patterns that support that they truly want reconciliation."

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