Bigger and Blacker

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

Sharpton convinced Daughtry that Koch was sincere about working with African Americans once again. "Based on what Reverend Sharpton has said to me, I'm prepared to extend my hand to Mayor Ed Koch and to say in a biblical phrase, 'If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.' " It is a hand that Koch says he extended to make a pact with God in 1987 when he had his stroke. "God has kept his word with me," Koch declares in I'm Not Done Yet! "He has not taken me one slice at a time. I intend to keep my bond with Him, and use my alloted time in a positive way. The untimely and truly tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., at age thirty-eight brought home for me with even more emphasis how fragile we all are, and posed for me the question I now ask myself every day: Why was I saved? The simple response is that God is not yet finished with me, and I remain relevant."

Ed Koch is having the time of his life with his newfound ally Al Sharpton, a political up-and-comer who routinely faces questions from Koch about his more bombastic past.

"Over the years, we've had discussions and I've always said to him, 'You're a black leader; you apologize for Tawana Brawley and for your statements that were anti-Semitic and anti-white. I don't happen to believe you're anti-Semitic. I believe you're a demagogue.' And he said to me on a number of occasions, 'I'm thinking about it. I'm thinking about it.' "

Photograph By Robin Holland

The mayor and the reverend had a rocky relationship from the start, and Koch likes to remind people that he was "the first American" to send Al Sharpton to jail after Sharpton staged a sit-in at City Hall in 1978. Koch can't remember whether Sharpton had an appointment that day he showed up at City Hall with about 25 black members of the clergy. The deputation demanded to meet with Koch. The mayor obliged and ushered Sharpton and the ministers into the Blue Room.

"I don't think I had met him before," he says of Sharpton, adding that the medallion-wearing activist was "in full regalia, big this, big that." After introducing all of the ministers, Sharpton declared, "I have a petition here."

"Well, let me read it," said Koch, who perused the document and asked Sharpton to elaborate on its demands. As Koch remembers, it called for $50 billion in reparations. "It required me to have 200,000 summer jobs and a whole host of things. I think we had about 65,000 summer jobs. So I'm thinking to myself, I don't wanna start a big riot here by just saying, 'Please leave.' " Koch tried to disarm Sharpton.

"Look, you just presented this to me, why don't you leave it with me and let me study it?" he told the minister. "I'll get back to you."

"No, you're gonna sign it now!" Sharpton demanded.

"The meeting is over!" declared Koch, who stood up and stormed back to his office. Sharpton and three ministers followed him. "We're gonna sit down here in your office so that nobody can get in or out!" Sharpton said.

"Please don't do that," Koch pleaded. "You have an absolute right to picket me. Go out on the steps and do whatever you want, but you cannot stop people from entering my office."

"We're sitting down here until you sign it!" came the rebuff from Sharpton. Aghast, Koch turned to a police officer. "Cop!" he shouted, "Remove them!" As far as Koch could remember, no police officer had ever ejected anyone from City Hall for engaging in a civil disobedience protest. "Mayor, what if they resist?" the cop whispered.

"Have you never heard the word arrest?" Koch bellowed. "Arrest them!" Koch swears now that that historic confrontation "in a way bonded" him and Sharpton.

Several years later, as Al Sharpton was raiding crack houses and painting red crucifixes on the doors to exorcise drug dealers, Ed Koch was privately declaring war on the criminal-justice system. Koch was appalled that the mandatory minimum sentences and stepped-up enforcement that began with Nelson Rockefeller's so-called "war on drugs" had fallen disproportionately on blacks. Nearly one in every three young black men is serving a criminal sentence in prison, on probation, or on parole. Blacks, Koch realized, are more likely to be prosecuted under federal drug laws than whites guilty of the same offense.

"Many of these kids— a lot of them white— who use powder cocaine, get probation," Koch emphasizes. "Blacks using a cheaper drug, crack cocaine, in less quantity, get a minimum of five years and more. And it's just wrong."

In 1994, Koch launched an ill-fated campaign to enlist New York's prominent politicians and major black-advocacy groups in his fight. They blew him off. Maybe it's a racial thing, he thought. He recruited Charles Ogletree, the noted Harvard law professor, who is black. It didn't help. Koch was discouraged. Then one day last year he was invited to participate in a panel discussion on Black Entertainment Televison. The moderator said Al Sharpton would be there.

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