Bigger and Blacker

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

"I'm really frustrated, and maybe you can help me," Koch told Sharpton after the show. He revealed the details of his Second Chance project. Its main purpose, he pointed out, is to afford those with non-violent felony records, who have served their jail sentences, an opportunity to earn a pardon, have their criminal record expunged, and turn their lives around.

"The Second Chance proposal is not a retreat from being tough on crime," he told Sharpton. "In fact, we believe that individuals who complete the program— because they will be able to obtain jobs and be more likely to marry— will less likely become repeat offenders. The program would be available only to those who have not engaged in violent crime. We believe that most of those who would be eligible have been convicted of drug possession or sale."

While the program will be available to all without regard to race or gender, the group most affected is young black males, Koch argued. "Those with felony records are often unable to get a decent job and find it difficult to marry, since young women prefer spouses who can support a family," he explained. "They also lose their right to vote, and they become pariahs and crime recidivists. We want to break that cycle."

Photograph By Robin Holland

Under the program, executive pardons and expungement of criminal records would be authorized by Congress and participating state legislatures. "Then, when asked if they have ever been convicted of a crime by a prospective employer, the former felons could honestly answer, 'No,' " Koch said. "In addition, their civil rights would be restored."

After Koch defined the project, he asked Sharpton if he had any ideas, since he and Ogletree were at an impasse with the advocacy organizations. "I'm gonna see Jesse Jackson this week, and if Jesse likes it I'm with you," the minister told Koch. Two days later, Sharpton contacted Koch. "Jesse loves it," he said. "I am with you." Sharpton, Koch recalls, also brought up the subject of making a public apology for his role in the alleged Tawana Brawley hoax. "I told Jesse about your advice to me about apologizing," Sharpton offered.

"You listen to that man," replied Koch, giving the impression that Jackson had urged Sharpton to come clean. "He is giving you good advice."

Ed Koch wanted the world to know that he and Al Sharpton, former political enemies, are working together now. Earlier this year, he invited his new friend to dine at the upscale Four Seasons restaurant. "Could I bring the press?" Sharpton joked. "Why do you think I called you?" Koch replied.

As he left the Canaan Baptist Church, Ed Koch may have reflected on what some blacks are calling his Day of Atonement. Finally, Koch has bridged the racial divide, resolving the painful debate over his turbulent relations with the city's African Americans. He left Harlem not as a recidivist liberal Jew but as a mensch whose "Lazarus heart" has grown bigger— and blacker.

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas

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