Reverend Norris's Big Mouth

After a long-awaited showdown with Hillary Clinton, an ally of Al Sharpton triggers a vicious debate about guilt by association

"Get Norris on the phone!" the Reverend Al Sharpton barked as he stormed into the Harlem office of his National Action Network last Tuesday. It was the morning after the Reverend Charles Norris—"an insensitive knucklehead" with a "forked tongue," as one editorial would later describe him—had stabbed his old friend Sharpton in the back at a Martin Luther King Day celebration attended by Hillary Clinton.

With every minute it took to contact Norris, Sharpton's foul mood worsened. He'd been up all night, replaying on his VCR the minister's controversial comments about being fired by two Jews. Shortly before the long-awaited meeting between likely Senate candidate Clinton and Sharpton took place, Norris, a Network board member and last-minute warmup speaker, implied in a speech that he had missed King's historic March on Washington because he was working for Jews. Referring to his former employers, the pastor of the Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church in Queens declared: "Miller No. 1 was a Jew. Miller No. 2 was a Jew. I was then employed by yet another Jew by the name of Jesus . . . and will not be fired until he thinks it's necessary."

Of all the days Norris might have spewed his anti-Semitic rage, why, mused Sharpton, as he fiddled with the VCR, did he pick King Day—the day the First Lady had chosen to bow to months of political pressure and finally meet with him? To Sharpton, it seemed like a sick joke spliced into the videotape to discredit one of the greatest triumphs of his burgeoning political career. Norris had some explaining to do.

"Norris on line three!" an aide heard a secretary announce. According to the insider, Sharpton grabbed the phone and lit into Norris before the politically connected preacher could utter a word. "Norris!" the civil rights leader shouted. "Either the Republicans told you to set up Hillary Clinton or you're one of the dumbest Negro preachers I ever met! Either way, I'm denouncing the statement. It's insensitive to Jews . . . and I resent that you would use our platform to do that."

After the telephone confrontation, the aide recalls Sharpton saying that every time the minister tried to tell him he'd been apologizing for his mistake, he cut Norris off. "Apology or not," Sharpton fumed, "I don't tolerate people misusing our platform and misusing our people!"

Sharpton hung up, and paced angrily in his lawn-green carpeted office overlooking Madison Avenue. A political firestorm had erupted over Norris's remarks, and although Sharpton repudiated Norris emphatically, critics demanded that he remove Norris from the board. The next day, Norris again attempted to reach out to Sharpton, who was attending a black economic-empowerment conference at a downtown hotel. In a conference call with Sharpton and Network chair Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, Norris, a Sharpton aide confirms, offered to resign. "He said if they want to put him off the board he'd accept the punishment," the source recalls. Walker reportedly told Norris the entire board would decide his fate at its next meeting, on January 29.

The political fire directed at Sharpton in the aftermath of Norris's remarks touched off a vicious debate on the politics of guilt by association. On King Day, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani held a prayer breakfast at Gracie Mansion. Sharpton's supporters loudly criticized Giuliani's tribute, claiming that those who attended were handpicked lackeys who might have broken with Dr. King for denouncing the mayor's alleged mistreatment of African Americans.

Among Giuliani's guests were the Reverend Betty Neal, chief executive officer of Ministers of Harlem USA Inc., a conservative group that "works closely" with the NYPD and is one of Giuliani's biggest boosters in black neighborhoods overrun by brutal cops. During a prayer that she offered, Neal locked arms with Giuliani, and asked God to grant him "the Senatorship" if he desired it. For some blacks, Neal's God Bless Mr. Devil prayer blasphemed King's legacy. But apparently even the devil felt that Neal's political entreaty went over the edge. The mayor laughed throughout the prayer, a response other blacks contend is symbolic of his attitude toward them. "The only mayor of a big city who could not go into any African American community on Martin Luther King Day is the mayor of this city," Sharpton declared.

Giuliani seemed impervious to the criticism. After all, he has black friends, too. Later that evening, the mayor joined about 2000 people, including Joerg Haider—the right-wing extremist leader of Austria's anti-immigrant Freedom Party—at a dinner given by the Congress of Racial Equality, which is led by conservative black activist Roy Innis. Two days after the event, former mayor Ed Koch blasted Giuliani for sharing a dais with Haider, who had once openly praised the policies of Adolf Hitler.

"Is that a place to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, to be on the same dais as the leader of the neo-Nazi party in Austria?" Koch asked at a City Hall news conference. "Why didn't he denounce Joerg Haider? Why didn't he order Joerg Haider out of the hall?" (The mayor's spin doctor, Sunny Mindel, said Giuliani—who is known to be obsessed with guest lists for security reasons—"didn't know" Haider was there.)

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