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

Hardy seized the microphone and introduced another speaker. But it was clear to some astonished visitors that Norris's remarks threatened to mar the historic moment. With all of Sharpton's enemies poised for battle, Hardy noted, "if you're looking to start trouble, you can take what Norris said and then make it into something." The first to make something of it was one of Sharpton's bodyguards, who is Muslim. "Norris did something very insensitive," he complained.

"What did Norris do?" Sharpton inquired.

"He had everybody yelling 'Jesus!' and as a Muslim I was offended."

"Why would he have people yelling 'Jesus' at a rally like that?"

"I don't know," shrugged the bodyguard (who did not mention the offensive reference to Jews).

Shortly after Mrs. Clinton and her entourage, which included Ed Koch and former mayor David Dinkins, were ushered into Sharpton's office, former deputy mayor and Clinton adviser Bill Lynch told Sharpton that someone had complained to him about Norris's speech. Sharpton summoned Michael Hardy, who confirmed that Norris had gone off the deep end.

"I'm not going to tolerate Jews or Muslims being offended. I will make a statement," Sharpton declared.

"As soon as [Mrs. Clinton] walked in, Representative Eliot L. Engel of the Bronx raced over to inform her press secretary, Howard Wolfson, of what had taken place," according to New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney. "Mr. Wolfson sent a note up to Mrs. Clinton on the podium, who inserted a line in her prepared speech specifically criticizing anti-Semitism."

After Mrs. Clinton's speech, one of Norris's former colleagues at the New York City Commission on Human Rights confronted him in the presence of onlookers. But the tremendous pain his statement had caused had not hit home to Norris. He could not figure out what all the fuss was about. Recalls Norris, "He said to me in a very belligerent tone, 'You made a mistake! You offended a lot of people and you must apologize!' I was surprised at his approach because I thought he was my friend; he is Jewish. My feeling was if I had offended him I would think that my friend would have approached me individually and not in a crowd. I didn't know what offended him." Norris then asked another friend what was so bad about what he'd said. "Rev, your statement was somewhat risqué, and maybe it should not have been made at this time," the friend replied.

Later, after praying over the matter and asking God to enlighten him, Norris says he began to realize Sharpton and others were justifiably upset. "There are times when people who are speakers say the wrong thing at the wrong time," he reflects. "This is something that should not have been said at this time, and I regret it."

Norris denies he told the story to illustrate his former employers' alleged insensitivity to his desire to participate in King's March on Washington. "I regretted not having gone, but it had nothing to do with my employers," he emphasizes. "My intent was to show that at a critical time in my life I had no animosity toward Jews."

When a reporter asks him to respond to the allegation that he was a plant by Republicans to sabotage Sharpton, Norris laughs. "I had no political agenda," he insists. "I have always been a registered Democrat. I have never been tied to Republicans. That's so left-wing, so radical, it's unbelievable." He points out that he and Sharpton have been friends for 10 years. "I would do nothing to hurt, to camouflage, or to impede the progress that Reverend Sharpton has made in his years of leading African American people. Nothing!"

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas

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