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.)

Innis and his son, Niger, fired back, with the elder Innis referring to Koch as "a political prostitute, palling around with a known political gigolo, [Congressman] Charlie Rangel [who is] pork-chopping for Al Sharpton!" Consider this exchange with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on last Friday's Hannity & Colmes show on the Fox News Channel:

Roy Innis: Well, Sean, first of all, there is absolutely no moral equivalent between this person, Sharpton board member, making some obscene remark, with obscene implications, and Joerg Haider, the leader of the second largest party in Austria, coming to the CORE dinner, especially after . . .

Hannity: Are those charges true about Mr. Haider?

Roy Innis: No, its not true. It's not true at all, and I can tell you why it's not true. First of all, I challenged Haider before a panel of blacks, Jews, whites, Christians, journalists, a broad cross-spectrum of people [at] the Marriott Hotel on November 4. He denounced all Nazi association or sentiments. . . .

Niger Innis: Look, the fact of the matter is, our dais is made up of over 80 people. We had the Israeli ambassador sitting there. We had the former New York regional director of the ADL. For the fact of that matter, I talked with a couple of friends over at the ADL a couple of days ago, who told me that Joerg Haider is not an anti-Semite. He's not a Nazi.

Hannity: It's a lie.

Roy Innis: He's an extremist. They believe he's extremist. They don't particularly like him, but they do not consider him to be a Nazi. . . . And this guy, Charles Norris, sits on Al Sharpton's board right now!

Young Innis maintained that Koch had declined an invitation to confront Haider at the November 4 meeting. "Yeah, we invited Ed Koch," he said. "Ed Koch said, 'I'm sorry, I can't make it, but the next time you guys invite me to something, I'll be there.' "

But Ed Koch never dines with alleged Nazi sympathizers.

At the National Action Network, some of Al Sharpton's lieutenants were relieved that Norris's comments had not evoked a stronger response from the First Lady. They had feared that Mrs. Clinton, in her quest for votes, would make the same mistake her husband made. In 1992, while addressing Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, presidential candidate Bill Clinton rebuked rapper Sister Souljah, who had been quoted in a Washington Postinterview as saying, ". . . if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Clinton said that if the words black and white had been reversed, "you might think David Duke was giving that speech." One news analysis at the time concluded that Clinton's attack "served to portray him as opposed to both racial prejudice and the harsh brand of militant rhetoric that chills middle-class suburbanites." Clinton apologized after Jackson told reporters the former Arkansas governor used "very bad judgment" in attacking Souljah before his group.

Mrs. Clinton, an insider points out, did not hold Sharpton responsible for Reverend Norris's comments and refused to pander to Sharpton's critics. "How Hillary treated Reverend Sharpton is a lot better than how Bill treated Jesse," the source argues. "What would have been devastating is if Hillary had attacked Sharpton: 'You know, Al, you shouldn't have had somebody like that there.' Some of us felt that Norris gave Reverend Sharpton an opportunity to look good in his finest hour—he denounced bigotry and anti-Semitism. So in the Sharpton camp we're thinking, 'Some tremendous victory!' "

For several months since his condemnation of Hillary Clinton for bypassing key black neighborhoods during her so-called listening tour, Al Sharpton had been anticipating a political victory. "They said it wouldn't happen," he told the parents of Amadou Diallo, the Reverend Calvin Marshall, and a Voicereporter who had joined him in his office to await Mrs. Clinton's arrival.

Sharpton appeared to be nervous. He sprang to his feet when the phone rang, screened calls, and consulted with Michael Hardy, his attorney and confidant, who acted as a buffer that day between the reverend and scores of dignitaries coming out of the cold, clamoring for a seat in his House of Justice.

At the podium, Sharpton moderated as usual. Things moved along smoothly until the Secret Service signaled to Hardy that Mrs. Clinton was in front of the building and Sharpton should come out to greet her. "We were all thinking, 'What could possibly go wrong?' " Hardy says. Before departing, Sharpton told Hardy to ask Reverend Norris, who was on the dais, to take over. He also instructed Hardy to caution Norris "to keep it spiritual. Stay away from politics. Keep it on King."

Hardy whispered the directives in Norris's ear. Norris seemed to be doing okay until he had to stretch his remarks because of a delay in getting Mrs. Clinton into the building.

Hardy recalls, "I was clearing the area because the Secret Service were saying, 'Until she takes the stage, nobody can be sitting behind her.' In my other ear, I heard Norris talking. I heard him say, 'Jew.' Then I heard Jesus. I didn't hear the context. So I didn't know if it was positive or negative, but then I kind of saw people looking kind of weird."

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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