By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
To many, Rev. Al Sharpton has been and remains a controversial figure.
Reverend Al, as many of his admirers call him, heads the National Action Network, an organization he founded in 1991 to advocate for Black and poor people. The organization has made a priority of fighting against voter suppression and voter ID laws, as well as combatting racial profiling, stop-and-frisk policing, and police brutality.
In addition, during the past few years, Sharpton has been a prominent, almost ubiquitous, presence for innumerable Black families who have lost loved ones to police violence. His advocacy has helped to keep that serious issue nationally visible.
Shapton also hosts the MSNBC show PoliticsNation on weekends and is a contributor on various other MSNBC news shows. In addition to current political doings, he addresses important political issues that might not otherwise be given national attention. His style is more educational than militant.
Thus, Sharpton is Johnny-on-the-spot for abuses of power wielded against Black people. As far back as 2012, former New York Mayor Ed Koch told the Associated Press that Sharpton had justly earned respect from Black Americans, adding, “He is willing to go to jail for them, and he is there when they need him.”
However, Sharpton’s fiery and sometimes recklessly unthinking rhetoric in the 1980s and early 1990s created a long-lasting impression that he is a noisemaker who, at best, overshadows the causes he represents and, at worst, merely uses them for self-aggrandizement.
Sharpton’s first serious misstep was his advocacy on behalf of Tawanna Brawley. In 1988, Tawanna Brawley, a Black teenager, was found alive covered with feces and wrapped in garbage bags outside the Pavilion Condominiums in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. Parts of her hair were cut off, her pants were slightly burned, and there was a racial slur scrawled on her body. Brawley said she had been held for four days and repeatedly raped by a gang of white men, one of whom had a police badge.
Given how Brawley was found, it was understandable that Sharpton declared his support for her. But as evidence mounted that Brawley may have fabricated the events, Sharpton alleged there was a cover-up in the investigation, and threw around unsubstantiated accusations of participation in the alleged rape by the Assistant District Attorney Stephen Pagones.
A grand jury dismissed the case, and afterwards, Brawley’s attorneys faced disciplinary proceedings from the New York State Bar for their conduct. In addition, Pagones sued Sharpton and Brawley’s lawyers for defamation and won $345,000 in damages. Sharpton’s share was $65,000. For many observers, Sharpton will never not live down this fiasco.
Another controversy stoked by Sharpton’s actions came in 1991, when he led a protest march through the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn after an Orthodox Jewish motorist accidentally ran his car into two children, killing a seven-year-old Guyanese immigrant, Gavin Cato, and severely injuring his cousin. While the child remained pinned under the car, the Jewish driver was taken away in a private ambulance on the order of a police officer, who later said he was worried for the driver’s safety.
After being extricated from under the car, Cato and his cousin were treated by a city ambulance. However, rumors that the private ambulance refused to treat the child set off four days of rioting by Black residents, during which Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Jewish scholar, was attacked by a mob and stabbed to death by one of them, Lemrick Nelson, Jr.
After the riot, Sharpton led a march through Crown Heights, and incited more anger with contemptible rhetoric like: "If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house."
And in his eulogy for Gavin Cato, Sharpton declared: "The world will tell us he was killed by accident… It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights.”
Added Sharpton, “Talk about how Oppenheimer [Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, a German-born industrialist who was prominent in diamond mining in Africa] in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid...All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise, no meetings, no kaffe klatsch, no skinnin’ and grinnin’. Pay for your deeds."
Years later, Sharpton wrote an acknowledgement in The Daily News that his language and tone had exacerbated tensions and played to extremists. He wrote: “Twenty years later, I have grown. I would still have stood up for Gavin Cato, but I would have also included in my utterances that there was no justification or excuse for violence or for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum.”
At a 2022 event celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanza in a unifying holiday ceremony, Sharpton said:
"You can’t fight for anybody if you don’t fight for everybody. I cannot fight for Black rights if I don’t fight for Jewish rights ... because then it becomes a matter of self-aggrandizement rather than fighting for humanity. It’s easy for Blacks to stand up for racism. It’s easy for Jews to stand up to antisemitism. But if you want to really be a leader, you got to speak as a Black against antisemitism and antisemites, and you got to speak as a Jew against racism.”
It can be argued that Sharpton’s change of heart has been too convenient, that because voter suppression and the rise of white supremacist nationalism threaten to utterly undo the rights hard-gained by Black people over decades, he suddenly sees solidarity with Jews as a necessity. However, I think that Sharpton’s change has not been merely pragmatic, but an evolution on his part.
To me, Sharpton’s first indication of growth was his run for president in 2004. While on the debate stage, he pleaded with the other nine Democratic candidates to stop taking verbal swipes at one another and, instead, aim their fire at Republican policies. Sharpton’s manner led me to think that he was not running with any thought of winning, but to make sure certain issues got raised and addressed.
My interpretation was borne out by Sharpton himself when, in 2007, he told Wikinews, "Much of the media criticism of me assumes their goals and they impose them on me…So they will say, 'Well, Sharpton has not won a political office.' But that might not be my goal! Maybe I ran for political office to change the debate, or to raise the social justice question."
In 2019, at a Reform Jewish gathering in Washington, D.C., Sharpton spoke of receiving a call from Coretta Scott King during his Crown Heights activity.
As he recounted it, she said, "Al, the purpose of our movement has never been to just get civil rights for us. It’s to protect and stand for civil and human rights for everyone. Sometimes you are tempted to speak to the applause of the crowd rather than the heights of the cause, and you will say cheap things to get cheap applause rather than do high things to raise the nation higher."
Sharpton said that nothing ever affected him more than Mrs. King’s “gentle but firm way of correcting some of my excesses.”
All this suggests to me that in his earlier activist years, Sharpton may have been overeager to jump at any apparent wrong without sufficiently investigating the circumstances, and, as King put it, played to the crowd. The change in his thinking and actions may well have occurred because he took her criticism to heart.
Though he has matured, Sharpton still seems intent on highlighting and combatting all injustices he sees. Thus, he has taken a role in organizing protests to obtain investigations of police and vigilante killings of unarmed Black people around the country—such as those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Tyre Nichols, Tanya McDowell, and Trayvon Martin.
If Sharpton’s rhetoric has cooled somewhat, his passion has not. On May 1, Jordan Neely, a homeless man, was choked to death on an northbound New York City subway train by former marine Daniel Penny. Penny has claimed that he was protecting himself and other passengers from Neely and had not intended the death. It appears that Neely was shouting about being hungry but was not physically threatening anyone. Penny has since been charged with manslaughter.
In his eulogy for Neely, Sharpton denounced Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for calling Penny a “good Samaritan.” Sharpton pointed out that the biblical good Samaritan helped a starving man, but that when Neely yelled that he was hungry, Penny didn’t feed him; rather, he choked him.
Sharpton also used the occasion to address the neglect of the homeless and the mentally ill writ large.
“He’d been choked much of his life,” Sharpton declared. “The agencies that failed to keep him and give him mental health choked Jordan. Those that let him go even though they had his record of needing help—they choked Jordan. The city agencies choked Jordan…He’s an example of how you’re choking the homeless [and] the mentally ill.”
Sharpton has maintained, “An activist's job is to make public civil rights issues until there can be a climate for change.”
Agitators like Rev. Al Sharpton are needed to prod us, to make the nation sit up and take notice of wrongs that need to be righted.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.