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I have to admit that I was expecting the worst when I went to hear the Rev. Al Sharpton speak in Emerson Hall on Wednesday night.
Still shaken by what I'd read of the hateful diatribe delivered by Nation of Islam spokesperson Khalid Muhammad at Kean College in November, and remembering Sharpton's history, I was prepared to hear a no-holds-barred attack on white Americans.
What I heard instead was a call for Black students to continue the proud legacy of the civil rights movement and take up the struggle for racial equality in the United States. "The symbol of Blacks in the '60's was Martin Luther King... Do you want the symbol of Blacks in the '90's to be Snoop Doggie Dogg?" Sharpton asked.
Sharpton shared with the audience his vision for the continuation of the civil rights struggle. He advocated gun control, alternatives to incarceration in order to deal with rising crime and reprioritizing resources to focus on poverty instead of the space program and the military.
A good message, to be sure. But is Al Sharpton a good messenger? And was he being sincere?
The Black Students Association invited Sharpton as a political leader of the Black community and as a role model to inspire young Blacks to become involved in politics. Yet a brief look at Sharpton's political career indicates that his example is hardly worthy of emulation.
Sharpton--who is currently in the midst of a campaign for the U.S. Senate--first became a significant player in New York City race politics during the infamous Tawana Brawley trial in 1987. Brawley, a young Black woman, had been found one summer night, lying in an alley, covered with excrement. She claimed to have been kidnapped four days earlier, held captive in the woods and repeatedly raped by several white males.
Sharpton and two attorneys, Alton H. Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason, took up the case. They did not let Brawley speak to a grand jury or with New York Attorney General Robert Abrams. When Brawley's mother was subpoenaed, Sharpton advised her not to testify and took her to a church for sanctuary.
Having paralyzed the justice system by silencing all of the witnesses, Sharpton, Maddox and Mason subsequently publicized a series of outlandish conspiracy theories, implicating the Ku Klux Klan, the Irish Republican Army, the Mafia and elected officials of Duchess County, NY in the crime. They viciously slandered public officials--including Attorney General Abrams, whom they branded a sexual pervert and compared to Adolf Hitler.
In the end, not one shared of evidence was found to support Brawley's claim.
The Brawley affair was not an isolated event. Sharpton has repeatedly employed the same techniques: he searches out alleged victims of racial violence, designates himself as their spokesperson and does what he can to stir up racial tension.
Sometimes, Sharpton manages to find what are indeed racially motivated hate crimes, like the infamous 1991 Bensonhurst case, when a Black teenager was brutally beaten to death by a gang of white men. Just as often, though, Sharpton makes race an issue and inflames tensions without cause.
Take, for example, the 1992 killing of seven year-old Gavin Cato in Crown Heights. The crime was a traffic accident; a car driven by a Hasidic Jew spun out of control, running onto the sidewalk and killing Cato, who was Black. Blacks then rioted for three days in Crown Heights. After the unrest had been quelled, Sharpton planned a protest march through Crown Heights, much to the dismay of Mayor David Dinkins, who feared that the demonstration would erupt into another riot. The rally proceeded without incident, primarily because the marchers were outnumbered by police officers. Sharpton made it clear that he would grab media attention, even at the expense of inciting a riot.
The Sharpton aide who introduced him at Harvard on Wednesday night painted him as a hard working, accomplished civil rights activist. Sharpton himself claims to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. And he initiates many of King's methods--marches, church rallies and direct action.
In reality, though, Sharpton has built his reputation by fanning the flames of racial tension and anger, not by improving the situation of Blacks. Instead of confronting racists and bigots with "brotherly love," as King did, Sharpton and his followers rally behind the slogan of "No justice, no peace"--the threat of violence always lurking in the shadows.
Realizing that he cannot win the Senate primary by attacking the white majority of New York State, Sharpton has more recently tried to distance himself from his past. At Harvard, he spoke of race relations in conciliatory tones and concentrated on other issues. "Brawley was '87 and this is '94," he told The New York Times two weeks ago.
But the Brawley case was no minor instance of misconduct; it was a deliberately fabricated hoax and an obstruction of justice. Seven years is not enough time to forget.
I was glad to hear BSA President Alvin L. Bragg '95 say in Wednesday's Crimson that "Sharpton is only part of our broad search for Black leadership. We will find a vast array of speakers." It would be a shame if the only visible role model for aspiring Black politicians was an inflammatory demagogue like Sharpton.
For despite his speech on Wednesday, he has barely begun to prove him self to be otherwise.
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