Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Sharpton Al(1954–) - Activist, minister, Shaping His Signature Personality, Flamboyance Raises Questions over Controversial Alliances, Chronology

Successes and Challenges of the Grassroots Leader

sharpton black continued incident

Sharpton’s attempt to win a seat in the New York legislature in 1978 was foiled when a judge ruled that he did not meet the Brooklyn district’s residency requirements. In the mid-1980s Sharpton was suddenly on the chaotic stage of New York’s racial politics. In 1985, Bernhard Goetz, a white subway rider, shot several young black men on a city subway. However, despite permanently paralyzing one of them, he was not even charged with having a firearm. The widely publicized incident and the lack of criminal action in its aftermath caused outrage in the black community. Assuming the role as its unofficial spokesman, Sharpton organized demonstrations and prayer vigils at Goetz’s apartment as well as hosting interviews and attending the court proceedings. Sharpton’s sustained protest almost certainly helped to see that Goetz was indicted, convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, and sentenced on the weapons charge.

Al Sharpton led other protests in high-profiled cases concerning the black community. In 1986, Sharpton answered the call of a family seeking assistance in the racial killing of Michael Griffith, a black teen who was chased by whites onto a highway when his car broke down in Brooklyn’s still-segregated Howard Beach. Again, Sharpton pushed to keep the incident in the press, holding rallies, offering a cash reward for information, and leading a march of thousands of supporters. While other black political leaders and even mayor Ed Koch joined in the condemnation of the murder, Sharpton’s leadership identified him as a leader of black causes in New York City.

Sharpton was pulled into the 1987 case of Tawana Brawley. Sensationalized in the press over several months, the controversial case was dismissed within a year after being investigated by a grand jury which concluded that Brawley had made-up the entire incident to explain her four-day disappearance from home. Al Sharpton continued to support Brawley and her family and continued to assert that district attorney Steven Pagones was somehow implicated in wrong doing. Finally, Pagones sued him for $395 million for defamation of character. After dragging on for ten additional years, the case ended with an eight-month trial in which Sharpton and his cohorts were found guilty of slander, and Sharpton was fined $65,000. Vilified in the press, Sharpton was soon accused of being an FBI informant and became the subject of state and federal tax inquiries. Also accused of tax evasion and embezzlement, Sharpton was acquitted of these charges and others that included established contacts with wanted felons and wiretapping his associates.

In the years that followed, Sharpton continued to be attacked in the media as a shady figure whose stout physical appearance, combined with his signature hair and jogging suits, made him the regular source of jokes. Despite his waning popularity, Sharpton maintained his NYM activities and interest in racial cases. The 1989 case of Yusuf Hawkins, a black sixteen-year-old, and three of his friends who were chased by a mob of white boys after getting off at the wrong subway stop, drew Sharpton in. The family of murdered Hawkins sought out Sharpton, who helped coordinate a series of marches to keep pressure on the justice system. A jury finally sentenced one of the boys to thirty-two years to life for the murder.

The Hawkins case illuminated existing racial tensions between African Americans and the predominately Italian American neighborhood where the attack took place. Similar tensions were building between blacks and Hasidic Jews in the Crown Heights community where the grand rebbe of the Lubavitcher accidentally killed Gavin Cato, a black teen, while swerving to avoid an oncoming car. Despite having peacefully lived together for decades, blacks and Jews were suddenly opposed. The incident caused outrage in Cato’s neighborhood, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young rabbinical student, was allegedly stabbed to death by a black teenager. Led again by Sharpton, protest marches helped to urge the return of the car driver who fled to Israel, and in the end, a jury acquitted the black youth. Sharpton continued to labor with other black leaders to bridge the gap between the black and Jewish community left by the ordeal.

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