AMONG THE EARLIEST and clearest voices to condemn Trent Lott's benighted remarks last month were those of conservatives and Republicans, who were repelled by his nostalgia for segregation and quick to call for his ouster. When will liberals and Democrats show the same maturity and forcefully repudiate the noxious racial lout in their own tent, New York demagogue Al Sharpton?
And when will the media, which aggressively mined Lott's racial history and prominently reported the results, show a similar interest in digging into Sharpton's record -- a record far more shameful and egregious than anything Lott has to answer for.
This is a subject of more than idle interest. Al Sharpton says he is running for president. He has no hope of landing the White House, the Democratic nomination, or more than a handful of convention delegates, but that won't stop him from getting plenty of ink and air time. And maybe it shouldn't; presidential campaigns have often been enlivened and even enlightened by candidates who had no more chance of winning the presidency than they did of winning the Preakness.
But it is impossible to imagine, say, David Duke running for president as a Republican and not being shunned by every leading figure in the party. Impossible to imagine his campaign appearances being covered in news accounts that made no mention of his history in the Ku Klux Klan and his links to neo-Nazis. Impossible to imagine that he would be treated as just another candidate, albeit one with a "controversial" past. No one would roll over for Duke. Why are they rolling over for Sharpton?
After all, Sharpton's résumé is at least as vile as Duke's.
1987: Sharpton spreads the incendiary Tawana Brawley hoax, insisting heatedly that a 15-year-old black girl was abducted, raped, and smeared with feces by a group of white men. He singles out Steve Pagones, a young prosecutor. Pagones is wholly innocent -- the crime never occurred -- but Sharpton taunts him: "If we're lying, sue us, so we can . . . prove you did it." Pagones does sue, and eventually wins a $345,000 verdict for defamation. To this day, Sharpton refuses to recant his unspeakable slander or to apologize for his role in the odious affair.
1991: A Hasidic Jewish driver in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section accidentally kills Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old black child, and antisemitic riots erupt. Sharpton races to pour gasoline on the fire. At Gavin's funeral he rails against the "diamond merchants" -- code for Jews -- with "the blood of innocent babies" on their hands. He mobilizes hundreds of demonstrators to march through the Jewish neighborhood, chanting, "No justice, no peace." A rabbinical student, Yankel Rosenbaum, is surrounded by a mob shouting "Kill the Jews!" and stabbed to death.
1995: When the United House of Prayer, a large black landlord in Harlem, raises the rent on Freddy's Fashion Mart, Freddy's white Jewish owner is forced to raise the rent on his subtenant, a black-owned music store. A landlord-tenant dispute ensues; Sharpton uses it to incite racial hatred. "We will not stand by," he warns malignantly, "and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business." Sharpton's National Action Network sets up picket lines; customers going into Freddy's are spat on and cursed as "traitors" and "Uncle Toms." Some protesters shout, "Burn down the Jew store!" and simulate striking a match. "We're going to see that this cracker suffers," says Sharpton's colleague Morris Powell. On Dec. 8, one of the protesters bursts into Freddy's, shoots four employees point-blank, then sets the store on fire. Seven employees die in the inferno.
If Sharpton were a white skinhead, he would be a political leper, spurned everywhere but the fringe. But far from being spurned, he is shown much deference. Democrats embrace him. Politicians court him. And journalists report on his comings and goings while politely sidestepping his career as a hatemongering racial hustler.
When Sharpton came to Boston to promote his campaign last week, for example, the news coverage was uniformly upbeat. The Boston Herald noted the "joyous singing and thunderous applause" that greeted the "civil rights leader," whose "energetic visit left many enthusiastic about his presidential bid." The Globe announced the arrival of "the colorful and controversial 48-year-old community activist" with a story listing the places and times of his public appearances. The only allusion to his ugly record was a vague quote from a local minister: "He obviously has a lot of history and controversy to overcome." That was quickly countered by Sharpton's own self-description as a man known "for my fights against racial profiling and discrimination."
Well, that isn't what Steve Pagones or the family of Yankel Rosenbaum or the loved ones of those who were burned alive at Freddy's Fashion Mart know him for. As they can testify, Sharpton is a vicious liar and a dangerous bigot. As a matter of moral hygiene, his party and the press should be able to say so, too.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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