The Reverend Al Sharpton has become a household name over the last decade. He’s run for the presidency, has his own television news program on MNSBC and has become the de facto leader of the American civil rights movement. Recently, Sharpton has interjected himself and his group, the National Action Network (NAN), into high-profile cases involving the deaths of several young black men and rallied his supporters around the idea that racial animosity was to blame for the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
But, these cases aren’t the first examples of Sharpton using race to stir up tensions between African Americans and the rest of the country. Here are some highlights of Sharpton’s early career as an agitator that Americans may not be familiar with:
1984 - Bernhard Goetz
Around Christmastime 1984, a New York City man named Bernhard Goetz, shot four African American men who allegedly tried to rob him on a subway train. When Goetz was cleared of all murder charges by a bi-racial jury, Sharpton called Goetz’s actions “racist" and called for federal charges to be brought against him. He also led several large marches against the verdict.
The incident divided the nation along racial lines and was one off the first times that Sharpton took a lead role in organizing protesters against a perceived racial injustice.
1987- Tawana Brawley
Perhaps, the most infamous example of Sharpton’s race-baiting is his involvement in the case of Tawana Brawley. Brawley, a 15-year old black girl was found in a garbage bag, smeared in feces and with racial epithets written on her body in charcoal.
Brawley claimed that she had been raped by six white men, some of whom were police officers. Sharpton immediately jumped to Brawleys' defense, leading protests and accusing several individuals of the crime based on Brawley’s testimony alone. The liberal media immediately picked up Sharpton’s narrative.
During the investigation, demonstrations led by Sharpton and fueled by a series of unsubstantiated rumors about that case became violent and increased tensions between the black community and law enforcement.
Sharpton called New York Governor Mario Cuomo a “racist” and compared State Attorney General Robert Abrams to Hitler. Brawley’s supporters also suggested that the mafia, the KKK and the Irish Republican Army may have been involved in the alleged assault.
After seven months of investigations a grand jury concluded that it had found “overwhelming evidence” that Brawley had entirely fabricated her story and had, in fact, faked the incident in order to avoid her parents discovering the she had been visiting her boyfriend. Sharpton was sued for damages by those he accused of committing the crime but refused to pay. In the end his supporters paid the damages for him.
To this day, Sharpton still insists that he would have taken Brawley’s case and that the grand jury’s decision was wrong.
"I believed there was enough evidence to go to trial. Grand jury said there wasn't. Okay, fine. Do I have a right to disagree with the grand jury? Many Americans believe O.J. Simpson was guilty. A jury said he wasn't. So I have as much right to question a jury as they do. Does it make somebody a racist? No! They just disagreed with the jury. So did I.”
1991 - Crown Heights Riots
The Day before the Crown Heights Riots began, Al Sharpton was quoted as saying : “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” So, clearly, tensions between the Jewish and black communities were already running high in the early 90's.
The next day, a car driven by a Jewish man was struck by another vehicle causing it to veer onto the sidewalk, where it hit and killed a seven year-old Guyanese boy. The Jewish driver was removed from the car by police out of concern for his safety, but the boy remained pinned under the car. Members of the black community, including Sharpton believed that the decision to remove the Jewish driver from the scene before the boy was racially motivated.
Several days of rioting ensued during which Jewish owned stores in the Crown Heights Neighborhood were vandalized, bottles and rocks were hurled at Jews and two people were killed, one a Jew and another for simply for being suspected of being Jewish.
On the third day of the riots, Sharpton led a march through the neighborhood where protesters carried anti-semetic signs and burned Israeli flags.
At the boy’s funeral, Sharpton gave the eulogy in which he reffered to Jews as “Diamond Merchants.”
1995 - Freddie’s Fashion Mart
In 1995, an African American church, which owned several properties in Harlem, raised the rent on a Jewish-owned clothing store called Freddie’s Fashion Mart. In order to afford the raised rent, Freddie’s had to raise the rent on one of the business' sub-tenants, which happened to be a black-owned record store. A dispute between the two owners ensued and, in the end, Freddie’s owner decided to evict the tenant.
Enter Al Sharpton, who once again added a racial element to the situation and led protests promising:
“We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business on 125th Street.
On December 8, one of the protesters, entered Freddie’s with a gun and flammable liquid, shot several customers and set the store on fire. In the end seven store employees died of smoke inhalation.