The activist Al Sharpton first entered America’s national consciousness in November 1987, when he injected himself into the case of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who claimed that she had been abducted, raped, and smeared with feces by a mysterious gang of white men in Dutchess County, New York. Despite a complete absence of any credible evidence, Sharpton made increasingly wild accusations, culminating in charges that then-Duchess County assistant prosecutor Steve Pagones was one of Brawley's assailants. Extensive investigations by law-enforcement officials and medical personnel eventually discredited Brawley's tale entirely. But Sharpton never apologized to Pagones, whose life was all but ruined by the false charges.
In 1991 Sharpton made many news headlines when a series of anti-Semitic riots erupted in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section after a young black boy named Gavin Cato was accidentally struck and killed by an out-of-control vehicle driven by a Hasidic Jew. Within three hours, a black mob had hunted down and murdered an innocent local rabbinical student in retribution. Sharpton fanned the flames of racial hatred by publicly declaring that it was not merely a car accident that had killed Gavin Cato, but rather "the social accident of apartheid." He organized angry demonstrations and challenged local Jews -- whom he derisively called "diamond merchants" -- to "pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house" to settle the score. Finally he claimed, without proof, that the Jewish driver had run over the Cato child while in a drunken stupor. Stirred in part by such rhetoric, hundreds of Crown Heights blacks took violently to the streets for three days and nights of rioting.
In 1995 Sharpton -- along with such notables as Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama -- helped organize Minister Louis Farrakhan's October 16 Million Man March.
Also in 1995, Sharpton led his National Action Network in an ugly boycott against Freddy's Fashion Mart, a Jewish-owned clothing shop in Harlem, New York. The boycott started when Freddy's owners announced that because they wanted to expand their own business, they would no longer sublet part of their store to a black-owned record dealership. The street leader of the boycott, Morris Powell, was the head of Sharpton's "Buy Black" Committee. Repeatedly referring to the Jewish proprietors of Freddy's as "crackers" and “Jew bastards,” some picketers openly threatened violence against whites and Jews -- all under the watchful, approving eye of Sharpton. The subsequent picketing became ever-more menacing in its tone until one of the protesters eventually shot four whites in the store and then set the building on fire -- killing seven employees, most of whom were Hispanics.
In April 2007, Obama addressed Sharpton’s National Action Network on such issues as health insurance, the evils of racial profiling in law enforcement, and his belief that society must help ex-convicts escape an “economic death sentence” by securing jobs for them when they leave prison.
In March 2008 Sharpton, a strong supporter of Obama, stated that it had become his custom to speak to the presidential hopeful on a regular basis -- “two or three times a week.” Sharpton also said that he had told Obama four months earlier, “I won’t either endorse you or not endorse you [for President]. But I will tell you I can be freer not endorsing you to help you and everybody else.” According to Sharpton, Obama protested and asked for his public support: “No, no, no. I want you to endorse.”
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