Al Sharpton addressing media outside the U.S. Supreme Court after arguments in the case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, on December 9, 2015. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.
Rev. Al Sharpton addressing media outside the U.S. Supreme Court after arguments in the case ‘Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin’, on December 9, 2015. (Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

In the Sept. 1, 2017 edition of the New York Law Journal, Sol Wachtler, New York state’s former Chief Judge, wrote an article titled “Be Careful What You Wish For.” The article addressed his concern over the debate regarding statues, monuments and memorials that honored Confederate general’s and the nation’s founding fathers.

While the topic is certainly worthy of speech and debate, Professor Wachtler strays far from the relevant argument when he attempts to equate Reverend Al Sharpton to the neo-Nazi marchers that marched, demonstrated and rioted in Charlottesville, Va. last month. By attempting to equate Sharpton and the Charlottesville marchers, he diminishes the importance of the bigger issue he may have wanted to raise and debate. Perhaps, as is always the case, Professor Wachtler went for what was sexy as to opposed to what may have been meaningful. Clearly, to throw Sharpton into any argument and combine it with the words Crown Heights and Jews, you will find many who will publish because it’s Sharpton and therefore it is newsworthy. But the issues of Charlottesville, the Confederacy, racism, anti-Semitism, and American history are all enormously important and worthy of discussion.

Professor Wachtler writes touchingly about being a Jew and witnessing the white supremacy in Charlottesville as they marched and chanted their anti-Semitic slogans. He fails, however, to point out that those same marchers spewed significantly racist chants and represented that era in history when American blacks were either legally enslaved or subjected to legal segregation in this nation. We should never forget that slavery and “Jim Crow” segregation were both the law of the land in the United States, enshrined in our federal and many of our state’s constitutions.

While touching on Crown Heights and the riots between Blacks and Jews in Brooklyn in August 1991 may be relevant to the Charlottesville discussion, to argue or suggest that “Al Sharpton helped precipitate a riot in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, taunting, ‘If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house’,” is irresponsible. To follow that statement with the statement that “Sharpton’s participation in what was known as the Freddie’s Fashion Mart Massacre in Harlem, where Sharpton railed against a Jewish “white interloper” whose store was burned to the ground while eight people were murdered,” is adding fuel to a fire that should not be burning.

First, the facts of the Crown Heights Riots of August 1991 were exhaustively investigated by the two-volume “Report to the Governor on the Disturbances in Crown Heights: An Assessment of the City’s Preparedness and Response to Civil Disorder” issued in September 1993. That report unequivocally establishes that Rev. Sharpton was not even in Crown Heights until after Yankel Rosenbaum, an innocent rabbinical student, was killed. Moreover, the report establishes that Rev. Sharpton worked with the authorities and community leaders to help quell the violence and disorder. Nowhere in Professor Wachtler’s article does he note that the riots in Crown Heights were sparked by the fact that two Black children were seriously injured—one of whom, Gavin Cato, died—when a vehicle caravan escorting an Hasidic Rebbe struck them. Rev. Sharpton was also brought into Crown Heights by the Cato family to assist them in dealing with the tragedy.

Second, the taunting statement that Professor Wachtler refers to likewise had nothing to do with Crown Heights. Rev. Sharpton was personally threatened by Mordechai Levy, a known terrorist and a felon who was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, and was responding to Levy with that statement. Nor did Rev. Sharpton participate in the “massacre” at Freddie’s Fashion Mart in Harlem. That incident was thoroughly investigated by a number of police agencies and again the facts determined that Rev. Sharpton had no direct connection with the individual and no knowledge that Freddie’s owner was Jewish. Moreover, the underlying issue there was the rights of a long-time owner of a record shop who was being threatened with an illegal eviction by the landlord.

Professor Wachtler, in his article, also makes an egregious assumption of facts that simply do not exist. He claims that New York’s current Governor, Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, have all forgiven some “sins” of Al Sharpton. Well, nowhere is it established that any of those individuals have ever forgiven Rev. Sharpton for any sins or even believed that there were sins of Sharpton that needed forgiving.

Professor Wachtler rightly recognizes that the Confederate monuments were erected to “give justification for Jim Crow laws … .” He then, inexplicitly, turns again to Rev. Sharpton and wrongly implies that Rev. Sharpton had urged the defunding or removal of all monuments to the nation’s founding fathers. Rev. Sharpton did not do that. In an appearance on Charlie Rose’s PBS program, Rev. Sharpton raised the issue of whether the government should continue to fund the Jefferson Memorial in light of the known history of Thomas Jefferson’s relationships with his slaves.

Rev. Sharpton’s response to Charlottesville, and to the hateful environment that many have claimed has developed in this nation since the 2016 presidential elections, was to lead a “Ministers March” last month on the 54th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., with over 3,000 ministers, clergy, rabbis, Catholics, and people of good faith, to raise the moral questions of the need for leadership from the nation’s leaders that bring us together as a nation to continue to build and work for a more perfect union.

Rev. Sharpton, Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr., Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, while controversial in each of their times, have stood up for justice and equality in a nation that officially upheld discrimination and segregation of an entire class of people and on no level can be compared to the crimes against humanity and against this nation that the Confederate generals fought to preserve. Let us not forget that it was our U.S. Supreme Court in Scott v. Sandford (commonly known as the Dred Scott case) that wrote that Black Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit … .”

Lastly, looking at this nation’s history and its relationship to racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, segregation and slavery, and addressing how we remember and what we immortalize in monuments, memorials and statues is not an attempt to sanitize our past, but having the courage to ensure that we as a nation are fighting to promote the “general Welfare, and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Words matter, facts matter and we cannot advance our purpose of having a valued discussion of important issues by appealing with dog whistles to incite and inflame the worst in us. To argue for an honest and thorough examination of our past takes the courage of leadership to guide such a discussion.

In the Sept. 1, 2017 edition of the New York Law Journal, Sol Wachtler, New York state’s former Chief Judge, wrote an article titled “Be Careful What You Wish For.” The article addressed his concern over the debate regarding statues, monuments and memorials that honored Confederate general’s and the nation’s founding fathers.

While the topic is certainly worthy of speech and debate, Professor Wachtler strays far from the relevant argument when he attempts to equate Reverend Al Sharpton to the neo-Nazi marchers that marched, demonstrated and rioted in Charlottesville, Va. last month. By attempting to equate Sharpton and the Charlottesville marchers, he diminishes the importance of the bigger issue he may have wanted to raise and debate. Perhaps, as is always the case, Professor Wachtler went for what was sexy as to opposed to what may have been meaningful. Clearly, to throw Sharpton into any argument and combine it with the words Crown Heights and Jews, you will find many who will publish because it’s Sharpton and therefore it is newsworthy. But the issues of Charlottesville, the Confederacy, racism, anti-Semitism, and American history are all enormously important and worthy of discussion.

Professor Wachtler writes touchingly about being a Jew and witnessing the white supremacy in Charlottesville as they marched and chanted their anti-Semitic slogans. He fails, however, to point out that those same marchers spewed significantly racist chants and represented that era in history when American blacks were either legally enslaved or subjected to legal segregation in this nation. We should never forget that slavery and “Jim Crow” segregation were both the law of the land in the United States, enshrined in our federal and many of our state’s constitutions.

While touching on Crown Heights and the riots between Blacks and Jews in Brooklyn in August 1991 may be relevant to the Charlottesville discussion, to argue or suggest that “Al Sharpton helped precipitate a riot in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, taunting, ‘If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house’,” is irresponsible. To follow that statement with the statement that “Sharpton’s participation in what was known as the Freddie’s Fashion Mart Massacre in Harlem, where Sharpton railed against a Jewish “white interloper” whose store was burned to the ground while eight people were murdered,” is adding fuel to a fire that should not be burning.

First, the facts of the Crown Heights Riots of August 1991 were exhaustively investigated by the two-volume “Report to the Governor on the Disturbances in Crown Heights: An Assessment of the City’s Preparedness and Response to Civil Disorder” issued in September 1993. That report unequivocally establishes that Rev. Sharpton was not even in Crown Heights until after Yankel Rosenbaum, an innocent rabbinical student, was killed. Moreover, the report establishes that Rev. Sharpton worked with the authorities and community leaders to help quell the violence and disorder. Nowhere in Professor Wachtler’s article does he note that the riots in Crown Heights were sparked by the fact that two Black children were seriously injured—one of whom, Gavin Cato, died—when a vehicle caravan escorting an Hasidic Rebbe struck them. Rev. Sharpton was also brought into Crown Heights by the Cato family to assist them in dealing with the tragedy.

Second, the taunting statement that Professor Wachtler refers to likewise had nothing to do with Crown Heights. Rev. Sharpton was personally threatened by Mordechai Levy, a known terrorist and a felon who was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, and was responding to Levy with that statement. Nor did Rev. Sharpton participate in the “massacre” at Freddie’s Fashion Mart in Harlem. That incident was thoroughly investigated by a number of police agencies and again the facts determined that Rev. Sharpton had no direct connection with the individual and no knowledge that Freddie’s owner was Jewish. Moreover, the underlying issue there was the rights of a long-time owner of a record shop who was being threatened with an illegal eviction by the landlord.

Professor Wachtler, in his article, also makes an egregious assumption of facts that simply do not exist. He claims that New York ‘s current Governor, Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, have all forgiven some “sins” of Al Sharpton. Well, nowhere is it established that any of those individuals have ever forgiven Rev. Sharpton for any sins or even believed that there were sins of Sharpton that needed forgiving.

Professor Wachtler rightly recognizes that the Confederate monuments were erected to “give justification for Jim Crow laws … .” He then, inexplicitly, turns again to Rev. Sharpton and wrongly implies that Rev. Sharpton had urged the defunding or removal of all monuments to the nation’s founding fathers. Rev. Sharpton did not do that. In an appearance on Charlie Rose’s PBS program, Rev. Sharpton raised the issue of whether the government should continue to fund the Jefferson Memorial in light of the known history of Thomas Jefferson’s relationships with his slaves.

Rev. Sharpton’s response to Charlottesville, and to the hateful environment that many have claimed has developed in this nation since the 2016 presidential elections, was to lead a “Ministers March” last month on the 54th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., with over 3,000 ministers, clergy, rabbis, Catholics, and people of good faith, to raise the moral questions of the need for leadership from the nation’s leaders that bring us together as a nation to continue to build and work for a more perfect union.

Rev. Sharpton, Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr., Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, while controversial in each of their times, have stood up for justice and equality in a nation that officially upheld discrimination and segregation of an entire class of people and on no level can be compared to the crimes against humanity and against this nation that the Confederate generals fought to preserve. Let us not forget that it was our U.S. Supreme Court in Scott v. Sandford (commonly known as the Dred Scott case) that wrote that Black Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit … .”

Lastly, looking at this nation’s history and its relationship to racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, segregation and slavery, and addressing how we remember and what we immortalize in monuments, memorials and statues is not an attempt to sanitize our past, but having the courage to ensure that we as a nation are fighting to promote the “general Welfare, and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Words matter, facts matter and we cannot advance our purpose of having a valued discussion of important issues by appealing with dog whistles to incite and inflame the worst in us. To argue for an honest and thorough examination of our past takes the courage of leadership to guide such a discussion.