Tawana Brawley, Al Sharpton and Nelson Rockefeller, 25 Years Later

The Tawana Brawley case dominated the news for a time in 1987. Brawley was a black teenager who claimed to have been raped and abused by six white men. Her handlers, led by the “Reverend” Al Sharpton, falsely accused a policeman (who couldn’t defend himself because he had committed suicide, presumably the reason they chose him) and an Assistant District Attorney of being involved in the attack. Brawley’s accusations turned out to be lies, but Sharpton somehow survived the debacle and became an elder statesman in the Democratic Party.

The New York Times produced this video [Clarification: it was produced by Retro Report for distribution by the Times], which revisits the Brawley case 25 years on. It is extraordinarily good. They somehow got Sharpton to sit for an interview–I suppose he thought he was among friends–and near the end, the video even acknowledges the relationship between Sharpton and Barack Obama. I really do urge you to watch the video in its entirety; it is an excellent and unsparing review of the Brawley case:

Watching the video, I was impressed by how honestly and professionally the New York authorities–investigators, policemen, prosecutors, even the Attorney General–handled the case, notwithstanding the storm of publicity that surrounded it. One wonders whether the same would be true today. Would innocent men be cleared, or would racial politics trump everything else? One thinks, for example, of the Duke lacrosse case. Or, perhaps, Sharpton and his colleagues made a mistake that they didn’t repeat in later race-baiting episodes: they accused a policeman and a prosecutor, by name. The older Al Sharpton, whom you see in the video, is more adept at double-talk and would know better how to keep his options open.

The respected biographer Richard Norton Smith has been working for some years on a definitive biography of Nelson Rockefeller. Several years ago, I heard a lecture that Smith gave at Dartmouth in which he talked about his work in progress. One anecdote in particular struck me. I am going from memory, so the details might be a bit blurred, but the gist is accurate.

The incident took place when Rockefeller was Governor of New York, or possibly when he was between political jobs. He had an office in Manhattan where he usually worked. One day, he arrived at his office and there was a young African-American man marching back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the building’s entrance, carrying a sign. Rockefeller entered the building, went to his office and collared an aide. He directed the aide to find out who the young man on the sidewalk was, and what he wanted.

The aide returned a few minutes later and reported to Rockefeller that the young man’s name was Al Sharpton. And what does he want, Rockefeller asked. He wants $20,000, the aide replied. Rockefeller wrote out a check for $20,000 and gave it to the aide, instructing him to tell Sharpton to go away.

Sharpton was never anything but an extortionist, but a very successful one. By rights he should be in jail. How he came to be treated respectfully as a Democratic candidate for the presidency and a televised commentator on the news is a story that has never fully been told.


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