He Has a Dream
The Brawley affair was not his only major stumble. For a long time, many black leftists in New York viewed him as an agent provocateur because of his ties to the FBI. In early 1988 New York Newsday published an explosive three-part series titled "The Minister and the Feds," which reported that since 1983 Sharpton had supplied law enforcement agencies with information about Don King, mafiosi and black leaders. The full story has not yet been told, but parts of it are relayed in Jack Newfield's book, Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King (1995). In the early 1980s, through his work in the entertainment business, Sharpton attended a series of meetings with a member of the Colombo crime family as well as an undercover FBI agent. FBI videotapes reportedly showed Sharpton boasting about access to members of the mob in one vague conversation about a potential drug deal.
After being confronted with these tapes by FBI agents, Sharpton, in Newfield's account, agreed to secretly record several conversations with Don King, none of which ended up being of prosecutorial value. According to Newsday, he also allowed law enforcement officials to install a tapped telephone in his home, and he conveyed information about prominent black activists to the bureau. In 1991 the New York Times reported that Sharpton provided information that led to the conviction of Daniel Pagano of the Genovese crime family on federal racketeering charges.
"The whole thing was probably a double con," Newfield concludes. "[The FBI] conned Sharpton into thinking his videotaped conversation was sufficient evidence to indict him for a drug conspiracy, which was not the case. And Sharpton never really tried to incriminate King."
For his part, Sharpton confirms some aspects of Newfield's account while disputing others. Did he ever work as an FBI informant? "I certainly tried to get [the FBI] to get drug dealers," Sharpton said recently. "Informant? No. Was I trying to cooperate on cases against drug dealers? Yeah, just like I cooperated on recent cases involving police brutality." He continues, "If I was conned, then I would have had to deliver something. If I didn't deliver something, then what evidence do you have that I was conned?" Looking back on the allegations, he considers them "an attempt to destabilize the movement at that time."
Many questions linger about Sharpton's relationship with the FBI. Still, for his admirers, whatever took place has little bearing on Sharpton's role as a civil rights leader today. White New York, by and large, has not forgiven him for the Tawana Brawley affair; what is striking is the extent to which black New York has forgiven him for the FBI capers.
Even Don King does not appear to hold the incident against his old friend. In 1987 Sharpton persuaded King to give $100,000 to Randall Robinson's think tank, TransAfrica Forum. In 1998, after James Byrd was dragged to death in Texas, Sharpton convinced King to donate $100,000 to Byrd's family. When Abner Louima was brutally assaulted in 1997 by several New York City cops, King, responding to Sharpton's pleas, appeared in Louima's hospital room with a $5,000 check. King doesn't neglect Sharpton's own needs, either: The boxing impresario contributes $150,000 annually to the National Action Network.
NAN's headquarters are usually bustling. On any given day, one is likely to find, in the spacious hall, community forums on topics ranging from the politics of vaccination to Haitian history to the future of public education. For many Harlem residents, the House of Justice is a name that rings true: NAN operates a full-time crisis unit, whose members take scores of calls, day and night, from citizens abused by police, evicted by landlords and mistreated by Con Edison. The crisis unit enables Sharpton to keep his ear to the ground--nearly all his police brutality cases begin with calls to his office by victims' families--and it has endeared him to many who feel they have no other place to turn. Like PUSH in the 1970s, NAN sponsors committees on such issues as prisoners' rights, public schools and child welfare--none of which are huge, but all of which do good and valuable work--as well as a sports club, a drama club and a choir. Sharpton is especially proud of the "leadership classes" he offers to young staffers, colleagues and activists.