Rev. Al Sharpton did not understand the extent of the violence during the 1991 Crown Heights riots when he initially entered the neighborhood, and should have used different language in his protests, the activist wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News published Sunday.
"I did not know the full volatility of the situation," Reverend Sharpton wrote.
In a detailed account of his actions in the aftermath of the accidental death of Gavin Cato and the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, prompted by the 20th anniversary, Reverend Sharpton concedes to longstanding criticism that his presence in the area and his angry eulogy for Gavin fanned the conflict.
“We had our marches and they were all peaceful," he wrote. "But with the wisdom of hindsight let’s be clear. Our language and tone sometimes exacerbated tensions and played to the extremists rather than raising the issue of the value of this young man whom we were so concerned about."
The reverend also reflects on his use of the term "diamond merchants" at the funeral, which he said referred to "the likes of the Oppenheimer family" in South Africa.
"Extremists seized upon that to say that I was calling all Jews diamond merchants and I spent years defending the statement rather than recognizing that in hours of tension, one must be clearer than at any other time."
One reference in the op-ed is at odds with the contention of the chasidic community, that the violence was entirely directed at Jews: “When I arrived in the neighborhood late in the evening the day after, I could see brick-throwing on all sides.”
The mea culpa presents something of a conundrum for local Jewish community leaders who have denounced him as a polarizing figure while embracing ties with other African American leaders. The op-ed comes closer than ever to the apology they have demanded, but in the eyes of some falls short.
“There is still a lot of pain that hasn’t healed in and around Crown Heights” because of what happened 20 years ago, said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, who was at the Cato funeral. “Reverend Sharpton took a first step but there is a long road to achieve true healing.”
Abraham Foxman, who said he considers Reverend Sharptron a friend and has joined with him on some causes, said “Al Sharpton comes close to doing the right thing. But it’s a little late, and it is a shame that he had to wait to be embarrassed about his participation in the events surrounding Crown Heights.
“Remember, he had acted as a provocateur. And he still hasn’t come far enough to say ‘I made a mistake, I acted in a bigoted way and I’m sorry.’ He falls short. There’s no explanation for his bigotry and for his provocation to incitement. If you admit a mistake, admit a mistake — and don’t rationalize it.”
Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman, said he was not impressed with the reflection. "I don’t hear the words ‘I apologize’, " Rosenbaum said on Sunday, suggesting that Reverend Sharpton might have been moved to write the piece only because he now hosts a talk show on MSNBC and wants to shed the baggage. "As far as I’m concerned it’s just a cynical attempt to appease those who haven’t forgotten the truth."
It was not the first time Reverend Sharpton reexamined the Cato eulogy. Ten years ago, in attempting to build a coalition with Jewish leaders against slavery in Sudan, he told The Jewish Week when asked about the diamond merchants remark "Maybe because of the sensitivity at that time, that was not the right time to say it." He also called on leaders of major Jewish organizations then to sit down with him for an extensive dialogue to clear up differences, but none took him up on it, saying he had yet to fully take responsibility for his actions.
Reverend Sharpton’s tone in the Daily News article contrasts with that of a letter to Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton Synagogue he wrote on Thursday. In canceling his participation in a forum on black-Jewish relations 20 years after Crown Heights, he said "I have made mistakes in my career, but the allegations around Crown Heights, which is proven to be patently untrue, was not one of them."
But in both the letter and op-ed, Sharpton insists he is not the same man he was then. "Twenty years later, I have grown. I would still have stood up for Gavin Cato, but I would have also included in my utterances that there was no justification or excuse for violence or the death of Yankel Rosenbaum."
The reverend then recalled a meeting during his youth with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in which the Jewish civil rights leader and supporter of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told him "only big men can achieve big things." Reverend Sharpton said he wishes he had shared that encounter at Gavin Cato’s funeral.
"Crown Heights showed me how some of us, in our smallness, can divide," he wrote.
In response to The Jewish Week’s requests for an interview, a spokeswoman for Reverend Sharpton last week said he was unavailable because of the demands of hostiong his MSNBC show, PoliticsNation.