Al Sharpton: What the Crown Heights Riots Taught Me


sharpton1The following article by Al Sharpton appears in today’s NY Daily News: Twenty years after the Crown Heights riots, the city has grown, and I believe I have grown. I’d like to share a few of my reflections about┬áthe choices I made, including the mistakes, with an eye toward advancing racial understanding and harmony.On the day of Aug. 20, 1991, I received a call from Carmel Cato — who told me that he would like my assistance in dealing with the fact that his 7-year-old son had been killed in a car accident the night before in Crown Heights. His son’s death had sparked violence throughout that night, with people angry and responding to what they felt was an insensitivity at best, an injustice at worst.

When I arrived in the neighborhood late in the evening the day after, I could see brick-throwing on all sides. I was living in New Jersey at the time, and though I knew Crown Heights fairly well, I did not know of the events of the first night and second day. I did not know Yankel Rosenbaum had been killed by a mob on that first night. I did not know the full volatility of the situation.

That began to change when I entered Carmel Cato’s house late in the evening of the second night. As he described to me what he knew, I was outraged; I was also saddened and wanted to comfort him and the others who suffered.

I myself was just months away from having been stabbed in the chest by a white male in Bensonhurst on the other side of Brooklyn for leading a peaceful march protesting the racial killing of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins. Though my assailant had been arrested, I was wrestling with how I would respond. My emotions told me to be angry: This man came close to killing me and robbing my very young daughters of a father. My training told me otherwise. Having grown up in the aftermath of the movement of Dr. Martin Luther King, having become youth director at age 13 of the New York chapter of his organization (in the year of his assassination), I had been taught forgiveness and reconciliation.

As I looked at and listened to this father who had just lost his son, what became clear to me, and is still as clear 20 years later, was that the only one not showing rancor and bitterness back then was Carmel Cato. Somehow he had buried his feelings under an impenetrable mask of dignity.

I wished I had that discipline. We left his home and went to Kings County Hospital. I was there when he saw his niece, who had been severely injured in the car accident. I was there when he identified the body of his son. And when we returned back to his home, the streets were ablaze with violence. He and I went to the precinct, where he said that he did not want his son to be identified with any violence. The next day, as I came back from New Jersey, the crowds had gotten smaller. But the rhetoric was still ugly.

My responsibility was to prepare for the funeral of this young man whom I was now asked to eulogize and to pursue some sense of justice for a family that had lost a child who had done nothing but play with his cousin in front of his home.

The mayor at that time was David Dinkins, whom I had known since I was a teenager. He was being attacked by all sides. Extremists in the Jewish community said he was catering to the black community. Extremists in the black community said he was a sellout to the Jewish community. In that climate he tried to strike a balance — a balance that included asking me to not risk peaceful marches. I preached the eulogy, and in the eulogy I said that I knew there were many who wanted me to attack him, but I wouldn’t. Still, I was going to lead marches aimed at calling on the driver to have to account for whatever actions led to the death of Gavin Cato.

In the eulogy I said we must stop blacks who commit criminal acts such as snatching bags on Eastern Parkway, and we must also deal with the likes of the Oppenheimer family — which at the time was trading diamonds with apartheid 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.

It is not enough to be right. We had our marches, and they were all peaceful. 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 other thing that we should have expressed more clearly was the precious value of Yankel Rosenbaum, who was killed by a mob that night. The fact that I was not anywhere near Crown Heights and knew nothing about the events did not mean I shouldn’t have addressed that in my eulogy — because the real lesson of Crown Heights is that we can’t keep choosing between whose life is of more value and who is a greater victim. All these years later, there are still those who would rather choose victims than help all of us as a society choose constructive problem-solving over rancor and violence.
I later decided to forgive the man who stabbed me. I even visited him in jail. I did it because of the teachings of Dr. King and the example of Carmel Cato.

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 for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum. I would have shared a story about what happened when, as a young man, I was brought to the Jewish Theological Seminary by one of the civil rights leaders who had been an aide to Dr. King.

That day, I was introduced to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel had marched with Dr. King in Selma in support of the Voting Rights Act. For doing so, Heschel was attacked by some in his community who were very conservative and thought a theologian should stay in his proper place.
He gave me a book and autographed it and, as we talked, I asked him about Dr. King — the man and the hero.

That’s when Dr. Heschel said to me: “Young man, only big men can achieve big things. Small men cannot fulfill big missions. Dr. King was a big man.”

Crown Heights showed how some of us, in our smallness, can divide. We must seek to be big. Next weekend, we will unveil the monument to Martin Luther King in Washington. I will speak at the ceremony along with members of the King family and the President of the United States.

I will continue to think about the value of the lives of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum as I look up at the big statue of Dr. King. I will look towards the heavens and I will wink at Rabbi Heschel.

{NY Daily News/ Newscenter}


  1. “what a spiritual Person” lets look at the last time a a jewish mob rioted in any american city for any reason and inflicted intentional pain damga and suffering on anybody else. what a pieceof human debris sharpton is

  2. Oh please. Sharpton’s comment at the funeral was “It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights.”

    Sharpton is probably the biggest racist in the US. He deserves whatever bad things happen to him – and then some.

  3. Shakran! Lyre! Rabble Rouser!

    Please read this weeks Mishpacha magazine for an accurate description of the Anti Semite Sharpton’s “eulogy” in CH 20 years ago.

  4. this monster al sharpton has only grown in 20 years to become a better politician who can speak on two sides of his mouth. He incited the riots and the murder of yankel rosenbaum and now he is saying he only came to crown heights the second day of the riots. Shakran! he was there at the very beginning. he organized the blacks to riots and to lash out at the jews.
    Al sharpton and David Dinkins should be arrested for premeditated murder and given the death penalty

  5. Al hasn’t changed much. And he still seems to believe that the driver that ran over Gavin Cato did it on purpose. And he claims he learnt something! No other community in America would react the way the blacks did! I would actually say that they’re not so at fault as Al Sharpton is. The Blacks suffered alot of injustice at least untill the 60’s when they were still ordered to sit in the back of the bus! How would us Jews have reacted being treated like this? There’s no justification to treating a people like this. But what happened in Crown Heights was murder incited by Sharpton, after a terrible accident! Today Al Sharpton claims to have grown up, I hope noone falls for his bluff, for if we do we could have him as mayor and that’s my goodness way to scary. Black and Jews could actually get along pretty well. We both were persecuted! But Anti Semites Politicians and Jews can’t really make peace because their agenda is covered up by their sweet talk. The biggest proof that Blacks and Jews could get along, but Anti Semite politicians and Jews can’t, is Carmel Cato, father of Gaven who became good friends with the Rosenbaums, and probably reconciled with the driver of the car. But Sharpton never did this.


  7. Of course decent people want to do everything to promote trust and friendship among all well intentioned people of every ethnicity. We are all Hashem’s creation. But Mr. Al Sharpton has been around for too long to fool any but the intentionally dense. Mr. Sharpton is not by any definition either decent or well intentioned. Mr. Sharpton has his shrewd and divisive eye on the Senate, or perhaps some White House appointment or even on the Mayor’s office Rachmana Litzlan. He has had these ambitions from the first, with the encouragement of the irresponsible, clueless media, who like his “engaging personality” and his his clever rhetorical style, and don’t mind his corrupt, ambitious, cold blooded, venal character. He is tenacious and will learn to dance any way that gets him where he wants to go. He trades small talk and jokes with celebrities, and the white media and elite/liberal/educated types like to feel they’re “getting down” with the real deal, a veteran of race riots, a genuine black leader who has been the public face of (so many) causes, which ones don’t really matter, do they, as long as it’s a cause, and it’s ‘real’… That’s a dream come true for liberals. He is supremely street smart, but doesn’t have to be becauseliberals and liberal Jews will fall over themselves to believe this fellow’s hypocrisy. Listen to his doublespeak , or just his non sequiters about his involvement in Crown Heights-what in the world does his stabbing months before, as he describes it, have to do with his inciting hundreds of people to injure, harass, terrify and in at least one instance injure and also murder- law abiding citizens just because they were of a different ethnicity? Will we ever know how many people lived in fear, had heart attacks or asthma attacks, or were afraid to go to work or school? How many older people relived the fears and nightmares of the Shoa because of Al Sharpton and Co.? and maybe still do? He was and remains a contemptible racist, as were the people he led. And look how he sort of just slips his “outrage” into the mix, as if there were any justification for anything but terrible grief atAccording to Mr. Sharpton, at the home of the Catos , where he should have been grieving with the bereft parents of young Gavin, and comforting them, he was busy being “outraged”. Why outrage at what was known to have been an accident? Because this dangerous publicity hound was there to ride on the swell of media bias as far as it would take him, and look where he is today. Be wary of a conciliatory Al Sharpton . He has the big picture in mind, and he has a smart team of advisors. BTW, Why is MATZAV providing a platform for his distortions without line by line translations for the lately born or the terminally naive?

  8. he is an immoral man, whether he is conscious of it, or unconscious of it, he is guilty of inciting and creating hate and negativity, and changing dynamics.
    There was a little jewish girl from France who was visiting in Crown Heights some time before the riots and she was struck and killed by a black man with no license. People went about their grief but nobody made a race issue of it. This mistake of a man is making a serious mistake of his own life, his own days, his own conscience and moral being. It could have been dealth with SO differently.
    Sharpton uses lines from here and there and tries to sound like he’s being serious and being unique. It is criminal that he even uses MLK’s name in his article. MLK had a brain and a set of morals.

  9. Listen, I am as cynical about Al Sharpton as the next guy. I have little doubt that their is truth in his presentation, and I have little doubt their is historical revisionism. I believe, however, we need to pause and consider how we (as individuals) respond publicly.

    First we need to remember that we are in galus, if darchei shalom is important in general, kal v’chomer in galus.

    Second, Sharpton has very clearly changed his tone. He said “we should have expressed more clearly was the precious value of Yankel Rosenbaum.” His concession may not be personally satisfying to many but we need to recognize that he has chosen a more careful and measured way to present his opinion on those events and we should, for or own sake’s, respond in kind. We do not need to accept him, or forgive him, but we should be careful about appearing filled with bitterness and animosity in an attempt to portray him as a bitter and hateful person.

    Finally, while I propose a guarded response, we do not need to accept that “When I arrived in the neighborhood late in the evening the day after, I could see brick-throwing on all sides.” and should point out the experiences of those present that while their was violence, the Jews were not attacking anyone.

  10. you know…what I did when I was 20 I would not do today I though in those days that I was very smart….. time makes people grow that is why we are commanded to listen to elders.
    I read carefully Rev Sharpton’s words and find in them the capacity to give an oppening to a new world of coexistance in a multiculturalism. I can’t penetrate MR sharpton’s heart and look for his sincerity. Neither can I use my preconcieved ideas or past record to use in judgement when he is admiting error. But I can live with his words that even when said politicaly….for me is a good beginning that may help ease tension between us and other religions or races.
    Simply give a chance to the man!

  11. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck……. it’s a duck!!!! Al Sharpton is a Rasha and will never change.
    Galus or not you have to be able to recognize the difference between GOOD and Evil and Judge a man by his actions.
    Al Sharpton incited the riots which led to the murder of a precious Yid.
    No double talk or “civilized” speech will bring Yaakel Rosenbaumb ZTL back.
    Al sharpton and David “DO NOTHING” Dinkins should have already been held accountable for the murder and Mayhem that ensued and we should say NEVER AGAIN
    NEVER GIVE THIS MAN A CHANCE. Sharpton is merely imitating what Obama is doing, speaking eloquently, trying to appear as if he wants to appease everyone and then blaming the Jews because they are building houses for themselves in Israel.
    Sharpton will appease then he’ll make you BLEED!!!!!!!!! DONT TRUST HIM!!!!!!!!!!!!


    Did we “give him a chance” the first time?! Let’sn not pretend B’koach yadi asisi, chas v’shalom.

    There is no “Galus or not”, one has to recognize the hand of Hashem in all that happens to us.

    Our hishtadlus can only be through darchei shalom, period. Public anger and bitterness have zero efficacy in encouraging safe and peaceful relations with our neighbors.

    We have to do our hishtadlus, but if you think that our hishtadlus is to “pasken” someone is being dishonest because once a rasha always a rasha, one is essentially denying the possibility of teshuvah and opening them self up for a kitrog chas v’shalom.