The City University of New York is a lifeline to the examined life and the middle class for generations of poor and working-class students, from Irving Kristol to Colin Powell to me. Medgar Evers College, a senior college within the City University of New York system, intends to confer an honorary degree on Al Sharpton at its June 5, 2019, commencement. Sharpton is many things; a doctor of humane letters is not one of them.
Medgar Evers was a World War II veteran who organized fellow Mississippi NAACP members to obtain the civil rights being denied to black Americans in the 1950s and ’60s. As dangerous as it was noble, he coordinated voter registration drives and boycotts of segregated businesses. Thurgood Marshall said Evers had “more courage than anybody I’ve ever ran across.” Evers gave his life for the advancement of black Americans when a Klansman shot and killed him in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 12, 1963.
By contrast, Sharpton’s greatest achievement has been avoiding criminal prosecution. Sharpton has spent a public career enriching himself under the banner of advancing civil rights. He didn’t calm racial tensions; he inflamed them. He didn’t work for racial healing; he rubbed the wounds raw. Evers was a genuine civil rights leader; Sharpton played one on TV. Simply put, Sharpton is not a good man. He is unworthy of this honor.
The indictment against Sharpton is public record. For more than 35 years of public life, he has proven himself a charlatan and a race hustler. The evidence is irrefutable.
The Tawana Brawley hoax is representative. In 1987, the deeply troubled young girl claimed four white men had raped her, smeared dog feces on her, written racist epithets on her body, and wrapped her in a trash bag. Brawley concocted this tale, but Sharpton and two other racial bomb throwers, Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, took up her cause. These men created one of the most racially divisive episodes in modern New York history.
When Sharpton’s camp was advised that Brawley’s story was likely a fabrication, Sharpton and crew also “expressed doubts about the truthfulness of [Brawley’s] account,” but that didn’t stop “the two lawyers and Sharpton [from] making it up as they went along,” as one of Sharpton’s aides said at the time. This penchant for fiction might explain why Sharpton and friends declared that New York conspired with the Ku Klux Klan, the Mafia, and the Irish Republican Army to hamper the investigation into Brawley’s allegations.
Sharpton’s skullduggery is not limited to exploiting racial divisions. Self-dealing is another, although the two are vertically integrated. Sharpton runs an organization called the “National Action Network” (NAN). It is ostensibly a civil rights organization meant to advance “the spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” In practice, it exists to advance “the spirit and tradition of” Sharpton’s extortion racket.
NAN pays Sharpton a “salary” of almost $250,000.00 a year. (Who knew boycotts were so lucrative?) NAN also bankrolls Sharpton’s first-class travel and recently bought the rights to his story for $531,000.00. Unconcerned with fiduciary prohibitions on self-dealing, Sharpton has used NAN’s funds as his own—NAN even paid for Sharpton’s daughter’s tuition.
NAN is a nonprofit, but nothing has been more profitable for Sharpton than its shakedown prowess. At Sharpton’s direction, NAN confronts American corporations and demands tribute. And they pay—handsomely. NAN took in $6.3 million dollars in 2017 and $5.8 million in 2016. Over the years, Fortune 500 companies from Walmart to Verizon have contributed millions to the organization.
Given that NAN operates primarily to enrich Sharpton, these contributions are not philanthropy; they are ransom. American business is buying corporate peace. Upon tendering payment, the company is safe from Sharpton’s public declarations of their racism.
Sharpton’s behavior necessitates the question: Why would Medgar Evers College honor a notorious scoundrel who has harmed race relations in the United States or expend its moral capital on a man who uses the high cause of civil rights for personal gain? The college’s decision is puzzling and maddening.
It is not too late to rectify this error in judgment. Medgar Evers College can use this episode as the proverbial teachable moment. It can revoke the resolution awarding Sharpton an honorary degree and explain to its students that the hallmark of liberal education is the ability of independent thinkers to engage in free inquiry, examine assumptions, reason critically, and change their minds when the evidence before them requires it. Otherwise, the college and the City University of New York as a whole will bring disrepute upon their legacy by honoring a fraud.