Roy Innis, who was leader of the Congress of Racial Equality for decades, but became known for his conservative ideologies and, more infamously, for a shoving match with Rev. Al Sharpton, died Sunday at a New York City hospital, the Washington Post reported. His son, Niger, CORE’s national spokesman, said the cause was Parkinson’s disease. He was 82.
Innis, born in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1934 became an activist with CORE while living in Harlem in the 1950s and 60s, when the organization was instrumental in organizing Freedom Rides and other nonviolent civil disobedience, following the guidance of founder James Farmer, Martin Luther King and others. But he began to split with that doctrine, holding views that were staunchly militant and grounded in Black Power philosophies. He publicly opposed integration programs and CORE itself began to regard nonviolent protest as “a dying philosophy.”
By the late 1960s, CORE had all but rid itself of any White members, joining the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in a more militant approach to civil rights. Innis became CORE’s national director in 1968.
But Innis’ militancy was juxtaposed to his increasingly conservative viewpoints that he espoused as the 1970s progressed. He supported Richard Nixon’s presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972, as well as Ronald Reagan’s White House run in 1980. He clashed with other African-American leaders who harshly criticized their governmental policies and urged Blacks to join the Republican party.
He was also vocally opposed to Affirmative Action policies, and was a National Rifle Association board member. He also openly supported Bernard Goetz, a White man who shot four Black teenagers on a New York City subway train, accusing them of attempting to rob him. They maintained they were panhandling. He was convicted of carrying an illegal gun.
His attitudes may have been fueled by the death of his two sons, Roy Jr., who was killed in 1968 and later Alexander, who was killed in a 1982 robbery. Another son, Kwame, was attacked and stabbed the year before, but survived the incident.
“After the murders of my sons I did not want other parents to go through what I went through,” Innis told New York’s Newsday in 1993. “My sons were not killed by the KKK or David Duke. They were murdered by young, black thugs. I use the murder of my sons by black hoodlums to shift the problems from excuses like the KKK to the dope pushers on the streets.”
He was embroiled in a 1981 controversy in which CORE was investigated for alleged illegal fundraising. Innis did not admit any guilt, but agreed to pay back $35,000 of the $500,000 of the groups money that he was accused of misusing, according to The New York Times.
CORE attempted several times to move Innis out of its leadership, with Farmer particularly saying that he had become corrupt and violent (Innis was acquitted of an assault charge in 1982).
But what he became known for to later generations was a 1988 debate at the Apollo Theater in Harlem that turned into a brawl on nationally syndicated “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” in which he had discussed the rape allegations of Tawana Brawley, which were eventually shown to be untrue. As the two argued, Sharpton called Innis a “bigot,” prompting him to push him to the floor.
That same year a similar incident took place on “The Geraldo Rivera Show” in which he got into a fight with a White supremacist. He boasted that he’d given the same treatment to him as he did Sharpton. In the fracas, Rivera wound up with a broken nose.
Innis went on to unsuccessfully challenge New York mayor David Dinkins in the city’s 1993 Democratic election primary. But Dinkins was defeated in the general election by Republican Rudy Giuliani, who Innis threw his support behind.
He was vague about his family life, only saying to the Times that he had been married “more than once and fewer times than Elizabeth Taylor.” He is survived by nine children, his two sisters and several grandchildren.
See a 1969 story on Roy Innis from EBONY Magazine (Google Books)
This article appeared earlier on JETMag.com.