The death of legendary civil rights leader Roy Innis on Jan. 8, immediately revived recollections of his confrontational history.
Innis, who was 82 at the time of his death, was more often than not battling fellow black leaders in the civil rights movement as he proudly joined the board of the National Rifle Association and denounced affirmative action and court-ordered school busing.
Obituaries of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chairman are now giving considerable space and airtime to his celebrated shoving of fellow black leader Al Sharpton on “The Morton Downey, Jr. Show” in 1988 after Sharpton called Innis a bigot.
But little mentioned is that Innis was a conservative and a Republican long before figures such as Sharpton or issues such as gun control and affirmative action became prominent in public debate.
“I was conservative before conservatives was cool and I was always — always — a Republican!” Innis told me when his son Niger (national spokesman for CORE) got us together at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington.
In 1960, as most black leaders in New York followed Harlem-area Rep. Adam Clayton Powell into the Democratic column of John Kennedy, Innis stumped hard for Republican Nixon. This became even more difficult after Kennedy called the family of Dr. Martin Luther King and helped secure the minister’s release from a Georgia jail. But Innis, as he told me, “was with Nixon all the way.”
In 1968, when Nixon was elected president, he named then-CORE Chairman James Farmer as an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Innis moved up to head the venerable civil rights group. In that capacity, he often visited the White House and worked with the Nixon administration on peaceful school desegregation and empowering black entrepreneurs.
Innis also campaigned for New York’s Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, even though — as he repeatedly said — “Rocky was a tad more liberal than I was. But he connected with black folks. And he listened.”
He went on to back Ronald Reagan and both Bushes in their winning presidential bids.
Innis loved retelling one of his proudest moments in 1969 when he helped close friend and conservative state Sen. John Marchi of Staten Island challenge liberal New York Mayor John Lindsay in the Republican primary. Running on a platform of law and order and greater local empowerment, Marchi actually defeated Lindsay in a big upset.
In November, however, Lindsay was re-elected with a plurality as Marchi and conservative Democrat Mario Procaccino split up his opposition. As he did in the primary, Innis stayed with Marchi.
“John was right on everything and he was my friend,” he said, “and, as you may have guessed, I’m pretty loyal to my friends.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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