Civil rights icon Roy Innis, who for over 50 years in public life confounded stereotypes and the conventional wisdom of politics, died Sunday morning in New York City after a long illness. He was 82.
“Roy got up every day and followed his conscience on what he thought was right, and if that led him to collide with political correctness, he was willing to take the heat,” said Wayne LaPierre, a longtime Innis friend and CEO of the National Rifle Association.
A tall and muscular enigma wrapped in a conundrum, Mr. Innis was noted for being a compelling speaker at the podium but otherwise mild-mannered — except when he wasn’t. He knocked Al Sharpton out of a chair and onto the floor during a TV debate, and he clobbered a white supremacist who called him an Uncle Tom on a Geraldo Rivera TV show.
“He believed in self-reliance, humility and the courage to fight for expanded opportunities, not for dependence on welfare,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and a domestic policy adviser to the Trump transition team. “He wasn’t a pacifist, as Al Sharpton and others found out.”
His initial support for black separatism evolved into a libertarian conservatism not remotely shared by other famous U.S. civil rights leaders. He had headed the Congress of Racial Equality since being elected its national chairman in 1968.
“My brand of conservatism is the traditional, most decent and rational expression of the American personality,” he once told The New York Times. “I believe that the success of America has been the application of pragmatism in society, and that view is particularly unfashionable in the civil rights movement.”
People who praised Mr. Innis did so at their own risk among black politicians and other civil rights leaders. Rudolph W. Giuliani got pummeled by black leaders in 1994 when, as mayor of New York, he said that an Innis dinner was “probably the most significant Martin Luther King celebration in the New York City area” yet it “got no coverage” in the press.
Mr. Innis was used to absorbing punches from an indifferent or outright hostile press in New York and nationally — in his athletic prime, he was considered one of the top amateur boxers in the country.
His ability to win the respect of people across the political spectrum and from the entertainment and sports world was something to behold.
“If you’ve never been to one of Roy Innis’ annual CORE dinners in Manhattan on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, here’s what you missed,” said Mr. LaPierre. “Three rows of ‘head tables’ filled by cops and politicians from all five boroughs — every sitting mayor, I mean from Ed Koch [to] Rudy Giuliani. You’d see famous singers from the Metropolitan Opera, boxing impresario Don King, former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield.”
“Roy pulled together the most eclectic groups you’ve ever seen,” said Mr. LaPierre. “They showed up as much out of respect for Roy as for CORE.”
At these dinners could be seen Laura Bush, Jane Fonda, Peggy Noonan, Ted Turner, George W. Bush, Howard Cosell, Muhammad Ali, Charlton Heston, Usher, Morgan Freeman and Barry Manilow.
To a seemingly inordinate extent, ordinary people knew who Mr. Innis was and what he stood for, even though he wasn’t a professional athlete or entertainment figure.
The coat checkers and servers at these dinners were as excited to see Mr. Innis as they were to see any celebrity. When interviewed, they explained that he “belonged” to them — “my man Roy.”
One day in New York, a cabbie picked up a reporter and Mr. Innis. The driver recognized Mr. Innis and told him: “Sorry to intrude, but you’ve always been an idol to me.” The cabbie went to his trunk and proudly pulled out a painting of Mr. Innis, apparently being routinely carried around.
Mr. Innis’ transformation to a kind of libertarian conservatism that was in its various parts unique to him came from his own personal experiences on the streets of Harlem, drawing his own conclusions based on what he thought would make things better for people.
“I think of the courage it took for him to move from left to right, as the liberal community turned its back on this icon,” said Mr. Blackwell. “He really did walk a path of independence and courage.”
“I once asked if he had advice for young people on how to live their lives,” Mr. LaPierre said. “He said he tells them to believe in TLC: truth, logic and courage, and you’ll be OK. And that summed up Roy. It’s why so many people loved him and will miss him.”