For years, Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries has told a similar story: he was off at college and shielded from controversies surrounding his uncle, Black studies professor Leonard Jeffries, who eventually lost his job over incendiary comments about Jewish people. Hakeem Jeffries has said he had only a “vague recollection” of the controversy, saying he couldn’t even recall coverage of it in local press.
But a CNN KFile review of material from a 30-year-old college campus incident sharply undermines Jeffries’ claims.
While Jeffries was a college student at Binghamton University in upstate New York, the Black Student Union, in which Jeffries was an executive board member, invited his uncle to speak on campus after his inflammatory comments caused an uproar.
And in a previously unreported college editorial, Jeffries defended his uncle along with Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan, writing, “Do you think that a ruling elite would promote individuals who would seek to dismantle their vice like grip on power?” He added that they were unfairly targeted by “White media” for challenging “the longstanding distortion of history.”
Leonard Jeffries faced widespread backlash in the early 1990s after comments he made about the involvement of “rich Jews” in the African slave trade and “a conspiracy, planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood” of Jewish executives who he said were responsible for denigrating Black Americans in films.
“Dr. Leonard Jeffries and Minister Louis Farrakhan have come under intense fire,” wrote Jeffries in February 1992. “Where do you think their interests lie? Dr. Jeffries has challenged the existing white supremist educational system and long standing distortion of history. His reward has been a media lynching complete with character assassinations and inflammatory erroneous accusations.”
Jeffries’ office maintained his record in public service was one of “bringing communities together” and said he did not share his uncle’s views.
“Leader Jeffries has consistently been clear that he does not share the controversial views espoused by his uncle over thirty years ago,” spokesperson Christiana Stephenson told CNN in a statement Wednesday.
Like Jeffries’ uncle, Farrakhan, the leader of the Black nationalist group Nation of Islam, previously came under fire for incendiary comments about Jews. Farrakhan praised Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the 1980s as “a great man,” and called Judaism a “dirty religion.”
The editorial was mainly harsh criticism of Black conservatives, and contained other inflammatory remarks from the future congressman.
“The House Negro of the slavery era and the Black conservative of today are both opportunists interested in securing some measure of happiness for themselves within the existing social order. In both cases, the social order has Blacks occupying the lowest societal echelon,” wrote Jeffries.
Soon after he was elected to Congress, Jeffries told The Wall Street Journal in 2013 he only had “a vague recollection” of the controversies with his uncle, remembering it only as a tough time for his father and claimed his mother shielded him and his brother from the controversies because he was off at college.
“And so when a lot of the controversy took place and my brother and I were away at school,” Jeffries said. “There was no Internet during that era and I can’t even recall a daily newspaper in the Binghamton, N.Y., area but it wasn’t covering the things that the New York Post and Daily News were at the time.”
In another story, the WSJ reported that Jeffries said he had not even looked at his uncle’s most controversial speeches.
Jeffries’ office has repeatedly pointed to the comments made to WSJ when asked about his uncle’s most inflammatory beliefs, most recently in December 2022. “His on the record comments made to The Wall Street Journal speak for themselves,” his office told the conservative website Just The News.
He made similar comments to the AxeFiles podcast in 2019, saying, “My father made a deliberate decision to try to shield us from that controversy, because he was very concerned as to how it could just impact our wellbeing, our focus, because it was an intense situation.”
The incident is receiving renewed scrutiny after first being reported by the conservative Washington Examiner and The New York Times following Jeffries’ ascension to House Minority Leader.
A controversy on campus
In the summer of 1991, Leonard Jeffries gave a speech at a Black arts festival in which he said there has been “a conspiracy, planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood by people called Greenberg and Weisberg and Trigliani,” for denigrating Black Americans in films, and that “Russian Jewry had a particular control over the movies, and their financial partners, the Mafia, put together a financial system of destruction of black people.”
The comments led to Leonard Jeffries being repeatedly condemned by the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee.
Leonard Jeffries later compared Jews to “dogs” and “skunks,” and was condemned at the time by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and New York City Mayor David Dinkins. He eventually left his position as chair of the Black Studies Department at City University of New York in 1995, after a lengthy legal battle.
In February 1992, Hakeem Jeffries was a senior at Binghamton University in upstate New York and a board member of the Black Student Union. The BSU extended an invitation for the embattled professor to speak on campus for an undisclosed fee, drawing outrage from some students on campus and members of the Jewish Student Union. The BSU said the profits from the event would go to a foundation in an honor of a student killed in an auto accident.
After a Jewish student group called on the BSU to cancel the professor’s speaking engagement, Jeffries led a news conference defending his uncle and his speaking engagement.
“We have no intention of canceling a presentation that contains factual information, proven through scholarly documents and texts,” read Hakeem Jeffries from a statement reported in the student newspaper the Pipe Dream. “The proper way to way to debate scholarship is with scholarship–not with high-tech lynchings, media assassinations, character desecrations and venomous attacks.”
The BSU executive board also wrote an editorial in the student newspaper, Pipe Dream, defending Jeffries and condemning a comparison of the professor to the Ku Klux Klan.
In an editorial penned solely by the younger Jeffries in The Vanguard, the BSU student newspaper, Jeffries defended his uncle against the “White media.” But his harshest criticisms were reserved for Black conservatives, who he called “token” and “opportunists” comparable to “house negroes” during American slavery.
CNN’s KFile reviewed a copy of The Vanguard in the special collections of the library of Binghamton University. In only one of two available issues of that year did Jeffries write an editorial.
“There has been a recent trend in the Black political arena which I believe threatens to sustain the oppression of the Black masses. The phenomenon I refer to is the rise of the Black conservative,” wrote Jeffries.
“During the period of African enslavement, our ancestors were given the duality of the Field Negro and the House Negro. The Field Negro labored from dawn ‘till dusk, had nothing but contempt for his white master, and most importantly, the majority of Black slaves, who were Field Negroes. In contemporary terms, what we would refer to as ‘the masses.’ The House Negroes didn’t labor in the field, they were domestic servants. The House Negro was dressed up and was led to believe that he or she was better than those in the field. Most importantly, the House Negro sought to emulate the white master. This emulation was not designed with the interests of the masses at heart. Rather, the motivating force was personal gain.
“Perhaps this is the problem with the Black conservative politician of today. Their political agenda is not designed to contribute to the upliftment of their people. These right-wing opportunists espouse the political ideology of the power structure and, in return, they are elevated to positions historically reserved for whites.”
Jeffries also attacked Black conservatives for buying into the “idea of the American dream,” which he said ignored “the economic reality of this country’s capitalist system,” adding that “capitalism necessitates the perpetuation of a permanent underclass.”
He later clarified he is “not trying to encourage the restriction of Black political thought to one particular ideology” but to critically examine the phenomenon. He pointed to Black conservatives such as Clarence Thomas and Colin Powell as prominent examples of the phenomenon.
“Clarence Thomas was appointed by George Bush to the highest court in the nation. Colin Powell was appointed by George Bush to lead the military establishment ‘policemen of the Wall Street Bankers’, in the words of Cesar Agusto Sandino. Where do you think their interests lie?” wrote Jeffries.
Days after the editorial was published, Leonard Jeffries spoke on campus.
According to press coverage of his speech from the front page of the Press & Sun-Bulletin, the local Binghamton paper, Jeffries spent “much of the speech defending himself from charges of anti-Semitism” and reiterated his remarks on “anti-Black” Jewish moguls in Hollywood. Speaking on Jewish opposition to his speech, Jeffries compared the opposition to Nazism.
“It’s ironic that members of the Jewish community felt compelled to take a position that is antidemocratic and….pro-Nazi in its viciousness,” he said.