Is Jesse for Sale?
Downcast Wall Street investors whose fears had been focused on a slowing economy demanded that Reverend Jesse Jackson curtail his blistering attacks on George W. Bush. These financiers arranged the controversial phone call that Jackson made to the "president-select" shortly after Al Gore conceded the race, key business figures told said.
Corporate moguls contribute heavily to Jackson's Wall Street Project, an economic-development program intended to persuade New York's financial leaders to steer big-business bucks to minority communities and entrepreneurs. The Project is, in fact, the Wall Street office of Jackson's Rainbow-PUSH Coalition. "These guys on Wall Street aren't Democrats or Republicans -- they're capitalists," says one investor. "When they saw the tide turning, some of Reverend Jackson's top contributors put a call in to him."
Jackson did not return calls for comment.
Even before the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Bush on the night of December 12, Jackson was promising to "take to the streets" with a "civil rights explosion." Prior to his phone call, Jackson had compared the Supreme Court's ruling to the 1857 Dred Scott decision in which the Court declared that blacks, slave or free, did not have the rights of citizens. After the Supreme Court ruling, Jackson said he rejected Bush as the successor to President Clinton "with every bone in my body and every ounce of moral strength in my soul." He also said that "to lose by racial targeting is dishonorable."
With Wall Street having factored in a Bush victory, sources in the financial community say, it was only a matter of time before major movers and shakers muzzled Jackson and other Gore loyalists crying thievery. "These contributors told Reverend Jackson, 'You better hold this down because we won't back you anymore if you are adverse to the new administration in Washington,'" a financial insider claims. "They said, 'We certainly can't give you the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and all these other perks if you are out there taking shots at a president we now have to lobby to get what we want.' My understanding is that they told Reverend Jackson, 'You better call Bush.'"
The source adds that one business figure also told Jackson he would call Bush "and tell him to take your call." On December 14, Bush took a call from the civil rights leader. They talked about "healing the nation and bringing it together," according to a Bush aide. Bush offered to meet with Jackson "for further discussions on election reform" in the aftermath of allegations that black voters were unfairly treated in some Florida voting precincts. The next day, Jackson, appearing on NBC's Today show, said of Bush: "It is his burden to bring some closure to that [allegation] in some fair and open way."
That Jackson could be pressured by Wall Street investors to scale down his rhetoric intrigued a civic leader who is a close associate. "Why would Jesse make the call? Why would Bush accept the call?" he asks. Without confirming that is exactly what happened, this Jackson supporter adds, "There must be somebody who is bigger than both of them to put that together."
Some in the black activist community are steaming over Jackson's phone call. They use words like "sellout" and "race merchant" and "two-faced" to describe the nation's best-known civil rights activist. One even asked, "Who's betraying Dr. Martin Luther King?" Jackson, one incensed black leader declares, believes that the civil rights movement marches to his dictates.
None of the Congressional Black Caucus members or any civil rights leaders we contacted was aware that Jackson had planned to talk to Bush. Asserts one exasperated politician: "He didn't touch base with anyone." A source says that Florida congresswoman Corrine Brown was particularly outraged by Jackson's "shameful turnaround," which seemed to dampen anti-Bush sentiments built up during the postelection crisis. Brown and Jackson had filed a lawsuit claiming that blacks in Duval County were denied the right to vote because they didn't have registration or photo-ID cards, and were not permitted to present other forms of identification allowed under state law. "She didn't know that he was going to make the call," the source insists. "Just out of nowhere he makes this call. Why? He had to protect his own interest."
What would Al Sharpton do if Bush calls him? "I would not meet with Bush alone," says the leader of the Harlem-based National Action Network. "There has to be an agenda that the black collective agrees with. Clearly, I'm not looking to be part of the Bush administration."
The black nationalist community, traditional Jackson foes, is abuzz with condemnations of what it views as Jackson's latest political perfidy. "He is a continuing embarrassment to the race," declares Louis Clayton Jones, publisher and editor of the Atlanta-based Cyberdrum, complaining in a recent e-mail to Elombe Brath, leader of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition headquartered in Harlem. "Don't be surprised if Bush appoints him to some meaningless post in his administration."
Jones, an attorney who was once an influential figure in New York City black activist politics, is a former ally of Jackson. "I have been in the streets with Jesse," he recalls. "I have represented Jesse in the courts of the City of New York. I have watched Jesse sabotage grassroots attempts to bring equity in hiring practices to the masses of New York City. I know, firsthand, what Jesse will do when faced with a choice between principle and personal gain." No one, adds Jones, should be surprised that Jackson suddenly has warmed to Bush.
"It is important to understand that Jesse Jackson is both shameless and heartless," Jones tells Brath in their Internet colloquy.
Johnnie P. Ware, a contributor to Cyberdrum, argues that Jackson had no choice but to pick up the phone when ordered to fall in line by his financial backers. The Detroit-based community activist points to Jackson's membership in the Council on Foreign Relations, an establishment political group that is a favorite target of conspiracy theorists. "As a member of the Council on Foreign Relations," Ware notes, "Jesse seems to have been assigned the job of keeping the rabble in line: Don't let them riot, don't let them form groups that might bring about change, don't let them challenge the system, and above all, don't let them choose their own leaders -- be their leader whether they like it not. Jackson is allowed to say anything [he wants] about whites, without fear of reprisal, as long as he controls the black community. That's his job."
There is another phone call that Jesse Jackson is being advised to make: To Al Sharpton. Relations between the on-again, off-again friends sank to a new low in October after the Burger King Corporation enlisted Jackson to help derail Sharpton's call for a boycott of the world's No. 2 fast-food chain.
Sharpton has been backing black Detroit businessman La-Van Hawkins in a dispute with Burger King. In April, Hawkins's Urban City Foods sued Burger King in federal court, accusing the company of fraud and reneging on a deal to let Hawkins open 225 restaurants within five years. Hawkins alleged that Burger King treated him like a pawn, courting him because of his race and then using it against him to squelch his dream of owning a string of Burger Kings in underserved communities. Burger King argued it never made such promises and countersued, seeking more than $6.5 million it says Hawkins owes on a 1998 loan. (On December 15, a federal judge ruled that Burger King did not break any promises to Hawkins, setting the stage for the chain's bid to revoke his existing franchises.)
Sharpton initially threatened a nationwide boycott, but later relented and said it would begin on a city-by-city basis. In October, he called for a boycott of the fast-food chain in New York City, which has only one black franchise owner. Last month, according to The New Republic, "Jackson sent Sharpton a stiff letter warning that a boycott might be counterproductive, since it could harm the 'more than 100 black-and brown-owned franchises, employing more than 8000 people." But the magazine cites "Sharpton allies" who "point out that Burger King has backed Jackson's Rainbow-PUSH Coalition for nearly 20 years." Burger King estimates "it has given Jackson's group roughly $500,000," but Jackson "puts the figure at approximately $125,000," the magazine reported.
Sharpton supporters say that the quarrel is a wake-up call to Jackson, who, as he gains establishment approval, may be moving toward an elder statesman role. "I expect that sooner or later he is going to call," an aide to Sharpton bristles. "I don't know what he is going to say. I know that Reverend Sharpton might tell Reverend Jackson he'll do what he and others had trained him to do: Fight injustice."
Feelings of ill will, however, escalated in Florida, where the two civil rights giants almost clashed in turf warfare. Sharpton went to Miami-Dade County, where his National Action Network got the jump on Jackson and sued Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris and George W. Bush, alleging that the two Republicans interfered with the rights of Florida's minority voters. According to the suit, filed on behalf of three Miami residents, Harris and the state elections board "disenfranchised" minority voters by certifying Bush as the winner before Miami-Dade County could complete a manual recount of presidential ballots.
Jackson sued in Duval County. In the battle of one-up politics, Sharpton aligned himself with former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry and called on African Americans to form a "human prayer chain" around the U.S. Supreme Court building. Jackson later initiated a march on the Department of Justice that wound up at the Supreme Court.
"There were two separate marches -- one led by Jackson, one led by Sharpton," says a political observer. The jockeying was so obvious that Florida legislators such as Congresswoman Carrie Meeks tried to get the factions to meet in Miami to settle their differences. "But Jackson refused to go," says a Sharpton aide. When Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a Jackson ally, called Sharpton's camp seeking a meeting, a Sharpton aide said Jackson's lawyers should call Sharpton's lawyers. "The call never came," the aide says. "This is definitely the worst. They have never been to the point of not communicating with each other. This Burger King disagreement seems to have permanently widened the Jackson-Sharpton rift."
Sharpton aides anticipate a showdown if Jackson attends a black leadership conference on January 4 in Washington. Again, black leaders may have to contend with dueling marches. Says the aide: "Reverend Sharpton's march is high on the agenda, and we understand that some of the leaders are going to oppose it. Oh, there definitely is going to be a fight. We're gonna have a showdown on how we intend to deal with the Bush years, on whether we're gonna roll over or fight. And fight we will on January 20."
Jackson says protests against "the chaos and the debacle in Florida" will be held on January 15, the legal holiday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King. Sharpton plans to rain on George W. Bush's coronation with a "shadow inauguration" on January 20.
Critics claim that Jackson really wants to attend the inauguration, adding that he chose King Day to cover his tracks because he does not want to appear to be disruptive. "On January 20, it's gonna look like he is not with the people," a Sharpton aide speculates. "He is definitely not trying to heed his own advice to 'stay out the Bushes.'" Reverend William Jones, former national chair of Operation Breadbasket, an economic-pressure arm of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the '60s -- who knows Jackson better than many of his detractors -- was once quoted as saying: "In many ways Jesse reminds me of a pilot in search of a landing field who is unable to locate one." But an activist who is familiar with Reverend Jones's quote put this spin on it: "Jesse Jackson is like an airplane with no airport to land in. No one will give him clearance, and he is low on fuel."
Additional reporting by Amanda Ward.