Fast-Food Politics

Jesse Jackson–Al Sharpton Beef Over Burger King Boycott

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, two of the nation's most powerful civil rights leaders, are at war over the direction of a potential nationwide boycott of Burger King, and possibly the leadership of the protest movement. According to some Sharpton aides, a firestorm that erupted when Jackson tried to undermine the Harlem-based activist's role in a franchise dispute may have severely damaged their once formidable alliance.

Late Monday, Sharpton dropped a bomb that may further shatter relations with the top black Democratic vote pusher: Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader will speak at Sharpton's House of Justice in Harlem the day before the elections. Democrats like Jackson fear that Nader, given the chance to appeal directly to African Americans, will siphon votes from Al Gore, thus tilting victory to George W. Bush. Contacted in Chicago, an aide said Jackson was traveling and could not be reached for comment.


Boycotting the Whopper: Sharpton vows that the huge restaurant chain won't have it its way.
photo: Cary Conover
Boycotting the Whopper: Sharpton vows that the huge restaurant chain won't have it its way.

There is a perception among some activists in Al Sharpton's circle that Jesse Jackson's influence on the civil rights movement is waning.


A fretful letter from Burger King CEO Colin A. Storm on October 5 infuriated Sharpton, exacerbating simmering tensions between Jackson and Sharpton. It was not Storm's declaration that he was "extremely surprised and disappointed" by Sharpton's decision to call for a boycott of the fast-food giant that ticked off the activist, but reference to a secret meeting between the executive and Sharpton mentor Jesse Jackson, which Sharpton publicly has argued "can only be interpreted as an attempt to divide the black community." What Storm and most observers don't know is that for several months Jackson and Sharpton have been beefing over inroads Sharpton has been making on the national scene to burnish his burgeoning political profile. Tempers flared after Jackson's sudden intervention in the Burger King fiasco. "It is interesting that the chairman of the board would write me a letter telling me of a meeting with Jackson that no one had told me about," Sharpton told the Voice. "Why would Jackson have such a meeting and not call me?"

Sharpton would neither confirm nor deny that he has expressed his sentiments about tensions with Jackson to aides in his Harlem-based National Action Network. These aides say Sharpton felt that Jackson "deliberately avoided" associating himself with the August 26 "Redeem the Dream" rally in Washington, D.C., which Sharpton and members of the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had organized to protest racial profiling. The night before the rally, Jackson and President Clinton left for a scheduled trip to Africa. "He did not even send a representative," says one aide. "Everyone, from Khallid Muhammad's New Black Panther Party to Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, had a stand-in." The aide speculates that Jackson resents the sudden shift by "corporate types" to Sharpton, who executives now turn to for help to settle minority boycotts against their companies. Sharpton, the aide adds, has shown these corporate moguls he has nothing to lose.

In the aftermath of the Redeem the Dream rally, which kept Sharpton in the national spotlight, Jackson, another Sharpton ally points out, cannot afford to allow the activist to meddle in big boycotts like the one shaping up against Burger King. "He can't allow the CEOs of white corporations to run around saying that Al Sharpton is the guy to go to in order to get black businessmen off your backs," the aide says.

Sharpton said he launched the boycott to protest Burger King's dispute with Detroit franchise owner La-Van Hawkins and the Miami-based company's treatment of blacks. He initially threatened a nationwide boycott, but later relented and said it would begin on a city-by-city basis. Sharpton said he chose New York City as a starting point because, although it has a large black population, there is only one black franchise owner in the city. Nationwide, Burger King said it has 75 black franchisees who own 1173 restaurants and employ over 58,000 people. The chain has about 11,150 restaurants, and employs some 300,000 workers.

Sharpton met with Storm in September to complain about the lack of an African American role in advertising contracts and investment banking for Burger King's planned initial public offering. Burger King and Hawkins have been in court in the Detroit franchise dispute since April. Hawkins charges that the company pulled out of a deal to jointly open 225 inner-city restaurants, and Burger King says he owes more than $6.5 million on a 1998 loan.

On minority contracts, Burger King has said two of the company's three advertising agencies are minority-owned. In Storm's October 5 letter to Sharpton, he tried to convince the activist that those who will be affected most by the boycott are Burger King's minority franchise owners, vendors, and employees.

"These franchisees, together with our Hispanic franchisees annually pay in excess of $352 million in wages and $25 million in property taxes to cities and towns across the country," he wrote. "We are proud of these minority franchisees and we want nothing more than for them and their businesses to flourish. We currently have 32 minority vendors across the country in our system, and we are proud of the fact that their Burger King businesses have grown 239 percent over the last five years."

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