Fast-Food Politics

Jesse Jackson–Al Sharpton Beef Over Burger King Boycott

Storm reminded Sharpton that the Minority Franchise Association is not supporting the boycott. "It is clear that you are disregarding the impact your proposed action would have on African American and Hispanic franchisees, suppliers, and employers," he wrote. He added that the company will consider minority participation when the public offering is ready. "We believe we have addressed the diversity issues you have raised," Storm wrote. "Therefore, we can only conclude that your actions are solely an attempt to pressure Burger King Corporation into making a settlement with Mr. Hawkins that has no commercial or legal basis."

Storm's mention of Jesse Jackson's involvement in a meeting in Washington, D.C., in September to "explore all available channels to resolve our differences with Mr. Hawkins" provoked an angry reply from Sharpton. "I was extremely surprised and disappointed that such a meeting would be held without our knowledge and participation," Sharpton wrote to Storm. "To have engaged in discussions with me and to then subsequently have discussed with Reverend Jackson and others, and to further suggest that my interest is limited to La-Van Hawkins undermines the good-faith efforts and progress that we have . . . made."

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. They assert that because Jackson seems to be spending more time in his role as the Clinton administration's point man on Africa, he has been moving away from black-activist politics. Enter Sharpton, who some say has acted to fill the void in the civil rights leadership.

Consider this line of thinking by one Sharpton spin doctor: "Although Minister Farrakhan has been very popular, Jesse Jackson knows that there are some elements in black America that Farrakhan can't get to; like members of the black church, the black middle class, and some black politicians, because of his controversial views. Reverend Sharpton is the first black leader to emerge on the national scene in recent years who has access to all these elements. So Jackson sees this as a threat."

In the past four years, Sharpton has been on a roller-coaster publicity campaign. Since shedding his jogging apparel for the $1000 Woody Wilson business suit, Sharpton set up the Madison Avenue Initiative, which lobbies huge corporations to ensure they "deliver the right percentage" of advertising dollars to black-owned media. He has become so knowledgeable about the new economy that some mainstream media have begun to show begrudging deference to his take on the impact of the market's ups and downs on major black businesses. "Before, political shows like Hardball and Geraldo called Jesse Jackson on those issues," an aide notes. "Now they reach out to Sharpton."

The insider says Jackson might be concerned that Sharpton is being summoned to agitate for justice in several high-profile police brutality cases, including the shooting death of Taisha Miller in Riverside, California; the choking death of Frederick Finley in Dearborn, Michigan; and the vicious beating of Thomas Jones, which was captured live by a TV helicopter crew in Philadelphia. In the role of anti-death-penalty advocate, once the linchpin of Jackson's activism, Sharpton has helped draw worldwide attention to death-row inmates like Mumia Abu-Jamal. When Gary Graham was about to be executed in Texas, he asked that both Jackson and Sharpton be present to witness his death.

Even the right wing no longer views Jackson as a threat. "As the presidential campaign gets nasty in its final days, a shadowy group calling itself Americans Against Hate has started airing an attack ad that hangs the Rev. Al Sharpton's worst excesses around Al Gore's neck," the Daily News reported last week. Jackson may be having a hard time dealing with all the attention they are giving to Sharpton. "Think about it," the aide to Sharpton urges. "Wouldn't you feel a tad jealous if media heavyweights like Jay Leno and David Letterman were making jokes about Al Sharpton and not you?"

Some Sharpton insiders theorize that, in light of how Jackson usurped the role of successor to Dr. King, he may be edgy about Sharpton now. "He was a hungry, young black activist when Ralph Abernathy was chosen to succeed Dr. King," a Sharpton aide recalls. "But Jackson was able to galvanize his critics in the media and important activists across the country who sort of assisted in helping him wrest the crown from Abernathy. Now for Jackson to see Coretta Scott King and her family standing with Sharpton makes him fear that what he did 35 years ago may be coming back to haunt him."

Rumors of Jackson's political decline may have been exaggerated. On October 17, both sides in a transit strike that crippled Los Angeles reached a settlement after a marathon negotiating session led by Jackson. The strike was marked by name-calling, and talks did not budge until Jackson was brought in as an intermediary. The brunt of the strike's impact was felt by L.A.'s working poor, many of whom found themselves unable to get to work, see a doctor, or get to a grocery store.

It has become clear to some familiar with the Jackson-Sharpton feud that Jackson has been trying to distance himself from his old pal. It has been a tradition among these two longtime friends that they would attend each other's birthday parties (Sharpton was born on October 3 and Jackson on October 8). But on October 3 Jackson was a no-show at Sharpton's birthday celebration in Harlem. This year, Jackson celebrated his birthday belatedly, on October 15 in California, the day before the Million Family March. That upset Sharpton and other black activists, says an aide, adding that some in the movement viewed it as striking a blow against Farrakhan because Jackson was having his event some 3000 miles away, "which meant that the black political leadership and some celebrities who otherwise might have reluctantly attended the march now had a legitimate excuse for not attending." Sharpton, the aide continues, stood with Farrakhan and the people. "Sharpton made a major declaration of his independence by standing with the people. It's ironic that five years ago Al Sharpton wanted to be the Jesse Jackson of New York. Now he's become Jesse Jackson."

Additional reporting by Amanda Ward

« Previous Page