Is Jesse for Sale?

Jackson-Watchers Claim Wall Street Contributors Arranged His Phone Call 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. The Jackson-Sharpton feud was first reported by the Voice.

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."

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