The 'Wrongs' of 'Mr. Civil Rights'

Why Jesse Jackson's Political Comeback Seems Doomed

Before giving his approval, Walker allegedly exacted a promise from Jackson: The self-styled "country preacher" would apologize for violating his marriage vows. "I said to you that I did not think you should speak unless you made some kind of statement that was an apology for your behavior and ask for prayers and understanding," Walker wrote.

A Canaan church official reiterated that Walker "specifically told Reverend Jackson to apologize," adding that Walker "wanted Reverend Jackson to say, 'As a minister, I've done wrong.' He felt that Reverend Jackson should acknowledge what he did as a 'moral sin' and that he should get off the political scene for about three to four months to allow him to put his family back together." Jackson, the source adds, "agreed to repent."

But Walker felt uneasy about entrusting his pulpit to Jackson. For 30 years there has been tension between Walker and Jackson and the old guard of the historic Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Jackson left the SCLC in 1971 over infighting and formed Operation PUSH.

Walker asked Reverend Al Sharpton to be his stand-in. "I talked with him Saturday, Monday morning and evening," wrote Walker, who is chairman of the board of the National Action Network, a civil rights group led by Sharpton. Because many in Walker's congregation were upset with Jackson about the illicit affair, Walker tried to prep them for the adulterer's visit. "I announced on Sunday morning to my congregation that there would be a Service of Penancein your behalf—that it was not a rally—and invited them to come and join in a service to help with your restitution," the minister wrote.

Ten minutes before the vigil, as Jackson, Sharpton, and others were going over the evening's agenda, one of Walker's assistant ministers told Sharpton that Walker was on the phone insisting that he speak to him. "We had agreed that it was to be a Service of Penance, only clergy would speak and/or pray," according to Walker. "I arranged for my Dance Ministry to perform and it was to be closed to the media!" Sharpton told a top aide later that Walker kept reminding him during the conversation that Jackson was "not to say anything, but apologize." Walker, the aide recalls, then cautioned Sharpton about the media. "The press is already in the church," the aide heard Sharpton say.

The aide says Sharpton told Walker that Jackson had invited hand-picked political figures, including mayoral contenders Alan Hevesi and Fernando Ferrer, Congressman Charles Rangel, and Schools Chancellor Harold Levy. Levy, a lawyer and former banking executive with ties to the Democratic Party, helped cut the deal for Jackson to support the 1998 merger of Citicorp and Travelers Group, which formed the nation's largest financial services company.

"Al Sharpton reported to me that you forced him to allow the public officials to speak when I had specifically agreed that only clergy would speak because I feared that it would become a fiasco in my absence," Walker claimed.

When a glum Sharpton got off the phone, he told his aide that Walker was upset and that he felt "uneasy" about reminding Jackson of Walker's demands. Sharpton did not pull Jackson's coat. "I am nearly as upset with Al Sharpton as I am with you," Walker told Jackson in his letter.

The aide explains that Sharpton was caught between two mentors. "On the one hand, Reverend Walker is the chairman of his board," the aide points out. "He wants to be respectful of Reverend Walker. On the other hand, Reverend Sharpton was a student of Reverend Jackson and at the time the media was speculating that Reverend Sharpton would be the heir to Jackson. He did not tell Reverend Jackson what Reverend Walker said because he did not want Reverend Jackson to believe he was trying to take advantage of his vulnerability."

Jackson—avoiding any mention of his affair—told the more than 300 people who packed the church that the most important issue since the presidential election was voter access, the right to vote, and the right to be counted. "He did not repent," the Sharpton aide laments. "He did not apologize. He made a political speech. He never referred, even remotely, to the scandal."

Walker was outraged. Ten days later, after watching a videotape of Jackson's appearance, he demanded a meeting with Sharpton. The preachers argued bitterly. After Sharpton repeatedly explained to Walker how Walker's directive had put him in "a bind," Walker relaxed his criticism of Sharpton, but he remained angry at Jackson for reneging on their agreement. As Walker's congregation and his ministerial colleagues pressured him about the apology that wasn't, Walker told Sharpton that he planned to write a letter of reprimand to Jackson.


Jackson learned of Walker's intentions and tried to stop the letter. According to a Sharpton aide, Jackson browbeat Sharpton into pleading with Walker. "Jackson knew that a letter from Martin Luther King's former chief of staff would devastate him if it got into the wrong hands," says a Brooklyn political operative who attended the vigil.

Walker wrote the letter anyway and sent it to Jackson. In the following excerpt, Walker scolds Jackson like he was an errant schoolboy:

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