Jesse Jackson: The Desperate Hours

Inside the Civil Rights Power Struggle

Some black political observers say Rivera has signaled that his choice for mayor of New York City will be a white man. At a news conference held last month to protest the bombing in Vieques, Rivera showcased mayoral contenders Alan Hevesi and Mark Green, who are white. Freddie Ferrer was conspicuously absent—and that may have a lot do with the ongoing feud between Rivera and Bronx Democratic Party chairman Roberto Ramirez, who supported several black candidates in last year's elections in the Bronx, including former assemblyman Larry Seabrook in his race against Congressman Eliot Engel. Rivera, others recall, never unleashed his labor force to help Sharpton in his insurgent 1997 mayoral bid.

In fact, some point out that Rivera has shunned Sharpton, rejecting pleas by his own rank and file to visit the minister, Ramirez, Assemblyman Jose Rivera, and Councilmember Adolfo Carrion in prison. (Ramirez, Rivera, and Carrion have since been released.) In contrast, Jackson made the right political move. But even after his visit to Sharpton, many in the reverend's camp are suspicious of Jackson's motives. "Damaged as he is with an out-of-wedlock baby, Jackson had to find a way to steal Reverend Sharpton's thunder," says a Sharpton aide. "Now that the disciple seeks to surpass the master, the master seeks to stand in his way, ably assisted by his hatchet man, Dennis Rivera."

Jackson, Sharpton's supporters argue, felt he had to do something dramatic to upstage Sharpton on the issue of Vieques. "Jackson himself could not go to Vieques to get arrested because that would be anticlimactic," says the critic. "So he sends his wife, who is seen as a strong woman in the face of marital infidelity, and, like Hillary Clinton, is standing by her man. Jacqueline Jackson has never been known as an activist. "

In carefully orchestrated soundbites, Jackson described the details of the arrest and incarceration of his 57-year-old wife. Mrs. Jackson refused to post $3000 bail after her arrest on June 18, saying she should be released on her own recognizance. Jackson said his wife was put in solitary confinement for refusing to bend over during a strip search. Bureau of Prisons officials say such searches are compulsory after inmates receive visitors, and that those who don't comply can be put in "special housing."

Mrs. Jackson's sentence, similar to those given to most protesters, was lighter than the 30- and 40-day sentences handed out to protesters arrested after the last round of Navy exercises in April and May. Sharpton's supporters made a big deal out of that, declaring that their leader went on a hunger strike after receiving a 90-day sentence—a feat neither Jackson nor his wife would attempt.

"Jackie Jackson's Vieques stunt was a desperate move designed for one purpose only—and that is to wage war against Al Sharpton's well-oiled public-relations machine," says a self-described "nonwhite" political analyst who asked not to be identified. But from behind prison walls, Sharpton claimed to be speaking for all of his supporters. Expressing "our sincere gratitude for her leadership and sacrifice," he lauded Mrs. Jackson for going to Vieques.

Some of Al Sharpton's supporters have been annoyed by his olive-branch approach, complaining that he has been sending mixed signals about his true relationship with Jackson. The day after Jacqueline Jackson was arrested, Sharpton appeared to inflame tensions between himself and his mentor.

In an interview with Fox News, Sharpton was asked whether his presidential aspirations could be hurt by his role in pushing Tawana Brawley's discredited rape allegations. According to a partial transcript of the interview, Sharpton lashed out at Jackson and his actions following King's 1968 assassination. "I think the Brawley case pales in comparison," Fox News quoted Sharpton as saying. "Did I take the blood of the guy I loved and put it on my shirt?"

Some in Jackson's camp viewed the remarks as an unprovoked attack. Right-wing media critics of both leaders exploited what they viewed as souring relations. The master of media manipulation would fail at damage control. In a statement, Sharpton said he had been asked how controversies in his past might be raised if he runs for president. He said he responded that such attempts don't compare "to how the media in a huge way tried to discredit Reverend Jackson around issues raised by movement people of his immediate reactions at the scene of Dr. King's assassination." But that was not enough to cool Sharpton's fighting words. Sharpton lashed out against the press, saying in an effusively apologetic letter to Jackson that the feud between them was fabricated by media hacks.

"I write to you openly to first make it clear that I in no way intended to attack you or any of your past actions as recently reported," Sharpton said in his June 20 jailhouse missive. "I do not now, and never believed that you acted improperly at the scene of King's assassination, and always felt the press unfairly tried to use that to undermine your work, which is why I raised it. In the interview," he explained, "I merely raised the point [about] how the press tried to use false and distorted allegations against you, and that pales in comparison to what I expect them to do to me. If in the heat of the interview my language was careless and did not communicate those feelings, it was a mistake. I offer my sincere and unconditional apology to you as one who has spent so much time trying to develop me [and do not wish to] leave an open door for our mutual adversaries."

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