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For the first time since persistent reports about political infighting between Sharpton and Jackson, Sharpton referred to rumors that he was trying to capitalize on the "love child" scandal and topple Jackson from his civil rights throne. "I would hope we [would] not allow the media to create a 'power struggle' sideshow to avoid the issue that both of us are committed to, and that is stopping the bombing in Vieques," Sharpton wrote.
In an unusual move, Sharpton conceded that Jackson was the first prominent black activist to whip up outrage over Vieques. "In fact, even before Ruben Berrios, the head of the Independence Party of Puerto Rico, came to the National Action Network's 'House of Justice' and asked for our support two years ago," Sharpton noted, "it was you who brought the issue to many of us. I can't tell you the pride that I felt when I sat in my cell and watched your wife . . . a strong and courageous woman being arrested just this week in a tradition she helped you teach all of us."
Sharpton was unusually contrite, making reference to past beefs, such as their dispute over protests against Burger King. Sharpton had supported claims by a black Detroit businessman that the fast-food franchise acted in a racist manner when it backed out of an agreement to allow him to open 225 restaurants in urban areas. Hawkins had sued, seeking more than $500 million. A federal judge threw out the case, prompting Sharpton to call for a boycott of Burger King and for sit-ins to protest unfair treatment of blacks denied franchises. When it was revealed that Jackson had been secretly negotiating with Burger King, Sharpton accused Jackson of selling out. ("Jesse presented himself as the arbiter of corporate racial consciousness, signed off on proposed solutions, collected a check, told us to calm down because everything was alright now, and flew first-class to the bank," says a Sharpton aide.)
In his letter, Sharpton also mentioned Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker's public criticism of Jackson after Jackson reneged on a promise to apologize at Walker's church in Harlem for fathering an illegitimate child. Walker, who is the chairman of the National Action Network, led by Sharpton, fired off an angry letter to Jackson about the affair. "All of these are designed to divide and conquer and distract from the issues that we are all obligated to raise," Sharpton charged. "Again, I publicly and unequivocally apologize for any direct or indirect way that I, or anyone associated with me, may have fed into the destructive chain of events." (Despite his newfound disdain for the media, Sharpton is still one of its darlings. In its June 25 "Winners and Losers" column, Time magazine declared Sharpton a winner. "Rotund preacher's hunger strike not in vain," it proclaimed. "Navy will halt Vieques bombing, he sheds 15 lbs.")
Carl Thomas, Abner Louima's former attorney, who has remained at Sharpton's side since he was imprisoned, says Sharpton has not asked him to temper his criticism of Jackson. Thomas, who is running for the City Council from the 40th District in Brooklyn, says Sharpton clearly has emerged as a successor to Jackson in the wake of the love-child scandal, and anyone who ignores that fact is being dishonest. He argues that support for Sharpton is mounting from as far away as strife-torn Sudan, which Sharpton visited recently, criticizing local warlords for enslaving their own people. As President Clinton's special envoy to Africa, Jackson, Thomas charges, dodged questions about slavery in Sudan and chose instead to represent the interests of major U.S. corporations that were trying to gain hegemony over emerging markets in Africa.
"Not only will Sharpton replace Jesse Jackson," predicts Thomas, "he will obliterate him from the political landscape unless Jackson does the elder-statesmanlike thing and accept Sharpton's new role. He should be proud to have someone like Sharpton follow in his footsteps. I became convinced that the Sharpton phenomenon was real when the conservative Giuliani supporter Pedro Espada Sr. said, 'Reverend Sharpton stood up for my people [in Vieques]. He is my leader.' "
Sharpton called on Jackson to unite around the Vieques protests. "I would like to have Chairman Walker, you, and I sit together and pray together at the federal prison as soon as possible," he proposed. "He will be in touch with you. . . . It is important that we commune and publicly show our union on this vital issue. The President has already made a step in the right direction, but it clearly is not enough. We must keep the pressure on, and not feed those who wish to separately destroy all of us."
Additional reporting: Skye McFarlane. Research assistance: Enyaw Samoth