Jesse Jackson: The Desperate Hours

Inside the Civil Rights Power Struggle

In a frantic attempt to salvage his image as America's premier civil rights leader, Reverend Jesse L. Jackson has injected himself into a bitter black/Latino power struggle that could scuttle Carl McCall's dream of becoming New York's first black governor and Fernando Ferrer's chances of becoming New York City's first Latino mayor. If it is true that Jackson played an ill-advised role in a plot to undermine a fledgling black/Latino coalition, black activists warn, his latest political comeback will suffer another devastating setback.

Jackson has been treated as a pariah in the community since he acknowledged having fathered an out-of-wedlock child with a woman on the staff of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Several missteps on the road to redemption have fueled speculation that Jackson should take a sabbatical. Former admirers are now calling him "the pimp of Vieques" for, as one ex-campaign adviser put it, "forcing his poor wife into political prostitution" on the Puerto Rican island. Last Wednesday, after serving a 10-day sentence for trespassing, Jacqueline Jackson walked out of the Metropolitan Detention Center in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo. Another coarse critic claims that Jackson engineered "this shameful stunt. Anyone who believes that this situation was not staged to take the spotlight off Sharpton must be crazy."

While archrival Sharpton languishes in a federal lockdown in Brooklyn for protesting the U.S. Navy's bombing of Vieques, Jackson has been quietly buttressing an alliance with Dennis Rivera, leader of the powerful Local 1199 health care workers union, who is the co-chairman of Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Rivera is Jackson's point man in the city. And privately, several of Jackson's critics have asked black activists to avoid Rivera at all cost. They point to a piece by columnist Jack Newfield, who they charge tried to demean Sharpton and anoint Rivera as an acceptable leader of blacks and Latinos.

"Dennis Rivera is about government, not entertainment; results, not publicity," Newfield wrote in the New York Post last month shortly before he was fired. "He is the authentic inheritor of the tradition of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez, of nonviolent civil protest to expand rights. Rivera has been active in the movement to stop the Navy's bombing of Vieques for 20 years. His arrest with [environmental activist Robert F.] Kennedy was front-page news in Puerto Rico, the island of his birth, where Rivera has a rock star's celebrity."

Jackson, Sharpton's people point out, has not challenged Newfield's arrogance, adding that Sharpton's record as a civil rights leader entitles him—not Rivera—to wear King's mantle. "The column was carefully designed to forestall the momentum of Sharpton and his Puerto Rican allies as the real protagonists of the national debate on Vieques," says a Sharpton aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Sharpton, not Rivera and his crew, are the victors. Sharpton got George Bush to capitulate and call for an end to the bombing in Vieques. And we should not forget that Mr. Newfield became rabidly incensed by Reverend Sharpton's refusal to support Freddie Ferrer unless Ferrer agreed to support black candidates. Newfield did not call on Rivera to support Ferrer." (Newfield did not return a Voice call for comment.)

Rivera, who is in Puerto Rico preparing to surrender to serve a possible lengthy sentence for trespassing during protests on Vieques, could not be contacted. But one labor leader who knows him well says Rivera has never broken his silence on media reports about the alleged feud between Jackson and Sharpton. "Although he has been closer to Jackson than Sharpton, he has never talked about their problems," he says.

Ken Sunshine, the outspoken political consultant who is an ally of both Jackson and Sharpton, downplayed the squabbling, saying forces were trying to divide the two leaders. "There are detractors who have been trying for a long time to foment hostility between Jackson and Sharpton," Sunshine told the Voice. "Some of us, who have been around for a long time and love them both, are not going to fall for the wishes of people who are against progressive politics."


Critics of Dennis Rivera insist that the labor leader cannot be trusted. Rivera, they caution, might ignore the black and Latino front-runners in New York's gubernatorial and mayoral races.

They cite Rivera's ties to former governor Mario Cuomo and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and rail against Rivera's connections in the Democratic Party hierarchy. Such ties do not bode well for black and Latino candidates aspiring for higher office. For example, they note, Benito Romano, the attorney who is representing Rivera and Kennedy on criminal-trespass charges in Vieques, works at the same law firm as Cuomo, but is closely allied with Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Cuomo's son, Andrew, is married to Kennedy's cousin, Kerry. Andrew Cuomo, who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, is locked in a battle with state comptroller Carl McCall—New York's highest black elected official—for the Democratic nomination for governor. The insiders claim that Rivera, who should be backing minority candidates, has worked out a deal with the Cuomos and Robert Kennedy to support Andrew's candidacy.

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 theirleader 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."

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

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