Fast-Food Politics


Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, two of the nation’s most powerful civil rights leaders, are at war over the direction of a potential nationwide boycott of Burger King, and possibly the leadership of the protest movement. According to some Sharpton aides, a firestorm that erupted when Jackson tried to undermine the Harlem-based activist’s role in a franchise dispute may have severely damaged their once formidable alliance.

Late Monday, Sharpton dropped a bomb that may further shatter relations with the top black Democratic vote pusher: Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader will speak at Sharpton’s House of Justice in Harlem the day before the elections. Democrats like Jackson fear that Nader, given the chance to appeal directly to African Americans, will siphon votes from Al Gore, thus tilting victory to George W. Bush. Contacted in Chicago, an aide said Jackson was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

There is a perception among some activists in Al Sharpton’s circle that Jesse Jackson’s influence on the civil rights movement is waning.

A fretful letter from Burger King CEO Colin A. Storm on October 5 infuriated Sharpton, exacerbating simmering tensions between Jackson and Sharpton. It was not Storm’s declaration that he was “extremely surprised and disappointed” by Sharpton’s decision to call for a boycott of the fast-food giant that ticked off the activist, but reference to a secret meeting between the executive and Sharpton mentor Jesse Jackson, which Sharpton publicly has argued “can only be interpreted as an attempt to divide the black community.” What Storm and most observers don’t know is that for several months Jackson and Sharpton have been beefing over inroads Sharpton has been making on the national scene to burnish his burgeoning political profile. Tempers flared after Jackson’s sudden intervention in the Burger King fiasco. “It is interesting that the chairman of the board would write me a letter telling me of a meeting with Jackson that no one had told me about,” Sharpton told the Voice. “Why would Jackson have such a meeting and not call me?”

Sharpton would neither confirm nor deny that he has expressed his sentiments about tensions with Jackson to aides in his Harlem-based National Action Network. These aides say Sharpton felt that Jackson “deliberately avoided” associating himself with the August 26 “Redeem the Dream” rally in Washington, D.C., which Sharpton and members of the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had organized to protest racial profiling. The night before the rally, Jackson and President Clinton left for a scheduled trip to Africa. “He did not even send a representative,” says one aide. “Everyone, from Khallid Muhammad’s New Black Panther Party to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, had a stand-in.” The aide speculates that Jackson resents the sudden shift by “corporate types” to Sharpton, who executives now turn to for help to settle minority boycotts against their companies. Sharpton, the aide adds, has shown these corporate moguls he has nothing to lose.

In the aftermath of the Redeem the Dream rally, which kept Sharpton in the national spotlight, Jackson, another Sharpton ally points out, cannot afford to allow the activist to meddle in big boycotts like the one shaping up against Burger King. “He can’t allow the CEOs of white corporations to run around saying that Al Sharpton is the guy to go to in order to get black businessmen off your backs,” the aide says.

Sharpton said he launched the boycott to protest Burger King’s dispute with Detroit franchise owner La-Van Hawkins and the Miami-based company’s treatment of blacks. He initially threatened a nationwide boycott, but later relented and said it would begin on a city-by-city basis. Sharpton said he chose New York City as a starting point because, although it has a large black population, there is only one black franchise owner in the city. Nationwide, Burger King said it has 75 black franchisees who own 1173 restaurants and employ over 58,000 people. The chain has about 11,150 restaurants, and employs some 300,000 workers.

Sharpton met with Storm in September to complain about the lack of an African American role in advertising contracts and investment banking for Burger King’s planned initial public offering. Burger King and Hawkins have been in court in the Detroit franchise dispute since April. Hawkins charges that the company pulled out of a deal to jointly open 225 inner-city restaurants, and Burger King says he owes more than $6.5 million on a 1998 loan.

On minority contracts, Burger King has said two of the company’s three advertising agencies are minority-owned. In Storm’s October 5 letter to Sharpton, he tried to convince the activist that those who will be affected most by the boycott are Burger King’s minority franchise owners, vendors, and employees.

“These franchisees, together with our Hispanic franchisees annually pay in excess of $352 million in wages and $25 million in property taxes to cities and towns across the country,” he wrote. “We are proud of these minority franchisees and we want nothing more than for them and their businesses to flourish. We currently have 32 minority vendors across the country in our system, and we are proud of the fact that their Burger King businesses have grown 239 percent over the last five years.”

Storm reminded Sharpton that the Minority Franchise Association is not supporting the boycott. “It is clear that you are disregarding the impact your proposed action would have on African American and Hispanic franchisees, suppliers, and employers,” he wrote. He added that the company will consider minority participation when the public offering is ready. “We believe we have addressed the diversity issues you have raised,” Storm wrote. “Therefore, we can only conclude that your actions are solely an attempt to pressure Burger King Corporation into making a settlement with Mr. Hawkins that has no commercial or legal basis.”

Storm’s mention of Jesse Jackson’s involvement in a meeting in Washington, D.C., in September to “explore all available channels to resolve our differences with Mr. Hawkins” provoked an angry reply from Sharpton. “I was extremely surprised and disappointed that such a meeting would be held without our knowledge and participation,” Sharpton wrote to Storm. “To have engaged in discussions with me and to then subsequently have discussed with Reverend Jackson and others, and to further suggest that my interest is limited to La-Van Hawkins undermines the good-faith efforts and progress that we have . . . made.”

There is a perception among some activists in Al Sharpton’s circle that Jesse Jackson’s influence on the civil rights movement is waning. They assert that because Jackson seems to be spending more time in his role as the Clinton administration’s point man on Africa, he has been moving away from black-activist politics. Enter Sharpton, who some say has acted to fill the void in the civil rights leadership.

Consider this line of thinking by one Sharpton spin doctor: “Although Minister Farrakhan has been very popular, Jesse Jackson knows that there are some elements in black America that Farrakhan can’t get to; like members of the black church, the black middle class, and some black politicians, because of his controversial views. Reverend Sharpton is the first black leader to emerge on the national scene in recent years who has access to all these elements. So Jackson sees this as a threat.”

In the past four years, Sharpton has been on a roller-coaster publicity campaign. Since shedding his jogging apparel for the $1000 Woody Wilson business suit, Sharpton set up the Madison Avenue Initiative, which lobbies huge corporations to ensure they “deliver the right percentage” of advertising dollars to black-owned media. He has become so knowledgeable about the new economy that some mainstream media have begun to show begrudging deference to his take on the impact of the market’s ups and downs on major black businesses. “Before, political shows like Hardball and Geraldo called Jesse Jackson on those issues,” an aide notes. “Now they reach out to Sharpton.”

The insider says Jackson might be concerned that Sharpton is being summoned to agitate for justice in several high-profile police brutality cases, including the shooting death of Taisha Miller in Riverside, California; the choking death of Frederick Finley in Dearborn, Michigan; and the vicious beating of Thomas Jones, which was captured live by a TV helicopter crew in Philadelphia. In the role of anti-death-penalty advocate, once the linchpin of Jackson’s activism, Sharpton has helped draw worldwide attention to death-row inmates like Mumia Abu-Jamal. When Gary Graham was about to be executed in Texas, he asked that both Jackson and Sharpton be present to witness his death.

Even the right wing no longer views Jackson as a threat. “As the presidential campaign gets nasty in its final days, a shadowy group calling itself Americans Against Hate has started airing an attack ad that hangs the Rev. Al Sharpton’s worst excesses around Al Gore’s neck,” the Daily News reported last week. Jackson may be having a hard time dealing with all the attention they are giving to Sharpton. “Think about it,” the aide to Sharpton urges. “Wouldn’t you feel a tad jealous if media heavyweights like Jay Leno and David Letterman were making jokes about Al Sharpton and not you?”

Some Sharpton insiders theorize that, in light of how Jackson usurped the role of successor to Dr. King, he may be edgy about Sharpton now. “He was a hungry, young black activist when Ralph Abernathy was chosen to succeed Dr. King,” a Sharpton aide recalls. “But Jackson was able to galvanize his critics in the media and important activists across the country who sort of assisted in helping him wrest the crown from Abernathy. Now for Jackson to see Coretta Scott King and her family standing with Sharpton makes him fear that what he did 35 years ago may be coming back to haunt him.”

Rumors of Jackson’s political decline may have been exaggerated. On October 17, both sides in a transit strike that crippled Los Angeles reached a settlement after a marathon negotiating session led by Jackson. The strike was marked by name-calling, and talks did not budge until Jackson was brought in as an intermediary. The brunt of the strike’s impact was felt by L.A.’s working poor, many of whom found themselves unable to get to work, see a doctor, or get to a grocery store.

It has become clear to some familiar with the Jackson-Sharpton feud that Jackson has been trying to distance himself from his old pal. It has been a tradition among these two longtime friends that they would attend each other’s birthday parties (Sharpton was born on October 3 and Jackson on October 8). But on October 3 Jackson was a no-show at Sharpton’s birthday celebration in Harlem. This year, Jackson celebrated his birthday belatedly, on October 15 in California, the day before the Million Family March. That upset Sharpton and other black activists, says an aide, adding that some in the movement viewed it as striking a blow against Farrakhan because Jackson was having his event some 3000 miles away, “which meant that the black political leadership and some celebrities who otherwise might have reluctantly attended the march now had a legitimate excuse for not attending.” Sharpton, the aide continues, stood with Farrakhan and the people. “Sharpton made a major declaration of his independence by standing with the people. It’s ironic that five years ago Al Sharpton wanted to be the Jesse Jackson of New York. Now he’s become Jesse Jackson.”

Additional reporting by Amanda Ward