Please know that your relationship with me and Canaan cannot be repaired until you make a public or written apology. I will not allow you to disrespect my person or the people I serve. Until such time, please do not call me or ask for my assistance in any manner.—Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker in a confidential letter to Jesse Jackson
For the past four months, Jesse Jackson has been in free fall, hurtling into a political abyss. In one of his darkest hours, Jackson sought refuge at the historic Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. Now the Voice has learned that the confessed philanderer was handed a “letter of moral censure” by Canaan’s pastor and banned from the church for breaking a promise to apologize for fathering an illegitimate child.
Jackson appeared at the 116th Street chapel on January 23, but quickly transformed a mutually agreed upon Service of Penance into a political revival. “I am grieved and hurt that you violated the format of the service that you requested to be held at my church,” Canaan’s Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker told Jackson in a February 1 letter obtained by the Voice. “I acceded to your wishes reluctantly and quickly discouraged you from making it a cause celebre. . . . ”
In his letter to the embattled leader of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, a furious Walker predicted that Jackson’s current problems may be an indication of more sinister tribulations ahead. He drew Jackson’s attention to an unflattering piece about him in Time magazine by Jack White (“The End of the Rainbow: How Can Jesse Jackson Preach Morality After Fathering a Love Child?”), then delivered a warning.
“That is mild [compared] to what you are going to see and hear for a long time because you did not keep your word about taking some form of sabbatical as a symbol of penance,” Walker declared. “I fear that you have damaged your credibility beyond repair in your laissez faire attitude to the mess you have made.” With the breaking news that Jackson’s former mistress has sued him for child support, Walker’s fear may have been realized.
On April 29, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on its Web site that Karin Stanford—with whom Jackson has a two-year-old daughter—filed suit in Los Angeles two weeks ago seeking child-support payments and visitation arrangements. She took the action after unsuccessful negotiations with Jackson and his attorneys, according to Stanford’s spokeswoman, Michelle Jordan. Jackson, the newspaper said, insists that he and Stanford are not at odds. Jackson has said he pays Stanford $3000 a month in child support. And Jackson’s attorney, Willie Gary, confirmed that details of a settlement have been worked out with Stanford’s attorneys that requires Jackson to pay $4000 a month, establish a college fund, and take out a life insurance policy for the child.
Jackson aides also have acknowledged that Stanford, a former staff member of the Citizenship Education Fund—another group run by Jackson—had received a $35,000 severance package. She received a total of $110,000 in salary and severance pay in 1999. In an exclusive interview with Savoy magazine’s editor in chief Roy S. Johnson, published in the June-July edition, Jackson was asked about reports that he had desperately tried to conceal the fact that he was the father of Stanford’s child. Consider this exchange:
Savoy: Right before she had the child, your organization issued a release that identified someone by the name of James Simmons, an attorney, as the baby’s father. Was that a lie?
Jackson: No. I won’t discuss that now. It soon became clear and apparent what happened, and I assume my responsibility.
Savoy: So you did not lie?
Jackson: I didn’t. . . .
It has become clear to many Americans—who do not know what to believe—that Jackson’s political comeback may be doomed. From Cincinnati to Washington, the cries of “Mr. Civil Rights” have been ignored. A former Dinkins administration official who met with Jackson recently described him as depressed over the personal and political turmoil swirling around him. “He is not the same Jesse Jackson I’ve known for all these years,” the source says. “His whole demeanor is pitiful.”
On April 18, as detractors were measuring a coffin for Jackson, pollsters threw him a lifeline. The Gallup Organization released a poll showing that despite the fall from grace, Jackson had an 83 percent favorable rating among 1000 blacks who participated in its survey. In the same poll, Secretary of State Colin Powell ranked second with a 73 percent rating, and Reverend Al Sharpton, who is being touted as Jackson’s successor, came in third with 54 percent. Although Jackson was elevated to the top of the black political chain, many in the African American community have been declaring, “Jesse, you are the weakest link.”
In January, at the height of the “love child” scandal, Jackson called on an old nemesis, Reverend Walker, who was a former top aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jackson asked Walker to convene a prayer vigil for him at Canaan and personally preside over the event. “When you spoke to me . . . at Franklin Richardson’s study, I was candid enough to voice my reservations about Canaan being the venue since I could not be present,” Walker recalled in his letter to Jackson.
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 Penance in 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:
You disrespected me, my pulpit and my people. I had to publicly apologize to my congregation on Sunday for my poor judgement in allowing that kind of rally to be held in the Sanctuary in my absence. I promised them it would never happen again as long as I am Pastor. . . . I relented when Al reported to me that Judith Price suggested that once the service began, the media could take pictures without audio and then be excused. Instead, it became a circus with photographers standing on the pews in our Sanctuary. The live broadcast reinforced the image in the general community that people of African ancestry have little sense of morality.
How crass of Charlie Rangel, in light of your fathering a child outside of your marriage, declaring again and again from my pulpit, Get over it! My personal credibility and that of my Church has been terribly scarred by all that transpired last Tuesday as a prelude to your Wall Street Project. You have created so much pain for all clergy persons. . . . .
The bottom line is that you cannot help yourself. Your addiction to the need of media attention seems to be fatal and you have fallen into the practice of using people for your advantage and personal aggrandizement. For example, with all the risk of allowing you to come to Canaan, you have not even had enough grace to call and thank us for opening our doors to your questionable purposes. I nixed the choir business and you arrive with the so-called Soul Stirrers, who sing for forty minutes in violation of what was agreed upon. I suppose I should not be surprised since the only time I have heard from you in the last ten years is when you wanted something.
After reading the letter, Jackson called Sharpton. An aide says Jackson cautioned Sharpton that certain forces would try to play them against each other. In fact, some of those forces were inside Sharpton’s own National Action Network. Anti-Jackson cabals began to urge Sharpton to shun his self-destructing friend, continue to build on his gains in the national civil rights arena, and focus attention on deciding whether to run for mayor.
Walker’s damaging letter, according to Jackson watchers, has hurt Jackson’s image among prominent black clergy, who have called on him in the past to mediate racial strife in their cities. But the biggest political blow to Jackson was the outright rejection of his offer to go to Cincinnati to try to end four days of rioting over the April 7 shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer. The slaying sparked the city’s worst outbreak of racial violence since the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Black church and civil rights leaders, Cincinnati activists claim, told Jackson to stay away as they welcomed other prominent figures like Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Two days after Mfume’s arrival, Jackson made another desperate attempt to appeal to influential black leaders in Cincinnati. A source says that Jackson reached out to Reverend H.L. Harvey at the New Friendship Baptist Church on Glorious Saturday, pleading for a “ghetto pass.” But Harvey told Jackson that the pulpit belonged to Reverend Al Sharpton, whom he had invited to deliver an Easter Sunday homily.
“It’d be good to have you, Reverend Jackson, but we got Al Sharpton, and the youths want Al Sharpton,” a church member overheard Harvey telling Jackson. This insider later found out that Jackson snapped that Sharpton was in Sudan on a fact-finding mission concerning child slavery in that war-torn African country and thus would be unable to attend.
“No, Reverend Sharpton cut short his trip,” the source says Harvey replied. “He will be here in the morning.”
To civil rights insiders, Cincinnati was another telltale sign that Jackson was weakening politically. “He never gets called in? Mfume is there? Sharpton is there? No Jackson?” asks a Jackson supporter. “He couldn’t find anyone to invite him. No one I’ve talked to could remember the last time Jesse Jackson was barred from injecting himself in a major racial crisis. He was always in the thick of things.”
A reportedly embarrassed Jackson next offered to go to China to seek the release of 24 U.S. military spies and their crippled plane. But Jackson had been telling reporters the Bush administration should apologize if that was what it took to free the crew. Colin Powell broke the news to Jackson: No thanks.
Some Sharpton supporters at the National Action Network argue that Jackson may never recover from the back-to-back political knockdowns he has suffered, and say it is time for him to pass the baton to their leader. “Reverend Jackson has been around for 30 years, but a guy who came on the national stage three years ago wearing a jogging suit is now considered the No. 3 black leader,” notes a Sharpton strategist. “It is obvious that Reverend Jackson is damaged goods. While Reverend Jackson is being told to stay out of Cincinnati and Beijing, Sharpton is summoned to Cincinnati. There are no other recognizable national black leaders who do what Jackson used to do. Not Mfume. Not Martin Luther King III. Who else is there?”
Keanna Peyton, a spokeswoman for Jackson, says Jackson will not respond to claims by his critics that his political and moral impact on the nation has been dwindling. “What I can speak to is the fact that we just wrapped up a 20-city tour of Georgia and the wonderful reception we received at each stop,” Peyton offers. “Reverend Jackson has not allowed the opinions of some to affect his outreach to the masses.”
For more than 30 years, Jesse Jackson has pontificated from the moral high ground. Last November, at the height of the Florida presidential ballot debacle, an outraged Jackson suggested that disenfranchised African Americans were poised to take to the streets to battle Republicans for stealing the election. Indeed, Jackson spoke with such authority that some blacks openly talked about “redefining the act of civil disobedience” and waging revolution.
Suddenly, everything seemed to go downhill. In a shameful flip-flop, Jackson, at the behest of worried financial contributors to his Wall Street Project, abruptly ceased his daily attacks on “president select” George W. Bush. In January, as the National Enquirer was about to publish the story about the out-of-wedlock baby, the man once dubbed “the moral conscience of America” acknowledged the extramarital affair. CNN piled on, dumping his Sunday talk show, Both Sides With Jesse Jackson. Corporate heads, who once cowered in boardrooms at the drop of Jackson’s name, canceled meetings with him. And infighting among members of Jackson’s own board at Rainbow/PUSH broke out.
Last month, during a meeting with core supporters at the giant, mostly black and Latino Local 1199, Jackson reportedly pleaded for financial assistance, claiming that he had lost at least $4 million in contributions. “He said he was going to cut back on staff,” one PUSH insider told the Voice. That impending reality broke the morale of the staff, according to the insider. “People feel he hasn’t been honest with them,” says the source. “Some have raised questions: ‘How are we going to approach corporations?’ According to the Gallup Poll, Rainbow/PUSH has a 30 percent favorable rating among African Americans, who threw the bulk of their support behind groups like the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Prior to the disclosure that he had fathered an illegitimate child, support for Jackson among some civil rights groups, which allegedly benefited from companies Jackson has targeted in his crusade to increase minority representation in business, had been slipping. “The thing that has hurt him more than the outside baby mess is the allegation that he has been cutting backroom deals with major corporations and selling out all of us,” says one New Jersey community activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
And, of course, as Jackson is being shunned by the people he claims he is working to empower, he is being reviled by right-wing critics who abhor his confrontation tactics—from boycott threats to protests against proposed mergers—and have demanded investigations into his financial dealings. “While Jackson says he is working to tear down the walls of ‘economic apartheid,’ his tactics bring to mind an old-style protection racket,” says Noah Oppenheim, writing in The Weekly Standard.
The National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group, has filed a complaint with the IRS asking for an audit of the Citizenship Education Fund, one of Jackson’s organizations. The group claims that the Fund may be violating its tax-exempt status by pressuring corporations for donations through the threat of boycott or public protest.
“You know, nearly 20 of our staff members were approached by people offering them huge sums of money to talk about us,” Jackson told Savoy‘s Johnson. “Some were approached outside of their homes at night and outside of their churches by people with cash money in hand. One was offered $3000. Another $5000. Another was offered $25,000. That’s how they operate.” Asked, “Who is ‘they’?” Jackson replied that “the questions came from an extremist right-wing group in Virginia.” Jackson bragged that “even with all of the attacks, the organization is stronger.” He said he has relied on his faith during the crisis and “maybe the most routine expression is: ‘And this too shall pass.’ ”
In Harlem, resentment of Jesse Jackson will not abate until he comes clean about the hoodwinking of Wyatt Tee Walker and his parishioners. “Please know that your relationship with me and Canaan cannot be repaired until you make a public or written apology,” Walker concluded in his searing missive to Jackson. “I will not allow you to disrespect my person or the people I serve. Until such time, please do not call me or ask for my assistance in any manner.”
Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker’s letter to Jesse Jackson.