Seizing the opportunity to eclipse political rival Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, once scorned by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, stood shoulder to shoulder with him at Ground Zero last week, wiping out in 15 minutes of ‘shameful grandstanding’ Sharpton’s eight-year battle to portray the mayor as hostile to African Americans.
Black and Latino leaders incensed by Jackson’s power play are “discussing ways of punishing him,” says Dedrick Muhammad, field director of Sharpton’s Harlem-based National Action Network. Jackson’s audacious show of solidarity with Giuliani, arch-nemesis of the city’s black-led civil rights movement, inflamed his already combustible relationship with Sharpton. Several of Sharpton’s aides have denounced Jackson’s unannounced visit. “This was a cowardly ambush for the purpose of shameful grandstanding,” Muhammad charges. Jackson denies his trip to New York City was political. “Eighty of my friends, waiters who worked for Windows on the World, perished,” he says. “My grief transcends everything else. My feelings for my lost friends were the issue. It had nothing to do with the mayor.”
Jackson says that an American Red Cross board member invited him to inspect Ground Zero. “They offered to escort me to the site, but when I got there the mayor was conducting the tours, just as he had done for others,” he insists.
It happened on Al Sharpton’s watch, a sneak political attack executed in the waning hours of last Tuesday’s Democratic primary—on the very day that Sharpton was preoccupied with the goal of electing Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer the city’s first Latino mayor.
Ever since hijackers crashed two jumbo jets into the twin towers, Giuliani has stood guard at the entrance to the world’s most notorious graveyard, waving through friends and political allies while allegedly denying entry to foes. Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, the city’s highest elected black official, watched from the sidelines as Giuliani escorted a parade of high-profile national and foreign dignitaries into Ground Zero. One by one, they congratulated Giuliani for his “strength” and “compassion” in the aftermath of the attacks.
On primary night, as black and Latino leaders and prominent businesspeople flocked to the Puck Building in Greenwich Village to celebrate Ferrer’s victory—he won 36 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff with Public Advocate Mark Green—political gadflies overheard a torrent of complaints and questions about Jackson. “I talked to Jesse yesterday, and he never told me he was going down there with Giuliani,” Sharpton videographer Eddie Harris quoted a top black elected state official as saying. “We are not going to be disrespected,” the politician fumed. “Why would he come into town and do this?”
But there were more questions than answers. “Why didn’t Jesse touch base?” Harris then heard a wealthy black businessman ask. “Who did he talk to? Who agreed to this?”
“How could he come to town on the day we’re trying to get Ferrer elected mayor and stand with Giuliani?” queried one well-known Latino community activist.
According to several campaign workers that night, Sharpton and the other black and Latino leaders were equally troubled by Jackson’s blatant snub of Bill Thompson, the former Board of Education president who won the Democratic primary to become the city’s first African American comptroller. “Jesse Jackson, the creator of the Wall Street Project, didn’t endorse Bill Thompson for such a powerful position,” a contributor to Jackson’s project lamented. “He did not pass out a flyer, did not go to a subway stop. But he rushes to Ground Zero with Rudy Giuliani. On the day that a Rainbow ticket is winning in New York, he is totally uninvolved. He is standing with the anti-Rainbow mayor. What is wrong with this guy?” (Jackson wishes his critics would note that he promoted Ferrer’s candidacy in several radio interviews.)
In the search for answers, a Ferrer campaign contributor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asserted that maybe Jackson had lost so much ground in black New York political circles that he did not even bother to volunteer to campaign for the Rainbow candidates. “Maybe he did this in desperation, to get some attention from us,” the Ferrer supporter surmised.
Muhammad, the Sharpton aide, says he heard a black political analyst pepper a Jackson defender with these questions: “In the eight years Rudy Giuliani has been in office, did he invite Jesse to Gracie Mansion? Did he invite Jesse to City Hall? Has Giuliani ever attended Jesse’s annual convention of the Wall Street Project? Is it not true that when David Dinkins was mayor Jesse was given police security and treated like a V.I.P. when he came to town? Don’t you think that Giuliani is using Jesse? How does he explain not endorsing the Rainbow slate? How could he come to town and not campaign for them?”
According to Muhammad, the analyst contended that if Giuliani was trying to unite his city he certainly missed a unique opportunity to do so. “He said, ‘Giuliani did not want to reach out to people like Sharpton, Carl McCall, or C. Virginia Fields,’ ” Muhammad recalls. “He said, ‘This is a fraud that Giuliani has orchestrated for his own political ends,’ that Giuliani ‘choreographed the visits to Ground Zero so that only certain people would get maximum PR,’ making it appear that his black political opponents like Reverend Sharpton didn’t care.”
Al Sharpton swore that Jesse Jackson’s foray into New York for a detente with Rudy Giuliani caught him by surprise. He said that the day before the primary, his mentor called him.
According to Sharpton aide J.D. Livingstone, who hooked up a three-way conversation, Jackson said he was coming to the city and wanted to “touch base” with Sharpton when he arrived. After Jackson inquired about the well-being of the activist’s wife, Cathy, and teenage daughters, Dominique and Ashley, Sharpton told him that the girls had been consoling a survivor, 12-year-old Travis Boyd, whose mother is presumed dead in the World Trade Center rubble. Livingstone recalls Sharpton suggesting that Jackson reach out to some African American aid workers who were toiling near Ground Zero or engage in a range of relief efforts in mostly black neighborhoods. Again, Jackson promised to reach out to his protégé.
At about eleven o’clock on the morning of the primary, Livingstone put through a call from Jackson to Sharpton on his cell phone. Livingstone says Jackson seemed eager to let Sharpton in on his New York itinerary. He allegedly told Sharpton he was scheduled to speak at an elementary school and afterward would swing by the Red Cross to meet some of its officials. He then asked where Sharpton would be that afternoon. “Sharpton said he would be in the streets campaigning for Ferrer and Bill Thompson, and later he would tape a show for the Fox network,” Livingstone recalls.
Upon leaving the Fox studios in downtown Manhattan, Sharpton was confronted by a reporter who pointed out that while Sharpton was accusing Rudy Giuliani of exploiting the World Trade Center tragedy by seeking to extend his term in office, Jesse Jackson was at Ground Zero, standing next to Giuliani and praising his leadership. “Doesn’t this smack of Rudy being accepted by a lot of people in the civil rights community?” the reporter asked.
Sharpton stiffened. “He was in shock,” an aide claims. Sharpton told the reporter that Giuliani should be commended but that he was not prepared to sweep eight years of the mayor’s ironfisted rule over his African American constituents under the wreckage of the twin towers. “I remember saying, ‘Rudy seems sensitive now because he has been insensitive to our community for eight long years,’ ” Sharpton confirms. “I said, ‘We had gotten so used to the mean and insensitive Rudy.’ ”
As a disgruntled Sharpton resumed campaigning, Livingstone again connected one of Jackson’s aides to Sharpton. This is how Livingstone recalls the conversation:
“You know that Reverend Jackson is still trying to touch base with you later today?” the unidentified aide said.
“Get in touch with me?” Sharpton screamed. “He just left Ground Zero with Rudy Giuliani! How could y’all do this?”
“What do you mean?” the Jackson aide shot back. “He got involved with the American Red Cross. They brought him there.”
“Do you realize that Giuliani has snubbed Carl McCall, C. Virginia Fields, and other people that were critical of him? They were not allowed to speak at the memorial at Yankee Stadium. He knows that Giuliani is under attack by me. This only gives Giuliani cover. Is Jesse mindful of the fact that Giuliani is trying to use us, one against the other?”
The Jackson aide, according to Livingstone, said Jackson would contact Sharpton later to offer an explanation. Jackson called as Sharpton sped to the Puck Building to revel in Ferrer’s win. According to Muhammad, who was traveling with Sharpton, the two Baptist preachers argued bitterly. This is how Sharpton aides reconstructed the details of that showdown:
“I think you absolutely violated our territorial integrity by being there with Giuliani,” Sharpton said.
“Al, everybody’s coming to see him, heads of nations,” Jackson explained.
“That’s not the point!” Sharpton shouted. “I think this is an absolute outrage. I’m going to deal with both of y’all!”
“We don’t need to get into a spat over this,” Jackson replied.
Sharpton, the aide recalls, was inconsolable.
“You always do this thing,” Sharpton charged. “You come in here and screw us and then turn around and act like you don’t understand. I feel absolutely violated by this. Why would you give cover to Rudy Giuliani on a day like this?”
“I’ll call you later,” Jackson pleaded. “That’s not the way it is. You need to defend me.”
“Defend you?” Sharpton bellowed. “I’m the one out there telling people that Giuliani did us wrong.”
“We’ll talk later,” Jackson said.
Muhammad says that Ferrer’s supporters sensed the rage in Sharpton as he entered the ballroom of the Puck Building. “One by one, they came up to Reverend Sharpton, asking him, ‘What was that all about?’ and ‘Is Jesse Jackson crazy?’ ”
Jesse Jackson may have believed that he pulled off a public relations coup by being the first prominent black leader to visit Ground Zero. But unbeknownst to Jackson and many in the media, Sharpton, absent the fanfare, beat Jackson to the tragic scene.
On September 16, the first Sunday after the attack, police officers sympathetic to Sharpton guided him and attorney Michael Hardy through several checkpoints for an hour-long visit to Ground Zero. “Police officers and firefighters were surprised,” recalls Sharpton, who organized blood drives and counseling. “Some asked for my autograph and took pictures with me to show their families that I was concerned about them.”
Sharpton says that none of his previous visits to strife-torn regions in Africa and Haiti prepared him for what he saw at Ground Zero. “I went to the killing fields of Rwanda, witnessed slavery in Sudan, and saw abject poverty in the slums of Haiti, but there was something haunting about Ground Zero,” he remembers. “I never thought I would see something like this. It is an eerie feeling that you cannot get out of you.”
As Sharpton stared at the twisted remains of the once majestic twin towers, he remarked in the presence of a high-ranking white NYPD cop that he had been to Ground Zero before, the Ground Zero that some refer to as the African Burial Ground. “Three hundred years ago my ancestors went to Ground Zero, and we’ve been fighting for a final resting place, an African burial ground, for years,” he explained to the mystified cop. “No one cares that they are still under that rubble. No one hears their cry. We can’t even reclaim their bones. Three hundred years later, the government is doing to us what they did to my ancestors: They’re trying to make us invisible in lower Manhattan.”
The next morning, a shaken Sharpton called Secretary of State Colin Powell. During their 10-minute conversation, Sharpton expressed reservations about the Bush administration’s warmongering. “I told him I was concerned about the war, but that I felt that terrorism must be fought at all costs, and that I was willing to lead a fact-finding trip to Israel and Palestine,” Sharpton says. Powell, he claims, promised to give him a full briefing on the Middle East, similar to the one he got before visiting the Sudan. But he warned Sharpton to be extremely careful in that region.
Later that day, Sharpton contacted Governor George Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “I called them to object to calls for the Democratic primary to be postponed,” says Sharpton, who rebuffed suggestions from aides that he ask Pataki to escort him to Ground Zero. “I could have asked the governor to take me there in front of all the cameras, but I didn’t,” he says. If he had, that’s where the New York Post’s Steve Dunleavy—combing “through white-hot shock, tears of mourning, and steel anger of revenge”—might have found him. Instead he later asked, “Where the hell is our great community leader, the Rev. Al Sharpton?”
“I’d been all over the place,” Sharpton declares. “The media ignored the black presence and now condemns us for being ignored.” Unlike Jackson, Sharpton refused to upstage top black state and city officials for a photo op. “I felt that Carl McCall and C. Virginia Fields should be respected.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2001