Al Sharpton and I are having dinner at Ballato on Houston Street. He has his cell phone on the table; it rings thirteen times in 90 minutes. The Reverend is pecking at a salad, trying to keep off the weight he lost while serving his prison time for the Vieques protest.
We are talking about his Oedipal struggle with his political, religious, and civil-rights father, Jesse Jackson. The two men have feuded, made up, and feuded again over the past fifteen years.
“You know, my wife, Kathy, and Jesse’s wife, Jackie, have remained good friends through all our fighting,” Sharpton offers as an opening. “Our wives talk almost every day,” he goes on. “A few months ago, Jackie says to my wife on the phone, ‘Look at our two damn-fool husbands. Two fatherless preachers with awful childhoods, looking for love, and having a midlife crisis on national television.’ “
It sometimes seems that Jackson, 60, could sue Sharpton, 47, for copyright infringement, as Sharpton keeps imitating his mentor, walking in his shoes, and sometimes borrowing his socks. Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988, and now Sharpton says he is running for president in 2004, “as a Democrat in the primaries like Jesse, not as an independent in the general.”
Jackson started the Wall Street Project to create capital and jobs; then Sharpton started his Madison Avenue Initiative to direct advertising revenues to the black media from national corporations. For 30 years, Jackson had regular Saturday-morning community rallies in Chicago, and Sharpton has led them for the past five years in Harlem. In the seventies, Jackson wore a distinctive medallion around his neck, and in the eighties, Sharpton wore a Martin Luther King Jr. medallion everywhere in public.
Over the years, Jackson had some of his most spectacular triumphs in foreign policy, as he negotiated freedom for American hostages from anti-American governments in Iraq, Cuba, and Syria. Sharpton is now trying to expand his franchise into foreign policy with trips to Sudan to shine a media spotlight on the enslavement of black Christians there and to Puerto Rico to protest the Navy’s bombardment of Vieques.
And both Jackson and Sharpton claim to be disciples of King, inheritors of King’s tradition of redemptive suffering and Gandhian nonviolence (of course, King was a moral prophet with pure motives, unquestioned integrity, and angelic humility – not exactly words you could choose for Sharpton or Jackson).
King was a father figure to the fatherless Jackson from the moment they first met, in Selma in 1965. King immediately recognized in the young Jackson large gifts as an organizer, speaker, and strategist, and Jackson dropped out of seminary to go to work for King on the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
But by 1968, there was tension in the relationship. King worried about Jackson’s impatient ambition and relentless self-promotion. He rebuked Jackson at an SCLC staff meeting for “doing your own thing.”
Shortly before his assassination, King did say of his 26-year-old protégé, “He just simply does not know how to love.”
But in King’s last, prophetic “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech on the night before his assassination, he did quote Jackson and recognize him from the pulpit in a complimentary way.
Al Sharpton’s formative influences were Adam Clayton Powell, James Brown, Don King, and Jesse Jackson. He is the cocktail combination of all of them – trickster, showman, agitator, orator, overachiever, and underachiever. And like all his mentors, Sharpton has the one-dimensional notion that leadership is about media exposure, that publicity is power.
Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson first met in 1969. Jackson was 27 and the national director of the SCLC’s Chicago-based Operation Breadbasket, which was trying to generate private-sector jobs for blacks. Sharpton was then 14, the boy-wonder preacher and the youth organizer for Breadbasket in New York.
Sharpton recalls that Jackson’s first words to him were, “Choose your targets and kick ass. Stay in school and don’t let these elder guys use you.”
In 1975, when Sharpton dropped out of Brooklyn College after two years, the only people who urged him to stay in school were his mother and Jesse Jackson. Sharpton says Jackson goaded him, saying, “Here come the boy wonder. Ain’t gonna be nothing but a Harlem fanatic.”
“I resented it then,” Sharpton tells me, “but now I realize that Jesse was right. He wanted me to be prepared for the future with a higher education.”
Then I asked Sharpton directly what his feud with his mentor is all about, why there is this conflict in such a large nation, with so much injustice to combat, with so much room for a multiplicity of black leaders.
“I love Jesse,” he began. “He taught me everything I know. He introduced me to every important person I know. He will always be my mentor. Our families are close. I’m close with his children. I am his son.
“But that’s why 98 percent of our differences are personal. Because I owe Jesse so much, therefore Jesse thinks I have to obey him, agree with him about everything out of loyalty. But I don’t agree, so we fight sometimes. It’s about pride, respect, envy, hurt feelings, deference.
“It is Freudian! It is Shakespearean!” Sharpton exclaimed, making his life sound a little like a movie pitch.
“Reverend is the smartest person I have ever known. I still study videos of his old speeches and press conferences. Every morning, while Jesse is on the treadmill watching CNN, I’m on the treadmill watching him!”
Then Sharpton went further. “I do feel it’s time that I share the stage with him as an equal. But his ego is bigger than mine, so he is having a hard time giving me my space. But Jesse has lost some of his instincts for issues. He looked silly trying to suspend Halloween. He messed up by saying the Taliban had invited him to mediate. Jesse is like Muhammad Ali now. He can’t fight no more, but he is still a great champion.
Photo: Mark Peterson, Corbis Saba
“I’m not as sensitive to critics as he is,” Sharpton accurately observed. “I grew up with James Brown and Don King, and they were getting attacked all the time. I came up expecting controversy. But Jesse’s mentor had the Nobel Peace Prize and universal acclamation by the time Jesse went to work for him. He expects to be treated the way Dr. King was, and I expect to be treated like Don King.”
Sharpton then began to reminisce about all the years he would personally pick Jackson up at the airport and follow him around all day like a staff member.
“I learned a lot,” he said, “but I don’t do that anymore.
“I know I’m a glass of milk with a little bit of shit in it,” Sharpton said, laughing. “But look at” – he names a local minister – “he’s a glass of shit with a little milk in it.”
I asked Sharpton to specify some of the events and issues that caused his rift with Jackson to become so public.
“Clinton was the big one,” he replied. “I felt Jesse used his tremendous access to the White House to help Sandy Weill and those Wall Street guys more than to help working people and consumers. He got too close to power.
“Our conflict is also definitely generational,” Sharpton goes on. “There is a younger voter that Jesse can’t reach, that I can. Poor folks in the projects. The hip-hop generation … Jesse doesn’t have the defiance I have.”
Then Sharpton outlined a career strategy for his mentor’s sunset years: “Jesse should start playing the elder-statesman, grandfatherly role that A. Philip Randolph played during the sixties. Randolph advised King. He helped set up the paradigm of the Big Six leaders – King, Wilkins, Whitney Young, Jim Farmer, John Lewis, himself. That’s what we should have today. Jesse, me, Kweisi Mfume, Jesse Jackson Jr., Greg Meeks, Martin King III. It’s time for a new generation to share leadership.”
Sharpton’s vast ambition has never exactly been a secret. And Jackson’s focus on corporate America – what some have called the velvet shakedown – has taken him away from his protest roots toward Wall Street and Silicon Valley, leaving Sharpton an opening. The first public surfacing of the rift came in 2000, when Jackson and Sharpton took opposing positions in a franchise dispute between Burger King and a wealthy black franchisee named La-Van Hawkins. Hawkins claimed he was promised 225 additional franchises and that Burger King was reneging on the deal. Sharpton got involved and said Burger King should either honor its commitment or else award the franchises to other blacks.
Jackson sided with Burger King, which was a financial backer of his Wall Street Project. The New Republic then reported on the disagreement, making it public, personal, and political.
There has also been an almost high-school-ish gossipy element to the tension. Sharpton says, “Last May or June, a mutual friend of ours, a Harvard professor, told me something that Jesse had said to him that hurt my feelings. Jesse told this individual that I was only renewing my wedding vows with Kathy to embarrass Jesse, because of his problems.”
This rivalry runs the gamut from Freud to Friends.
All year, Sharpton took little digs at Jackson, while people viewed as Sharpton surrogates, like journalist Peter Noel and the Reverend Wyatt Walker, the chair of Sharpton’s National Action Network, took even harder shots. And all through 2001, Jackson seemed off his game. He volunteered to negotiate the release of 24 American air-crew members from China, but Colin Powell declined his offer. He said the Taliban approached him to be a mediator, but that proved not to be accurate. When rioting broke out in Cincinnati, a local minister told him his presence was not needed. By then Sharpton was there, flying directly from Sudan.
All year long, intermediaries tried to broker a truce. On October 8 – Jackson’s 60th birthday – Sharpton sent him a dozen roses. On Thanksgiving Day, Jackson called Sharpton, reminding him to make his traditional calls to other leaders, as Jackson had instructed him.
At the end of November, the two ministers shared a platform together in Chicago, at a press conference to urge an end to gang-related revenge and cross-fire killings – more than 120 in Chicago during the past eleven months.
“We have to set an example and end the gang-banging among ourselves,” Sharpton declared.
With that, Jackson – very playfully – leaned over and tried to kiss Sharpton on the lips.
I met Jesse Jackson for breakfast at 7 a.m. in late November. He had already watched CNN, made his calls, and read Scripture, which he does every day.
Jackson, this huge historical figure, seemed like a bear that had been licking its wounds in the brush all year. He looked melancholy and about 25 pounds heavier than last winter. That was when he lost his close friend in the White House, when Bill Clinton left office, the friend he prayed with, who did favors for him and gave him derivative power through access.
At almost the same time, the National Enquirer disclosed that Jackson had fathered a daughter out of wedlock with Karin Stanford, a Jackson biographer and the then director of the Washington office of Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Jackson admitted it right away, but the disclosure damaged his standing with black women, and he was criticized by the most respected black columnists in the country, like Jack White in Time magazine and Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune.
Sharpton, while defending him aggressively on the illegitimate-child issue, jabbed at his former mentor hard on just about everything else. And he went too far in a television interview conducted while he was fasting in jail. While answering questions about his civil conviction for defaming prosecutor Steven Pagones during the Tawana Brawley rape hoax, Sharpton tried to change the subject by raising the old controversy about Jackson smearing the blood of the martyred King on his shirt to anoint himself as King’s blood successor. (Andrew Young says that Ralph Abernathy actually scooped up King’s blood and poured it into a jar.)
“I think the Brawley case pales in comparison,” Sharpton said. “Did I take the blood of the guy I loved and put it on my shirt?”
As soon as this remark aired on the Fox network, national black leaders rushed to rebuke Sharpton. Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore’s campaign manager, said, “Reverend Jackson is by far the most popular black-activist politician in the country, with more than 80 percent support (among blacks). Al Sharpton gets less than 50 percent.”
Sharpton knew he had blundered badly, and from jail he immediately issued “a sincere and unconditional” public apology to Jackson. He also released a letter to Jackson saying, “I do not now, and have never believed you acted improperly at the scene of King’s assassination.”
The letter went on to claim Sharpton was only trying to illustrate the ways in which the media has used “false and distorted allegations against you” – a glib recovery that doesn’t appear to be entirely accurate.
Recently, Sharpton told me, “I was wrong to say that about Jesse. I apologized, which I almost never do. I lost my emotional discipline. Better emotional discipline is still one of the things I have to learn from my mentor.”
A few weeks after Sharpton attacked Jackson’s conduct, Jackson summoned me to meet him at the New York Stock Exchange, which he seemed to be using as his New York office for the day.
Jackson is not a good listener. He is royalty performing. So when I arrived, he launched right into an angry, 40-minute monologue. He just went off on Sharpton. It wasn’t a conversation. It wasn’t an interview. It wasn’t a briefing. It was a primal-scream sermon.
Jackson asked me why I hadn’t exposed Don King’s financial support of Sharpton’s organization, and urged me to probe Sharpton’s ties to Republicans and his endorsement of Al D’Amato in 1986.
And he complained bitterly about Peter Noel’s frequent attacks on him in The Village Voice, often written from a Sharpton point of view. He was most upset by Noel’s disclosing, and quoting from, the Reverend Wyatt Walker’s letter, which dealt with Jackson’s child with Stanford.
When I pushed Jackson (whom I have known since the sixties) to say something on the record, he erupted in eloquent emotionalism. “I have no interest in this subject of me and Al,” he began. “This so-called feud is a white version of black reality. Ask me about poverty. Ask me about economic development. Ask me about aids and hunger. Ask me about Afghanistan and terrorism. But don’t pull me into some racist media game. It minimizes my interest in the world. We should be discussing how I see the world at 60.
“Ask me about the last 40 years, brother,” Jackson continued. “In July of 1960, I was arrested in Greenville for trying to use the public library. I have witnessed a profound change since then. We are a better country today. Ask me about history. Ask me about real life. I got nothing to say about Al.
“It’s cultural racism to reduce black life to a story about me and Al. You’re my friend, so you can write whatever you want. But this is sick.”
At the end of our breakfast, as we walked through the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, Jackson whispered in his sometimes thicker Southern accent, “If you’re going to refer to that Enquirer story, make sure you mention that I didn’t lie about my child. I admitted it right away. I took responsibility.”
As Jackson rode up the escalator, my mind went back to a day, five years earlier, that I spent in another hotel, with Jackson, Sharpton, and public-relations expert Ken Sunshine, an unpaid adviser to both men.
This was at the peak of the Jackson-Sharpton friendship, with Sharpton in the subordinate position. Sharpton was calling Jackson “Big Rev,” and Jackson was calling Sharpton “Little Rev.” There was a deep warmth and humor between them that day as we just hung out together before Jackson would speak at a synagogue that night.
“You’re from the Driving Miss Daisy generation,” Sharpton needled his mentor.
“Yeah, the driving-Miss Daisy-crazy generation,” Jackson snapped back.
At the end of the afternoon, Jackson pulled me aside and began to lament his lack of recognition from the Establishment for all that he has achieved.
“Please, explain to me how I have gone from dangerous to passé without ever stopping at popular,” he said.
Both Sharpton and Jackson went through puberty and adolescence without their natural fathers in the home. This hole in their lives left a scar on both their psyches, an unquenchable thirst for approval.
Jesse Jackson’s biological father was Noah Robinson, the married next-door neighbor who impregnated Jesse’s 16-year-old mother, Helen, in Greenville, South Carolina. Robinson, 33, was a prosperous and popular figure in the segregated black community, while teenage Helen was dreaming of a musical career when she decided not to abort her embarrassing pregnancy.
Jesse Jackson was born into the poorest part of Greenville. His mother was so impoverished that sometimes Jesse’s grandmother Tibby would have to stand on Robinson’s back porch and plead for milk for baby Jesse.
In a speech years ago, Jackson cried, “When I was in my mother’s belly, no father to give me a last name, they called me a bastard and rejected me.”
Robinson avoided all open contact with Jesse – until he became a popular high-school football star. Jackson says he never spent one night of his life under the same roof as his natural father.
Jackson grew up to the taunts of “You ain’t got no daddy. You ain’t nothing but a nobody.”
No wonder that twenty years later, he would lead audiences in the fervent chant of “I am somebody! I am God’s child.”
Jackson says he did not know that Noah Robinson was his biological father until sometime between his 6th and his 9th birthdays. (The name Jackson comes from his stepfather, who adopted him.)
What made it more painful was that young Jesse worshiped the father who did not acknowledge him and whom he saw every day heading another family.
Al Sharpton experienced an equally dysfunctional childhood, which he rarely talks about. “My daddy created a Woody Allen- type situation when I was 9 years old,” Sharpton told me. “My daddy walked out on us, and he married my half-sister, Tina. Tina was my mother’s daughter from a previous marriage. This was a big scandal in the church world, where I was already this boy preacher. There was a lot of shame involved.”
There was also dramatic downward economic mobility. Sharpton’s abandoned mother had to go on welfare and became a maid. And Sharpton, who was living in comfortable middle-class Hollis, Queens, on 199th Street, had to move to the projects in Brownsville, at Saratoga and Livonia Avenues. “It was rough for me growing up in Brownsville in the mid-sixties,” Sharpton acknowledges. “I wasn’t street. I was church.”
Sharpton has never reconciled with his father and understands that his adult life has been a serial quest for father substitutes, including Jackson. Almost tearing up, he says, “I love my mother. I had to watch her suffer from the humiliation of her daughter stealing her husband, and of having a child out of wedlock with her husband.”
When I ask Sharpton to describe his absent father, he says, “He was a slumlord, owned about twenty buildings in Brooklyn. He was also a boxer, like Jesse’s daddy. My father always told us he was a sparring partner for Sugar Ray Robinson. And I know that Noah Robinson was good, won 18 of 19 fights, won fights in Philadelphia.
“My father did well by exploiting black people. Even today I still feel hostility towards him, but now it’s manageable.”
Sharpton remembers that Jackson once told him, “Don’t use your not having a father as an excuse. We all have sad stories.”
Al Sharpton seems to think that by running for president, he can trump his tutor and gain the advantage in their complex competition. “When I’m running,” Sharpton told me, “Reverend has to react to me. Does he support me, or does he support Daschle or Edwards? Does he accept some role in my campaign? What does he do if the Democratic National Committee asks him to stop me from running? Reverend will have to make decisions in response to my candidacy.”
But many black political leaders are dubious about whether Sharpton – still mostly a local and regional figure – can put together a national campaign. Or a national campaign nearly as effective as Jackson’s 1988 effort, when he finished second, won 7 million votes (3 million from whites), beat Al Gore in seventeen of eighteen states, and won New York City and Michigan. Jackson had the drama and emotion of being the first seriously contending black candidate for president. Sharpton will not have that rocket launch of being the first. Jackson, meanwhile, is ratcheting up his rhetoric against John Ashcroft, attempting to define himself once again as the country’s most vocal defender of civil liberties – a role, of course, that Sharpton covets.
Sharpton will also be carrying the baggage of never having come clean about two episodes in his past – being an informer for the FBI, and his complicity in the Brawley rape hoax and Pagones defamation.
The Brawley disgrace is well known, but his informer role has been largely forgotten – alternately boldly denied or cleverly minimized by Sharpton. In 1988, though, the NYPD confirmed that Sharpton had been an informer for the FBI in 1983.
As a wired informer during a boxing investigation, Sharpton recorded conversations with heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, boxing promoter Murad Muhammad, and organized-crime figures Michael Franzese and Danny Pagano. In some interviews, Sharpton has claimed he was only working against drug dealers, but Larry Holmes is no drug dealer.
Several years ago, when I asked Sharpton about the tapes he made for the FBI, he claimed, “I had a rule with them. I would not tape any black elected officials or members of the black clergy.”
When I reminded him that he had taped Bronx councilman Wendell Foster, who was also a member of the black clergy, Sharpton, without missing a beat, retorted, “That was an accident! Foster called me on the wrong line and the tape clicked on automatically. I didn’t do it.”
Former FBI squad chief John Pritchard, who supervised Sharpton’s informant role for a while, told me in 1995, “The Rev was a great bullshitter. I have to say he probably conned the FBI in terms of the boxing investigation.”
All year long, Bill Lynch, who works with both men, has been giving Jackson and Sharpton the same message: “The stage is big enough for both of you,” Lynch told each of them. “There is no reason to be direct rivals. Put the personal stuff aside. There is enough work to be done. There is enough credit to be gained for both of you.”
Last Tuesday night, both Jackson and Sharpton preached brilliantly at the House of Justice in Harlem, before an aroused crowd of 500. It was a unity photo op.
Before the rally, there was a press conference in Sharpton’s inner office. That’s where Sharpton apologized for his past attacks on Jackson, expressing repentance to a roomful of reporters and photographers.
“I apologize for causing any rift and any feud with Reverend Jackson,” said Sharpton, even going on to apologize for making harsh remarks to journalists attributed to an “unnamed source.”
Jackson did not know in advance Sharpton was going to say this.
“What Al just did,” Jackson responded, “is what Gandhi did. As leaders we practice soul force. We do self-purification and self-examination.”
Then a reporter asked, “Is there anything you have said about Reverend Sharpton that you want to apologize for?”
“I haven’t said anything about him that I regret,” Jackson replied, a truthful reply, since he has not attacked his protégé in public.
“Leaders must have the capacity to forgive. We redeem and move on to issues that matter,” Jackson added. “The issue is not things personal. It’s our working together on issues that matter, like Ashcroft and civil liberties and rights in jeopardy.”
The next day, Sharpton called from a plane to talk about the man who’d taught him everything.
“He was happy about my public apology, but I don’t know how he reacted to Percy Sutton endorsing my candidacy. And he never apologized to me about anything.
“I’m still learning to have a father figure, and Jesse is still learning how to deal with a rebellious son,” Sharpton said. “We’re working on it.”