Bring It On

Jesse Jackson looks for redemption amid revelations of a love child and checkbook politics. But does all this represent a glancing blow to bullhorn activism—or the requiem for a dream?

(Details, May 2001. Photos: Jeff Jacobson)

AN APOCALYPTIC RAIN—the kind that sends piebald dogs shivering for cover inside gas-station bays—is battering the trailer homes and abandoned soy fields along Alabama’s Highway 80. Sitting Buddha-still in the pas­senger seat of a speeding Dodge SUV, hip but pudgy in a black turtleneck and tailored slacks, Jesse Jackson couldn’t seem more content. “It’s good to be back in Montgomery,” he purrs into the dangling mouthpiece of his Nokia cell phone. Jackson’s plane landed less than fifteen minutes ago, and already he has found an audi­ence. On the other end is Michelle C., a bubbly DJ on the Montgomery radio station Hot 105. Between rapper Eve’s “Who’s That Girl?” and a perky spot for dandruff shampoo, Jackson is about to give Michelle a few minutes’ worth of radical-speak.

In his best Old Testament voice, he tells her how it was thirty-six years ago when marchers were bloodied by police billy clubs on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Jackson warns her that the right to vote is still threatened—by the Supreme Court that stopped the presidential-vote recount. But there is some­thing more in the ozone—and on Jesse Jackson’s mind—than voter inequity. A vaporous scent of things unsaid. He signs off: “I love you. Keep hope alive!

In seconds, his wide-set eyes lose their light as they return to the muddy creeks and ramshackle convenience marts sliding by outside the window. His driver switches to an easy-listening station. For a couple of long minutes, we travel in awkward silence—because his aides tend not to speak until he does—while Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain” plays on the radio.

These are stormy days for the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Civil-Rights-Movement elder and the widely acknowledged president of black America. At 59, he is still the noisy gadfly of the progressive left, still drawing proud smiles and bear hugs from his disenfranchised admirers, who call him their “hero son” and present their tattered family Bibles for that cardiogram signature. But the battle suddenly has new fronts; there are accusations threatening his via­bility as a leader. These are things he’d rather not discuss. This past January, after the National Enquirer tore the wrapping paper off his personal life—and after the mainstream press gleefully re-reported the tawdry details—Jackson was forced to admit that he’d fathered a daughter with former employee Karin Stanford, and used $36,000 from one of his charities to pay the 39-year-old a “consulting fee” and help her move to Los Angeles.

And now an undertow of questions spurred by the Stanford revelations has forced him to open his financial records to a gimlet-eyed press. Among the most serious is whether he misused tax-exempt money from his Citizenship Educa­tion Fund for personal expenses. He says he did not. But a conservative watchdog group in Washington, D.C., is asking the Internal Revenue Service for an audit.

The Stanford affair has also rekindled criticism of Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the umbrella over a tangle of three other activist organizations. But the rain is perhaps falling hardest on his four-year-old Wall Street Project, which critics claim helps only an elite pod of black businessmen close to Jackson who fund his causes. Jackson, they say, stirs up trouble with large corporations so they, too, can buy him off with donations—just to make him go away.

Jackson prefers to think that the companies are acting out of decency. “And economic apartheid,” he says, “is indecent.”

Bill O’Reilly, conservative talk-show host for Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor, is leading the charge to investigate Jackson. “Everyone’s scared of this guy because he can call you a racist,” says O’Reilly indignantly. “That’s why they back down. They don’t want him boycotting or picketing. It’s bad publicity.”

Jackson’s been drawing his salary from those funds—which also support his high-flying lifestyle of $10,000 charter-jet trips and four-star-hotel rooms. “He’s got a great message, but he’s so flawed I think he’s become corrupt,” says a former Clinton White House official who has worked closely with Jackson.

When you float these concerns, Jackson just glares at you as if your last name were Helms. He blames the sniping on the right-wing enemies of civil rights, a cabal out to “disrupt, discredit, and destroy,” not just him, but The Movement.

“Jesus healed a blind man one day,” he says, giving me a hard look, “and rather than praise him, they asked: ‘By what authority did he do it? And why did he do it on Sunday?’ We brought Robert Goodman back from Syria,” he adds, referring to his 1984 negotiated release of the downed Navy pilot—a recy­cled rebuttal. “First question was ‘Who paid the hotel bill?’ What can you say?”

“Attention Calhoun shoppers” a voice drawls over the loudspeaker. “We got the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and he will be signing his book.”

Past the Faygo orange soda display and the five-gallon jugs of Red Smith Firebrand Pickled Pigs Feet, Jackson leads a procession of five awestruck Cal­houn shoppers—one in beaten-down slippers—a local TV camera crew, two aides, two bodyguards, and three friends. At 5:13 P.M., he settles onto a metal folding chair in the deli department of Calhoun Foods, a sprawling black-owned grocery store on residential Jeff Davis Avenue in Selma.

Tired now, and hunched over a plate of chicken and dumplings, Jackson has dropped by as a favor to grocery-chain owner and longtime friend Greg Calhoun. Jackson wants to draw attention to the trouble Calhoun is having obtaining a loan to build new stores. “That’s why it’s so insulting when we talk about access to capital and people say, ‘Well, you’re just helping a few friends,'” says Jackson. “Greg employs 560 people at his stores, so if you help Gregory Calhoun, you’re helping 560 families grow. But a guy like him can’t get capital. That’s peculiar.”

Even over dinner, Jackson doesn’t chitchat, and he rarely laughs unless he’s the one cracking the jokes. Business talk is his 2001 scripture. This is the fourth movement in black America’s history, what he calls the “Freedom Symphony.”

According to Jackson, the first movement abolished slavery, the second ended segregation, the third granted the right to vote, and the fourth is providing “access to capital.” This last continues a fight he started in the late sixties when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. put him in charge of the Chicago arm of Oper­ation Breadbasket. At the time, business owners in black neighborhoods would rarely hire locals, stock black products on their shelves, or place their payrolls with black-owned banks. Breadbasket forced them to change their ways.

“There is, in the black and brown community, no talent shortage,” says Jackson. “There is an opportunity shortage. We have legal services. We have investment bankers. One would think it absurd today to have an all-white base­ball, basketball, or football team. It would suggest you have not recruited from the whole marketplace.”

Up until now, Jackson hasn’t said much about where he gets the money for three homes or the $3,000-a-month in child support he now pays or that jaw-dropping collection of Rolexes or his closet full of $400 hand-tailored shirts, $3,400 hand-tailored suits, and $1,500 shoes—all paid for in cash. But pressured by the media (and hoping to assuage the concerns of his own donors), Jackson finally opened the books in March on his two biggest organizations, Rainbow/PUSH and the Citizenship Education Fund (CEF).

Jackson, it turns out, earns $430,000 a year. Of that, $260,000 comes from hosting CNN’s Both Sides (put on hiatus after the scandal broke—at Jackson’s request). Another $120,000 comes from one of his charitable groups. The rest comes from speaking and writing fees.

It pays well to do good. And no one disputes that Jackson works hard for the money. Today, he started out at 7 A.M. He met first with Chicago ministers to talk about his new economic-literacy program, which includes learning about the stock market in Sunday school. Then came a luncheon with local business leaders, where he challenged President Bush’s school-voucher program and his plan to fund religious charities: “It will compromise the independence of the church,” Jackson proclaimed. “Because behind the federal funding comes federal monitoring, and with that disgruntlement, federal investigation, and then indictment. I’m glad that Jesus did not have a Roman finance minister.”

He also asked that members of his audience give $35 each to join Rainbow/ PUSH—and sign up 25 to 100 others.

At noon, he jumped on stage at his headquarters’ auditorium to deliver his weekly sermon, televised in parts of Illinois and neighboring Indiana and Wis­consin. He spoke out against “jail culture” and wearing “your pants down to here with the crack of your butt hangin’ out.”

Then, he was off to the chartered Beechjet, and Selma.

Between hearty helpings of chicken, corn bread, and carrot-raisin salad at Calhoun Foods, Jackson lectures on the inequity of rich counties’ owning new voting machines and poor (mostly black) counties’ relying on outdated models. Glossy eight-by-ten photos of Jackson are produced, and he offers to sign them for the ABC-affiliate crew. At first they laugh, but Jackson shoots them a playfully stern look and they accept. He digs into a hill of blackberry pie.

Jesse Louis Jackson has always been a man of immense appetites. For fame. Recognition. Respect. “I am somebody!“‘ he is fond of saying. It seems the Southern son of an unwed mother will never stop clawing his way to accept­ability. “He likes to get everybody talking about him. That’s this obsession, to be seen and talked about,” says Barbara Reynolds, author of the 1975 biography Jesse Jackson: America’s David.

This need for approval is something he has in common with another accom­plished man from the South whose biological father was out of the picture: Bill Clinton. Both inspirational leaders with fissured foundations, each seems to delight in tiptoeing the edge of the abyss between right and wrong. Jackson was perhaps most eminently qualified to “minister” to the first family during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

While some now accuse Jackson of hypocritically attending to the president, New York congressman and black power broker Charles Rangel sees it differ­ently. “If somebody’s sinned and they embrace the sinner, what the shit do 1 care?” asks Rangel. “Maybe if you never screwed up, you can’t help somebody.”

As Jackson later repeated to the press, he told the president to “hold on to the sides of the boat until morning cometh because storms will pass over.” But by that fall, Clinton was in the throes of impeachment hearings, and Jackson had impregnated his own mistress. Jackson must not have been too worried about his own boat: He brought Karin Stanford, and two other Rainbow/PUSHH workers, to the White House on December 3 of that year for a casual meet-and-greet with the president.

Jackson has been plagued his entire married life by rumors of an insatiable appetite for women. “He’s used to being adored by these women,” says one former Jackson staffer, noting they sometimes “ended up in his hotel room.” During Jackson’s second presidential bid, in 1988, the press tried desperately to nail rumors that he’d had affairs with jazz diva Nancy Wilson and Roberta Flack, whose scorching 1973 love song “Jesse” hoisted plenty of eyebrows:

“Jesse, come home, there’s a hole in my bed/Where we slept, now it’s growing cold.”

Jackson himself “refused to deny” the rumor about Flack, as he told one reporter in 1974. Eventually, Jesse’s wife, Jackie, whom he met in college and married in 1963, put the brakes on the probe. “She basically said, ‘I didn’t marry him to put shackles on him,'” recalls longtime friend Bob Borosage, who trav­eled the country with Jackson. “And she said, ‘I don’t expect you to be snooping around my bedroom.’ That shut the reporters down.”

Jackson’s infidelities were a secret his peers had a stake in keeping. “We all knew about Stanford,” says Reynolds, who moves in the rarefied circles of Washington, DC. “But Jesse’s enemies are my enemies. Racists. At least he’s out there to battle for you. He stands up when a lot of other people won’t.”

And this time around, Jackson wasn’t running for any office, so reporters were mainly off the case. Several news organizations put in a call to Stanford, according to CEF insiders, but she denied the rumor.

Karin Stanford was a doctoral student at Howard University when she met Jackson in the spring of 1992. She had arrived at his Washington, DC, offices to interview him for a dissertation about his impact on foreign policy. Brainy, attrac­tive, and intensely flirtatious, her attentions to Jackson bordered on blatant idol worship, say people who observed her. It would take years, and many more inter­views, to finish, but she would eventually parlay her work into a book—and a job.

Stanford was working as a tenure-track professor of political science and African-American studies at the University of Georgia when Jackson hired her in May 1997 as the research director of CEF’s Public Policy Institute at its Washington headquarters. “Karin could have been a truly great professor,” says R. Baxter Miller, a University of Georgia English professor who helped recruit her. “But she left for the limelight.”

She was also looking for a renewed life. That March, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and by April had undergone a lumpectomy. Insiders say Jackson was moved by Stanford’s enthusiasm. The pair soon embarked on an affair, which was easy since they would travel together across the country. They often shared Jackson’s hotel room, says one insider. Stanford even took Jackson home to her old working-class neighborhood in southeastern Los Angeles. When they weren’t together and Jackson was on the road, says a former co­worker, “he would call her 57 times a day, before he called his own wife.”

It was love, say friends. That chafed Jackson’s longtime aides, not because of what it meant to his family but because Jackson would try “to please her in every way,” says one intimate. “He took her to top meetings with people like Michael Armstrong and the guys from Ameritech, and to meet Clinton.”

Stanford gained immense influence from her intimacy with the camera-courting minister, and former co-workers say she bruised many egos. By the fall of her first year, Jackson had named her head of CEF’s Public Policy Insti­tute, giving her reign over the D.C. staff. “She became the prima donna of the whole organization,” says one former staff member.

Stanford declined to be interviewed by Details. She would offer only that she enjoyed “a good relationship with most of my staff, and certainly a high level of respect.” Says former assistant Kenyatta Hobson, “She was very driven.”

But she annoyed some of the workers so much, says one staff member, that the older women sometimes upbraided her for her behavior. “The way she talked, it was like she wanted to let you know she had him under her thumb,” says the ex-employee. “It was always ‘Jesse gave me this watch’ or ‘Jesse gave me these flowers.’ No one calls him Jesse; it’s either Reverend or, affectionately, Rev.”

Equally disturbing was Stanford’s salary. She was earning $120,000 a year (the average at the nonprofit was $42,500), making her the second-highest-paid staff member at both Rainbow/PUSH and CEF, right behind the chief financial officer and equal in pay to Jackson. Her name, along with four others, was left off a list of highest-paid employees on CEF’s 1999 tax return. Billy Owens, the CFO who was brought into Rainbow/PUSH when Stanford was leaving to “straighten out the finances,” says it was “simply an oversight by the account­ants” and that he plans to file an amended return. Amendments are common enough, but they can trigger an audit looking for intentional malfeasance.

When Stanford became pregnant, in the summer of 1998, Jackson tried to play down the increasing rumors of his paternity. One day, he trotted a young man through the office who was visiting Stanford from her hometown of Los Angeles, introducing him as “Karin’s fiancé,” says one observer. A second notes that Stanford even wore a diamond engagement ring.

One ex-aide and a close Jackson pal says the staff was appalled by Stanford’s claim that she would be the next Mrs. Jackson. “She truly felt that she was going to depose his wife,” says Jackson’s friend.

There are water stains on the walls, a chewed-up highway cone jammed in the entryway, and two gutted copy machines in the far corner. Fronting a spider of dusty rubber plants is a bronze bust of Jackson. One sup­porter wears a button that reads: WE ALL LOVE YOU JACKIE AND JESSE, HANG IN THERE.

This place with the Motor Vehicle Department ambience is Rainbow/PUSH Coalition headquarters in Chicago. Nearly a dozen people—many of them young ministers in leather trench coats—mill about the room. (“Reverend knows you’re here,” says an elderly receptionist seated behind a cut-out in one wall.)

The recent controversies leave them unfazed. “I don’t care if the storm blew him over twenty times,” says the Reverend Carey Gidron, a 24-year-old baby-faced preacher who says Jackson saved him from a life of gangs and drugs. “We’re gonna stand by his side.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by some black politicians. “We forgive because some people are so valuable to us in this country we cannot lose them,” says Cali­fornia congresswoman Maxine Waters. But other Establishment blacks wish to remain silent. Calls to Vernon Jordan’s office were met with courtesy, but Jordan, who was there, declined to come to the phone each time.

In the winter of 1998, Stanford’s pregnancy was the town’s worst-kept secret. Two people say even the president knew about it. “Jesse had her living on Decatur near Fourteenth Street and he was just a few blocks away,” says one friend.

Jackson’s wife and five grown children had suffered through years of rumored affairs, but news of this addition to the family was devastating. Wife Jackie finally confronted him around Christmas, four months into Stanford’s pregnancy. “She was very hurt,” says the friend. “He didn’t want to give Karin up. But he wasn’t a complete fool. He knew he couldn’t leave his wife.”

The family met at their South Side Chicago home to discuss the situation. They decided “to rally round our flag,” as Jackson’s eldest son, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., of Illinois, put it. “We’re all grown people. Ain’t no children around here.” A family friend, however, says, “They basically rejected him.” Says another: “They laid out how disgusted and disappointed and painful it all was.”

“We have a little sister, and it’s not easy to completely reconcile that,” says Jesse Jr. “I can assure you that in light of what we’re dealing with from the media every day, we’re years away from dealing with this.”

Karin Stanford gave birth to a daughter, Ashley, in May 1999. But with news of the child sprinting around Washington’s corridors of power, it was decided in June that Stanford would leave CEF. The next year, she sent out photo Christmas cards of herself with Ashley, then 19 months old. By then, news organizations had decided not to publish a story because Stanford steadfastly denied Jackson was the father. Privately, she had a paternity test conducted, and Jackson agreed to pay her $16,000 in moving costs and a $21,000 advance on future consulting fees. CEF workers claim a confidential letter to Stanford discussing that expenditure was passed to the Enquirer by someone there.

Stanford was now employed by a high-powered longtime friend of Jackson’s. Ron Burkle, a 48-year-old grocery-store billionaire and Democratic fund-raiser, says Jackson asked him to use Stanford as a researcher for his Yucaipa Compa­nies investment firm. She made roughly the same salary: $10,000 a month.

“Jesse recommended her,” reports Burkle, who claims he knew nothing of the affair at the time. He’d been told she moved in order to get married. It wasn’t the first time Burkle had helped Jackson out. In 1998, Burkle introduced two of Jackson’s sons to August Busch IV, the CEO of Anheuser-Busch. The introduc­tion netted them Chicago’s biggest Anheuser-Busch distributorship—and they had no prior experience in the business.

“These are qualified young men,” Jackson says. “You think the issue is hor­rible, this idea of family nepotism. But it’s corporate nepotism that we’re fighting. Look at the lending patterns of banks, look at the exclusion policies of blacks and browns in business. That is the real issue.”

Ron Burkle helped Karin Stanford in other ways as well. When she was looking to buy a home, he suggested she contact Kaufman and Broad Mortgage Co., where he’s on the parent company’s board of directors. Burkle called himself to let them know she’d be coming by. Stanford eventually bought a $365,000 split-level home with five bedrooms and a pool in the upscale Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Hills.

Jackson refuses to discuss the affair or its effects. “On that matter I’ve issued a statement,” says Jackson timidly, chewing a mouthful of popcorn and backing away from my tape recorder until he bumps into a chair. “I accept my responsi­bility, with contrition, and dignity, and privacy.” After all, Jackson was born illegit­imate, too. His own well-to-do birth father was twenty years older than Jackson’s mother and lived just down the road with his wife and three stepchildren in Greenville, South Carolina. Though the local kids teased him about this, his father supported Jackson from a distance throughout his young life.

Jackson once said during his 1988 campaign that he found adultery “immoral” and something that defined one’s “moral tone.” But has his affair eroded his own moral authority? “That’s not for me to say,” he answers softly, as if he does not want his staff and others to hear. “Most people know what the Bible says—that those who would obtain mercy be merciful.”

Says one family friend, “He’s good at showing no reaction. Something could be eating him alive and he’ll immediately shift the blame on someone else.”

Several people dose to Jackson say he still sees Stanford and talks to her nearly every day. “Now Karin wants more money, and if it was up to Jesse, he’d just give it to her. But I don’t think Jackie’s going to stand for that,” says an intimate.

The recent fracas notwithstanding, Jackson’s friends insist he’s done more for black America than nearly any man living, simply by stoking the dialogue. “Jesse has always seen himself more as a tree picker than a jelly maker,” says Bob Borosage.

But allies feel that even while Clinton was president, Jackson’s voice was muted on key issues. “He became very close to the Clinton administration, and that was very painful to me,” says Al Sharpton. “I thought we ought to be chal­lenging Clinton more. A lot of people put in these welfare-reform programs by the thousands are going to be out in the streets at this time next year.”

Jackson did manage, through his closeness to Clinton, to help the disadvan­taged in Appalachia and rural Mississippi. But critics point out that in allowing Jackson to play unofficial ambassador to Africa, Clinton was able to silence him.

“He always gets paid off by the Democrats,” says a former Clinton adminis­tration official. “He gets a plane to fly around the country to promote the can­didate and they give him a ton of money to do voter-registration drives and pay his hotel bill.” On a 1994 trip to South Africa, where Jackson headed a delega­tion on behalf of the White House that would monitor the first national elec­tions, he twice tried to steal the spotlight. According to one person present, the group was ten minutes into a meeting with President F. W. de Klerk when Jackson announced he had to leave—for a radio interview. A day later, the group met with Nelson Mandela. Jackson abruptly announced that he and Mandela were “now going to speak privately for a few minutes,” reports one source. “And Mandela said, ‘No, no. This isn’t apartheid anymore. We’re all together.'”

Four days after the Stanford affair broke, Jackson was at a Wall Street Project black-tie gala on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

That Jackson has helped blacks ax their way through corporate America’s glass ceiling is beyond dispute. Thanks in part to his work, Jackson claims African-American participation on corporate boards has increased 57 percent in recent years. “Most of these guys aren’t diversified, and not because they’re lazy, but because they haven’t thought through the cost of exclusion,” says Jackson. “It’s not that the market is blind. They’re bYmA. If a company has a large black or brown consumer base but no representation in its upper-level man­agement, it’s boycotting 05. We are protesting, or negotiating, as the case may be. We’re the ones who have been red-lined! And maligned! And locked out?

Here’s how the Wall Street Project works: Jackson’s group will research a company’s hiring practices and note the number of minorities in upper man­agement and in board positions. Then he asks to meet the CEO. He approaches wielding the threat of boycott or pledging to fight mergers unless CEOs rush to recruit minorities to their governing boards. The companies are pressured to let black entrepreneurs in on big stock and bond offerings. And often, Jackson scores a donation: In the past few years, corporate giving has helped double Jackson’s revenues to $15 million.

But there’s another issue here: Do the entrepreneur friends who win the resulting deals get preferential treatment because of their donations?

“It’s like you give your tithe and get good treatment,” says financier Harold Doley, who helped introduce Jackson around when he founded the WSP.

“These are not just friends of mine,” counters Jackson defensively. “And they don’t get special treatment.”

One of Jackson’s closest former aides notes that “we stopped going to churches. We stopped going to prisons. We stopped going to high schools. All of a sudden, we were Wall Streeters.”

Jackson disputes that elitist notion:” Unless we have access to wealth,” he says in a scholarly tone, “we can’t address those issues of drugs and crime and aids.”

Perhaps the most problematic business relationship Jackson maintains is with an old friend named Percy Sutton, owner of the privately held radio-and-cable operator Inner City Broadcasting.

Jackson and his wife bought a $10,000 stake in ICB in the seventies. Their shares have grown in value to nearly $1.2 million. In 1999, Inner City wanted to expand. When CBS wanted to buy Viacom, Jackson knew the deal would face hurdles since one company is forbidden from owning two networks, and Viacom already had UPN. After protesting the union on the grounds that it would hurt minority chances of doing business in such a concentrated market, Jackson came up with a solution: CBS should sell UPN to a minority buyer.

“The Reverend was instrumental in getting us access to The Man,” says Sutton, who was brought in for a meeting with Mel Karmazin.

In the end, the merged Viacom held on to U PN but sold ten radio stations to two other buyers, who donated $2 million to create a fund that would pay for business workshops for minorities. More than a third of that money— $680,000—eventually went to CEF to fund two of its WSP conferences.

Inner City was shut out in this instance, but with Jackson’s help it has man­aged to double its radio-station holdings anyway. Last March, as radio power­house Clear Channel sought FCC approval for a merger, Sutton says, Jackson helped get him in the door so he could buy four radio stations for $127 million in cash. Jackson also took Sutton along on a White House-sponsored trade trip last year to Africa, where Sutton pitched a company called ACTEL (African Telecommu­nications), in which he and Inner City have a $16 million investment.

When I ask Jackson whether he sees a conflict of interest here, he turns testy. “I helped get the first black car dealership in 1966 from Oldsmobile,” he says, warming up. “And the first black franchises from McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Burger King”—also in the sixties. “I don’t have a piece of any of those businesses. If I had an interest in Inner City and a competing interest in another company, that would be a conflict. That just doesn’t exist.”

Jackson firewalked through similar criticism in May 1998, when he denounced the proposed $62 billion merger between telecommunications titans SBC and Ameritech. In the end, Jackson’s friend and benefactor Chester Davenport of Georgetown Partners bought Ameritech’s cellular business in partnership with GTE in a deal worth $3.3 billion (and the merger went through). The tactic worked again, in 1999, when Jackson objected to the union of AT&T and Telecommunications Inc., citing TCI’s lack of minorities in top management positions. Once again, he retreated after AT&T chief Michael Arm­strong hired Jackson’s pal Ron Blaylock to help underwrite its $8 billion bond offering. In the end, AT&T donated $425,000 to CEF; Blaylock gave $30,000. Jackson also assisted in landing his friend John Utendahl at Utendahl Capital a co-manager spot on Pepsi Bottling Group’s $2.3 billion initial public stock offering, making it the first-ever black-owned firm given such a position.

Jackson insists the charges of favoritism are misguided. “When you lift the roof, it helps everybody,” he says.

Some feel differently. Harold Doley at Doley Securities thinks Jackson’s people gave preferential treatment to Blaylock and Utendahl in the AT&T deal because they are among the largest minority business contributors to Rainbow/PUSH— and Doley’s not. Jackson has a tough row to hoe between buddies fighting for a limited number of deals. (And AT&T denies anyone received special treatment.)

“You can’t dignify the garbage of all these charges,” a tired Jackson tells me one day. “These men go through a due-diligence process and companies select them who would have never even considered them.”

But there are negative side effects. “What bothers me,” says one successful black financier, “is when I’ve been working with a company for years, and someone from the Wall Street Project calls them, and I lose the business.”

And now the companies and friends who gave Jackson money are demanding an accounting. According to the 102-page “Financial Report to Donors” released this past February, one of biggest bills of 2000 was for travel, $1.3 million, with Jackson’s own arrangements costing $614,000 of that.

“You’d think sometimes you’re on a campaign,” says someone who once worked inside the CEF offices. “There are ten staffers along on a trip and he’s only doing media, which takes, maybe, two handlers. All those people are get­ting $35 per diems and dry cleaning and using phones. It adds up, believe me.”

Billy Owens at Rainbow/PUSH disputes that account. He says Jackson typi­cally travels with just two assistants. He attributes the travel expenses to the organization’s thinly staffed bureaus, scattered across the country. “Whenever we have a conference, we don’t have enough people in any one place to handle it,” he says. “So we’ll move up to 25 people to staff a conference.”

The American Conservative Union, a partisan watchdog group, has filed a complaint with the IRS and the Federal Elections Commission. The ACU main­tains that a chunk of Jackson’s travel was spent making appearances “with and for the Democratic Party,” advocating Gore. The ACU notes it’s “illegal” for a nonprofit to fund such activities; the IRS has declined to comment.

“If he’s not investigated, I am going to go to the Hill myself and demand that he be investigated,” railed Bill O’Reilly on the air. “It’s reverse racism.”

Owens says the appearances were made at the request of the Democratic Party, which reimbursed Rainbow/PUSH $450,000 in travel costs. But that’s still illegal, claims the ACU. The ACU also alleges that the staff and office space at Chicago headquarters were used to support Jackson’s politicking. “This guy has flagrantly broken dozens of laws,” says ACU attorney Cleta Mitchell. “It’s a disgrace.”

At 20,000 feet above Kentucky, Jesse Jackson kicks off his handmade black leather shoes. He sinks deep into the Beechjet’s sheepskin upholstery and hoists his blue-stockinged foot up on the arm of the facing club seat, where an aide quickly hustles his own knees out of the way.

“You’d expect the declared enemies of the civil-rights movement to try to destroy us,” says Jackson of the ACU. “They don’t like our voter-registration work. They don’t like our voter turnout rate. They don’t like our existence.”

Even if the allegations of misused funds prove unfounded, Jackson’s Wall Street Project could suffer. Already, some corporate chieftains are exchanging worried glances as they slowly slide their billfolds from the table.

“It definitely puts some chinks in his armor,” says PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico. He added that his company, which gave $50,000 at January’s Wall Street Project conference, would take a “wait and see” attitude about future donations. Jackson’s troubles may have a ripple effect among those he most means to help. “I’m not getting my phone calls returned,” says the owner of one well-known minority-run securities firm. “Companies will use this as an excuse to set back the process. Or wait until someone with less baggage comes along.”

That could happen as early as this summer. A small group of black-owned financial firms are preparing to challenge Jackson’s group this fall by launching their own Wall Street initiative. “An operation like this shouldn’t be run by one guy,” says one of the group members still doing business with the WSP. They approached the Reverend Al Sharpton and the National Urban League because they are dissatisfied with the project’s ability to deliver a large volume of deals.

“Minority-owned firms are not happy with the WSP,” says one prominent black financier. “Not everyone is feeling the love.”

“These folks question whether there is the organizational capacity at the Wall Street Project to deliver,” says Milton Little, COO of the Urban League. “It’s one thing to be able to bring Mike Armstrong and a bunch of folks in as speakers. It is another thing to then create and execute the game plan.”

Sharpton would most likely head up the group, based on his two-year-old Madison Avenue Initiative, which has helped more than 40 minority-owned businesses nab work from Colgate, Pepsi, and Mercedes-Benz. Sharpton would refuse to take donations from the corporations; it’s the minority businesses that would pay the organization’s overhead. “If you allow Pharaoh to finance Moses, you not gonna get much of an exodus,” he says.

There are 2,000 pairs of eyes looking to Jesse Jackson to lead them for­ward. It’s a raw Sunday on the far slope of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Jackson stands there, a violent wind whipping his black trench coat. He is staring back over the debris-strewn Alabama River. It was here on this spot in 1965 that the marchers stood, blocked from continuing on to Montgomery by state troopers.

An hour earlier, inside the Easter-colored Tabernacle Baptist Church, Jackson urged many of those now facing him to teach their children “the lesson of how we got across the river.”

“Tell them! We did not come as immigrants looking for a new land. We came as slaves. Tell them.” he thundered, “We subsidized America’s development.'”

That’s right, they said. Damn straight.

“Tell them! ‘Africa built America. America did not build Africa!'”

They jumped to their feet as applause ripped through the room.

“Tell them!” Jackson screamed, “that we made cotton king. And never got our crown.”

A man in an electric-blue suit pumped his small fists over his head.

And now they stood there, after walking from the Selma housing projects, through its depressed downtown, where every third store looks like it’s been shuttered since the fifties.

“Today we march on a budget surplus that must be invested in the common people. Not in the rich young rulers,” Jackson tells the silent, wind-chilled crowd. “Our challenge is on this side of the bridge.”