By JONATHAN TILOVE
April 22, 2003
c.2003 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) In the sweet light of a Memphis evening, in the bittersweet twilight of his reign as America’s pre-eminent black leader, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson stands on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, 35 years to the hour after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down, right there before his eyes.
It is a candlelight ceremony of remembrance and Jackson is recounting King’s moment of despair on one of the last days of his life, how he contemplated a “fast to the point of death” to reunite a divided civil rights movement. For Jackson, it recalls Jesus’ prayer of despair on the eve of the Crucifixion. “Let this cup pass from me.”
Jackson is not a martyr. He is not much given to despair. He is a survivor. He is also King’s undisputed successor as the most important black public figure in America.
Twenty years ago, he launched the first of two presidential campaigns that stirred the passions of his people and catapulted him to a place of unrivaled popularity and prominence in black political life. No one since Booker T. Washington has had as long a run. Nothing about Jackson’s endless succession of 20-hour days suggests his thirst to lead is slaked in the least. He is as he always has been _ relentless.
But Jackson is 61, his image frayed by the revelation two years ago that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. The media spotlight is training on the presidential candidacy of the Rev. Al Sharpton. And it appears the Jesse Jackson era is drawing to a close.
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There is no such position as National Black Leader, to borrow the terminology of political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., but it exerts a powerful influence on people’s understanding of black politics. It exists as an uneasy hybrid of what black people want and what white people and the media find useful and convenient.
King became larger than life only in history’s simplification of the civil rights era. And at the time of King’s death, Jackson was far from an obvious successor. At 27 he was the youngest, brashest, most charismatic and certainly, he has proved, the most single-minded of King’s disciples.
“Jesse never stopped; Jesse really never stopped,” says historian Roger Wilkins, who as an activist, Justice Department official and journalist observed it all at close range. “The rest of the movement became stagnant, but Jesse with this just unbelievable need and drive all wrapped up together _ he is a self-created phenomenon.”
Political scientists Robert C. Smith and Ronald Walters, co-authors of “African American Leadership,” believe the black community has come to look to what Smith calls a “kind of black president.”
“Someone who sounds the right themes that the community is thinking about,” says Walters, who advised Jackson in his presidential campaigns.
To his admirers, Jackson is more than a gifted tribune of black interests _ he is responsible for mobilizing the black voters who nourished the flowering of black electoral success in the years he has been on top.
But Reed, author in 1986 of “The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics,” believes Jackson’s real legacy has been to bottle up black political power, not to unleash it. His presidential bids especially, funneled energy into symbolic campaigns that, in Reed’s view, reduced actual black influence on the Democratic Party, investing everything in Jackson, who was able to deliver almost nothing in return, save his own elevation to a place of paramount leadership.
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When the news broke in 2001 about Jackson’s fathering a baby with Karin Stanford, who had been the head of the Rainbow-Push Washington bureau, Jackson said he was going to take some time off to heal. But 48 hours later, he was back on the job. As his son, Jesse Jr., noted at the time, for Jesse Jackson, two days is a very long time.
Sitting onstage in the small auditorium at LeMoyne-Owen, a historically black college in Memphis, on the eve of the assassination anniversary, Jackson looks bloated and bug-eyed. His sideburns are gray. He carries a formidable paunch.
Four freshman women in the second row are seeing him for the first time. One mentions his out-of-wedlock baby. “Just keeping it real,” she says.
Jackson opens with his ritual call and response: “I am” (“I am”) “Somebody” (“Somebody.”) Roused and rousing, his face comes alive, revealing deep dimples and glinting with hints of the old allure.
The women are won over. “It was like he was speaking directly to me,” says Niomi Reed, a student from Oakland, Calif. “I felt every word.”
In 2000, according to a national survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, Jackson was still riding very high. He had an 83 to 9 positive rating among blacks, and was favorably viewed by the general public. In the Joint Center’s 2002 survey, his standing with blacks had slid to 60 to 26 percent favorable, and his rating among the broader public had turned negative.
The vitriol flowed. “Shakedown,” last year’s savagely negative account of his career, climbed onto the New York Times Best Seller list. Jackson was, in the recent invective of the National Review, “the Grand High Pimp of the Rainbow-Push Coalition.”
He was also struck by a barb, both less venomous and less expected, in last year’s popular movie “Barbershop,” in which a Chicago barber played by Cedric the Entertainer issued the memorable screen line, “F— Jesse Jackson.”
And in February, when 21 people were killed in a stampede at a popular black Chicago nightclub, Jackson seemed sorely stretched between ministering to the victims’ families and defending the club’s owner, the son of the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, the Memphis minister who was with Jackson at the Lorraine when King was killed and who is by his side during much of this anniversary visit. (The nightclub fire was a tragedy, and not a crime, says Jackson, who sees no inconsistency.)
An interview with Jackson begins with a summons. “The reverend wants to get the rolling dialogue going,” says Joe Leonard Jr., the soft-spoken doctoral candidate in history who now directs Jackson’s Washington office and is traveling with him on this trip.
Roll it does, for the next 48-plus hours. The dialogue is serious, reflective, intent. Backstage, onstage, in parking lots, restaurants, lobbies, a church, a TV station, in his hired car and chartered Lear jet, in his Chicago headquarters and his Memphis hotel room, in his three-piece suit and, as he changes clothes without shifting gears, his underwear.
At some point it becomes obvious that, while there is clearly a large ego at work here, this is about something more than vanity, that after all these years there remains a core of earnest purpose, of commitment.
“Twenty hours a day” _ Jackson sleeps midnight to 4 a.m. _ “seven days a week, 35 years. It’s not a phase,” says the chairman of the Rainbow/Push Coalition board, a 34-year-old Chicago lawyer and businessman with the providential name of Martin King.
In 2000, while managing Al Gore’s presidential campaign, Jackson protege Donna Brazile says the reverend called her at 6 every morning. “At first I was irritated, but then I was glad someone cared,” she says. “He’s just a great soul.”
Jackson says he gets about 400 to 500 requests for help a month _ about 40 percent from black churches and other groups, about 40 percent from unions, the remainder everyone else.
On the anniversary of King’s assassination he heeds a call from distribution workers for Fred’s Inc., a Memphis-based national discount chain, which is resisting their efforts to organize with UNITE _ the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. To Jackson, Fred’s workers are the moral equivalent of the striking garbage workers whose cause brought King to Memphis 35 years ago.
After grits and biscuits at the union hall, Jackson, UNITE President Bruce Raynor, in from New York, and some workers drive to Fred’s headquarters to seek a meeting with CEO Michael Hayes. They arrive to a scene that is vintage Jackson. A bank of TV cameras awaits.
“This is the point of challenge,” says Jackson, disembarking from the car.
Inside, a vice president says that Hayes is out of town. Jackson, coolly, evenly, requests a meeting. After a quick phone call, the vice president agrees _ next Wednesday at 10. Jackson reports back to the cameras.
When the Rev. LaSimba Gray and other Memphis ministers sought a similar meeting a few months earlier they were turned away. “Very cold and sterile,” says Gray. “We didn’t have the cameras and we didn’t have Rev. Jackson. Today was a little different.”
That evening, from the balcony of the Lorraine, Jackson tells the assembled, “You couldn’t support the garbage workers in 1968 if you’re just 35. But you can support Fred’s workers in 2003.”
“My struggle is to keep the struggle current,” Jackson says, driving away from the Lorraine on his way to fly home to Chicago, just as he flew home to Chicago that night 35 years before.
Many, friends and foes, have suggested that Jackson should have gotten elected to something, or found a church, but he knows those choices would have narrowed his jurisdiction. “This is my life, this is my ministry. This is how I find fulfillment.”
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Much of the reporting on Al Sharpton’s incipient presidential candidacy suggests that he is really running to be “the new Jesse Jackson.”
On the day after the anniversary of King’s assassination, the old Jesse Jackson and his putative successor cross paths at the huge Expo for Today’s Black Woman at the convention center on Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago.
Jackson is filling in for an ailing Dick Gregory on a panel discussing the attack on black males.
“I’ve got every problem a Negro could have,” he tells the crowd of several hundred. “And I don’t feel inferior to anybody.”
He complains that when he ran for president it was suggested he could skip the foreign policy debate. (“I said, `that’s my best subject.”’), and that each time he returned home from negotiating the release of American hostages and POWs abroad, all the reporters wanted to know was, “Who paid the hotel bill?” Being the National Black Leader, he has learned, provided him a platform, but also placed him in a box.
Jackson receives a standing ovation. Soon after, Sharpton, due to speak shortly in the next room about his presidential candidacy, saunters in to turned heads, proceeds to the front of the hall and, approaching Jackson, kneels and takes his hand in a grand gesture of fealty, though it is Sharpton who crackles with the charisma of what’s next.
A woman follows Sharpton into the room with a large carton half full with his book, “Al on America,” written to promote his candidacy.
In his chapter on Jackson, Sharpton, who was a boy preacher of 12 when they met, describes how Jackson was a mentor and father figure to him. He describes periods of intense closeness and alienation. He ends by suggesting that Jackson became so inside during the Clinton years that he lost his movement mojo. It reads like he is calling Jackson out.
Jackson is not buying “Al on America” today. “I already have a copy,” he says. “Autographed.”
He dismisses Sharpton’s contention that a leader must choose between playing an inside hand or an outside one. “I don’t see why we want fewer weapons in our arsenal.”
Jackson says he suffers no pangs of envy that he is not running. “If I had wanted to run, I would have.”
“I’m glad Al is running,” he says, though he adds he is also glad former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun is running, that he is glad there is a large Democratic field, all of whom he hopes will appear at the Rainbow-Push convention in June, and that he won’t be endorsing anybody for now.
Two weeks later, Sharpton names Frank Watkins, an old Jackson hand who is now the spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., to manage his campaign and, in an interview, strikes a theme of continuity.
“I think that rather than a replacement or even a competition, I think Jesse Jr. and I are extensions of the Jackson legacy,” Sharpton says.
Sharpton, 48, notes that his age difference with the senior Jackson is about the same as that between Jackson and King. “He and Dr. King had tensions so maybe he can adjust to my raising questions as he raised questions.”
“There are the complexities of a father-son relationship,” says Bill Lynch, a top Democratic operative in New York who is close to both men. “At the appropriate time (Jackson) will endorse Rev. Sharpton.”
“It would be unnatural if he didn’t,” agrees the Rev. Al Sampson, a Chicago minister who also goes way back with both. “He’ll be the elder statesman for his son.”
But others consider Sharpton an unworthy inheritor of Jackson’s mantle.
“From the sublime to the ridiculous,” says the economist Glenn Loury, who has gone from Jackson critic to admirer.
“From tragedy to farce,” says Adolph Reed Jr.
In the Joint Center’s 2000 poll, Sharpton was only marginally popular (37 percent to 29 percent) among blacks, and very unpopular (10 percent to 41 percent) with the rest of the population. Sharpton wasn’t included in the 2002 poll, but David Bositis, who conducts and analyzes the Joint Center surveys, says he expects that while Sharpton is now better known, his margin of approval is probably about the same. “He isn’t going to capture 90 percent of the black vote like Jesse did,” Bositis says. “That ain’t going to happen.”
“Dr. King said, `We are not makers of history, we are made by history,”’ says Donna Brazile. “History made Jesse Jackson. We’ll see what history does with Al Sharpton.”
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On the last night of his life, at Memphis’ mammoth Mason Temple, Martin Luther King delivered the prophetic “Mountaintop” speech that expressed his peace with what he seemed to know was his imminent fate.
Thirty-five years later, the old lions of the movement gather at Mason Temple _ the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, former NAACP chairman Benjamin Hooks, Billy Kyles. “Strong sturdy people,” says Jackson, assaying the scene from the back of the room.
He speaks softly. “There is so much joy in my work now. I really have so much joy in my work now. It’s a fulfillment. I’m living in the surplus. When I was marching in Selma for the right to vote Jesse Jr. was born. He’s now in Congress. …
“Now there are a million voices speaking. That’s a good thing. And not that many discordant notes, frankly.”
But even among those who have drawn inspiration from Jackson over the years, there is little agreement about his legacy.
“The whole idea of Jesse having an era bothers me,” says Kevin Gray, a South Carolina activist who ran Jackson’s winning 1988 primary campaign there. “I think he’s failed on so many levels, to say that he had an era, it would have to be a lost era. He hasn’t built anything. I think he wrecked the movement.”
To others, it is Jackson, with his extraordinary personal gifts, who bridged the eras of black protest and black electoral politics.
“History will treat him very kindly,” says Wellesley College political scientist Wilbur Rich. “I don’t think we can produce anyone better.”