It is 7:30 a.m. in a Norman-style house situated in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. A pretty, sloe-eyed woman speaks softly as she urges her sleepy husband to eat his Cream of Wheat, into which she surreptitiously drops some raisins, and she hastens her four frisky children through their breakfasts.
After breakfast, Jesse Jackson shepherds the children, ranging from 3 to 10, across a schoolyard. Today he’s going to tell the teacher of little Jesse, 9, to be stricter with the boy. The father says, “I don’t want any teachers intimidated because they’ve got Jesse Jackson’s kids in their class.” Then with a fatherly wink he adds, “Besides, between being Jesse Jr. and his natural aggressiveness, I have to tone this one down occasionally.”
If the son is as much like his father as that knowing wink implied, the senior Jackson has his hands full. Nobody, but nobody—from the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy and the whole Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the Hollywood public relations agency hired to do the job professionally—has been able to tone down the flamboyant Rev. Jesse Jackson.
At 32, Jackson is perhaps the nation’s most visible, voluble spokesman for the black, the brown, the disadvantaged. He is the hero of liberal politics who led renegade Democrats in unseating Chicago’s Mayor Daley at the 1972 national convention. A media celebrity, he is as at home on a network talk show as in a Baptist pulpit. An undeniably magnetic and articulate leader, Jesse Jackson has been acclaimed by many as the likely successor to the fallen Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. So far Jackson has no right to claim the mantle; the black community has not yet produced a leader of King’s stature.
But Jackson is working at it. Like King, he regards the entire country as his parish, and his schedule often is a dizzying one. Within a recent week he addressed the joint houses of the Pennsylvania legislature, conducted services in his Chicago church—at which he launched a campaign for a black mayoral candidate in 1975—toured industrial plants in Buffalo in the interest of forging stronger union-worker alliances and paid a courtesy call on that city’s mayor.
In 1968 Jackson was only one of many bright, eager young ministers working for Dr. King. But the picture of Jesse Jackson that seems to linger in American memory is one of a smiling 26-year-old in rolled-up blue jeans, standing on a Memphis motel balcony next to Dr. King and bathing in his aura, on the evening of April 4. Soon after King lay dead, and in the ensuing riot-torn Easter weekend, as the nation and its black citizens reeled from the shock, Jesse Jackson was the first black leader to speak out on nationwide radio in an effort to calm his countrymen.
Today, Jesse Jackson carries on what he perceives to be Dr. King’s unfinished work from a newly rehabilitated former synagogue on Chicago’s decaying mid-south side. It is the national headquarters of the 16-city 60,000-member Operation PUSH—”People United to Save Humanity—Dr. King’s Workshop”—as a sign on the front of the building in black liberation tricolors proclaims. From here Jesse Jackson delivers his gospel: “We’re adding ‘silver rights’ to civil rights,” meaning that equal economic opportunity and freedom must go hand in hand with political advances. Jackson founded PUSH on Christmas Day 1971, after breaking away from the Rev. Abernathy and the SCLC. “Ralph says all the right things,” Jackson once said patronizingly. “So what if he doesn’t say them very well.”
Abernathy publicly acknowledges: “Jesse’s very, very good with the rap. He symbolizes what a lot of young black people like at this point.”
Jesse’s audience of 2,000 or more at each Saturday morning PUSH meeting isn’t predominantly young, however. It is mostly well-dressed middle-class women and men and a handful of sports celebrities and entertainers. There is no denying the ex-college football quarterback’s effect as he steps to the pulpit wearing jeans, a suede shirt and tennis shoes. An assistant’s introduction is fervid: “The black man’s hope and the white man’s conscience.” Jackson’s massive hands spread as if parting the waters, his face glistens. (The perspiration is one symptom of the sickle-cell anemia he inherited from his father and has passed on to one of his sons.) His lambent eyes turn heavenward, his voice has the ring of a biblical prophet.
On weekdays he jets back and forth across the country to tell college audiences, corporation presidents and congressional committees what the black American wants or needs or feels—as well as what white America should be doing. He has a quick and facile answer on PUSH’S current goals: “protecting jobs that black people already have, getting the unemployed employed, and getting the disorganized organized.” He also talks, but elliptically, about “redistribution of the wealth.” Recently, while visiting a local hospital where black workers were complaining about racism, he told them: “It’s a clear violation of your personhood, if you get sick and can’t afford to live in the hospital room that you clean.” And he brought the workers to their feet, shouting after him, “I am somebody…I may be poor but I am somebody. I’m black. I’m proud…I am God’s child. I am some…body!”
As a prophet, Jackson is not without honor on his home turf, but he has growing credibility problems. One day he will wildly accuse the FBI of “figuring prominently in the assassinations of the Kennedys, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.” A few days later the same Jesse Jackson will make more national headlines shaking hands with California Governor Ronald Reagan, after a talk about the need for change in welfare policies, and proclaiming, “We’re saying some of the same things.”
Sitting at his desk not long ago, he glowered at a visitor from beneath his Afro and complained bitterly that America refuses to understand the black American: “Most people don’t know that black folks make cars. Most white Americans don’t know that most black folks are not on welfare, are not on the street corners superflying and pimping. Most black folks live between the corners, keep their houses tidy, pay their bills and work. We are a race of workers…”
A moment later he was up on his tennis-shod toes, shucking and jiving, belly thrust out, assuming Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert” character and delivering a comic monologue on President Nixon in Uncle Remus’ speech: “Nosuh, he ain’t guilty of stealin’. Thas what common folks do. He guilty of em-bezzzzzzz-elment. Thas mo’ ‘spectable. It’s like when we was little kids stealin’ blackberries—’No Mama, we ain’t stealin’ no blackberries,’ and all the time we looking at her with purple all over our faces…”
Jesse Jackson calls himself “simply a country preacher,” yet speaks of himself majestically as “we.” With a caller he may be all first names and friendly, confiding almost shyly that besides not smoking, drinking or eating beef, he often fasts to discipline himself. He will explain his dreams for his children, speak movingly about his cruel life as an illegitimate black child in the South, and talk lovingly of his respect for his wife Jackie, 30, whom he met at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 1961. “She wasn’t very impressed with me being an athlete. She asked me what I thought of the India-Red China conflict. I liked that…”
“He’s like an ocean,” his wife says of him mysteriously. “It’s not so scary once you know you can swim.” But tired of bucking the current, a growing list of former friends turned critics—nine longtime associates left Jackson within one year, citing “personality differences”—often say with exasperation: “Who does Jesse Jackson think he is!”
Chicago Today reporter Barbara Reynolds—herself a black who is writing what was once an approved but has since become an independent biography of the man—says, “Jesse Jackson is the worst demagogue and media-manipulator in the United States today.” Vernon Jarrett, black historian and Chicago Tribune columnist, labels Jackson a “neo-Tom” and says, “I just can’t buy his phony, headline-grabbing ‘leadership.’ ” There are many former friends from SCLC and PUSH who agree, but not publicly. Jackson has a reputation for vindictive-ness toward his critics.
Jesse Jackson’s friend Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind. defends him: “Jesse’s doing perhaps as much as anyone to push major corporations to confront their consciences where black people are concerned, not only in hiring but in their overall response to the black community.”
Jackson’s refuge in the storm of criticism that so often accompanies his work has been his wife Jacqueline, though rumors of his womanizing persist to this day. Jackie is usually as open and warm as her husband is often intensely private, cool, even rude. “Ours was never a great love affair,” she confided. “We were both interested in social change. And it slowly unfolded into a love relationship.”
When they met, he was aiming toward a career in pro football and business. “I was a very good player by the standards then,” he says. “Though I had a strong church orientation as a child, I didn’t have much inclination to go into the ministry. I thought of it as a kind of superconservative role which took away the basic humanity of the person. But the urge to serve and relate to other people kind of followed me.” Most of his critics and many of his friends want him to take a more directly political role, to capitalize personally on his charisma: “But I cannot be Samuel and David,” he says. “I don’t want to be mayor or senator. I am satisfied with the role God has given me as a black preacher…to be responsible for the inner strength of my people, to help us overcome the odds against us.”
William Berry, a 33-year veteran of the Urban League, who was a close friend of both Dr. King and the late Whitney Young of the League, says, “Jesse has the equipment to become the most influential civil rights or reform leader this country has ever known.”
Jackson’s political views continue to be solicited every day, from rostrums and across boardroom tables. Is he against radicalism? “Is it radical to go from nonself-determination to being able to chase people out of office who’ve been making decisions for you?” Terrorism? “It’s the right-wing groups that I’m afraid of.” Where are race relations heading? “We must stop talking about integration and segregation—because those words are now too emotionally loaded—and begin talking about ethnic pluralism as opposed to ethnic isolation. Our options are reduced. It’s Doctor King’s prophecy—we will either have to live together as brothers or we will die apart as fools.”
“My bringing-up prepared me for this career,” Jackson says. “Since I was 13, I’ve been a football player, listening to the crowds—one side cheering me on, the other booing—yet I was concentrating on what I was supposed to be doing: getting the ball across that goal line.”