Friday, July 11, 2008

The Jesse Jackson I Knew

Jesse Jackson in the summer of '67
by Charlie Leck

Chicago was hot in the mid through late 60s – and I don't mean the temperature! The great city by the lake was a hot-bed of social, civic and racial unrest. It was exciting, too. Who of us over 60 will ever forget the Democratic National Convention of 1968? And names like Mayor Richard Daley, Hubert Humphrey and Mike Royko were as familiar then as the names of Mayor Richard Daley, Barack Obama and Rush Limbaugh are today.

Jesse Jackson, in 1967, when I met him, was not a big name. He was really just a kid – or, more correctly, a 24 year old young man who was still a year away from his ordination. He was nothing like the arrogant, beaten and humorless man one sees on occasional TV appearances these days.

I was introduced to Jackson in his lovely, small and modest home on the Southside of Chicago in the summer. I was spending some time at the Urban Training Center, figuring out how the local church could be involved in Alinsky type community organization. Alinsky, the great organizer who had established his fame bringing together the diverse people who lived "back of the yards," as in livestock yards, had spent a couple of afternoons talking to a group of us. He told us about this young and inspirational pastor who was battling the High-Low grocery chain in the city. My memory is vague, but I think it was about higher prices in the poorer, black neighborhoods than the same chain charged in the more affluent, white parts of the city. Jackson wanted the chain to hire more black workers, to include black owned banks among the financial institutions they used and to stock the products of black manufacturers. Alinsky had set up a meeting with Jackson, in his home, for those of us who were interested. He forewarned us that Jackson would ask us to join the picket lines.

We sat with the modest, charming young man in his living room. His wife and a young daughter joined us. I was quite amazed and I was under Jackson's spell in a very short time. He was handsome and extremely well spoken. You could feel some sort of electrical charge when you were near him. This is a guy who had been an Honor Society student at Sterling High School in Greenville, South Carolina. He was also a fine athlete and you could see it in his sculpted and powerful body. He received an athletic scholarship from the football program at the University of Illinois. After a year, he got the message that he'd need to pick another position, because there weren't going to be any black quarterbacks at Illinois. He transferred to North Carolina A&T where he did play quarterback and called the plays.

Jackson was a play caller – a natural-born leader. I could clearly sense it that day in his little house.

After graduating from A&T, he turned down a scholarship to attend law school at Duke University. He chose, instead, to enroll at Chicago Theological School (CTS) in 1964. We came "that" close to being school-mates. In 1963 I was offered at full scholarship by CTS and struggled about a decision to go there or up to the new seminary in Minnesota. I finally chose the latter. Jackson struggled in seminary and kept feeling the draw toward political activism and organization. He pulled out of school in '65, forfeiting his chance for a degree and went south to join up with Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Jesse wanted to be the play caller, but that was King's job. They clashed more than once, but King retained a deep respect for Jackson's abilities. He sent the young man back to Chicago in 1966 to work with Operation Breadbasket, the economic arm of SCLC. In early '67, King made him the program's National Director.

On that summer day, Jackson told us the entire story of Hi-Lo's operations in the black community. There was clearly an injustice. We agreed to join the picket lines. Our white faces would be important on the lines. One more time, as in Mississippi's hot sun in 1964, we were asked to do our picketing in coat and tie. It would leave an impression.

I became a huge Jesse Jackson fan that day, sitting there with him in such a casual and comfortable setting. He had the look and the feel of winner. He would be bigger than the average guy! He would go somewhere. He pretty much won his battle with High-Low, even as he had earlier against A&P. In an agreement with Jackson, High-Low would hire nearly 800 black employees and open accounts with two black banks. They also took on the products of six black manufacturing companies.

Who of us knew, that day, that Doctor King would be dead in less than a year and the mantle of leadership would fall on Jesse Jackson before he was really ready to receive it.

There was plenty of conflict over who would become the real leader of the black community after King's death. Ralph Abernathy took over the reins at SCLC, but the black nation was looking more and more to Jackson to call the signals. Tensions grew ugly. Jackson was moving in his own direction and paying little attention to Abernathy.

In 1971, Jackson founded People United to Save Humanity (PUSH). Jackson was suspended from SCLC. However, he didn't miss a beat. Abernathy had none of the national leadership qualities of Jackson and the young black people of the nation were viewing Jesse Jackson as their quarterback.

Jackson took controversial trips to the Middle East and South Africa in 1979. His very serious presidential bid came in 1983. It was a failed effort and it cost him. The popular Andrew Young had opposed him and so did the black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley.

During the next four years, Jackson worked to broaden his political base and doubled his number of delegates to 962 in another presidential bid, but it was still only 26 percent of what he needed.

In was Bill Clinton's perception, in the 90s, that he had to distance himself from the divisive style of Jesse Jackson. Jackson's slippage from prominence was very visible. He tried everything to regain standing, but the fire and electricity and charm just weren't there anymore.

It has been sad to watch Jackson on the sidelines as Barack Obama has risen to such extraordinary prominence in the nation. Though he recently said in an apology, after his clearly crude remark about Obama was caught on a microphone Jackson thought was turned off, that he had been with Obama from the beginning, it just isn't true. He had been very hesitant about throwing his support to Obama. He raised questions early-on about Obama's degree of "blackness." He was trying to carefully weigh Obama's chances against the powerful Hillary Clinton. He hung back and observers could see a tinge of jealousy and envy in Jackson's demeanor and hear it in his voice.

Today, Jesse Jackson is a mere shadow of that man – that gorgeous young man – I met in 1967. He came to the neighborhood store where we were working with the picketers. He went to each of the volunteers and shook hands and spent time chatting with each of them. I could feel the massive strength of his big hand when he clasped and shook mine. His piercing eyes locked on my eyes and he expressed his appreciation in a way that made you feel the sincerity inside him. He was quarterbacking and he was calling the perfect plays.

Quarterbacks – even the great ones – have their seasons of glory and then they lose their incredible skills. They don't forget how to do it. They just can't do it anymore.

It was sad to watch Jesse Jackson during his apology speech to Barack Obama. He had whispered something crude and cruel about Obama and the damned microphone had picked it up. He was admitting his gaffe and expressing his sorrow. There was no charisma left in Jesse Jackson. The charm was gone and so was the fire. It's time for him to throw in the towel and to move aside.

But, oh how I loved him that day in 1967. Oh how I expected him to rise to the top and to become the great leader a black nation longed for. This was a man, I thought, who would win over even the most hateful of white rednecks. It wasn't to be.

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