Jesse Jackson: molded by struggle. Segregation instilled a fierce ambition to succeed
Washington — IF controversy, like wind force, could be measured on the Beaufort scale, Jesse Jackson would be a hurricane. The Rev. Mr. Jackson is one of the most successful black leaders in American history, with 25 years of public service as a self-styled country preacher pushing voter registration, inner-city economic development, and a moral message telling blacks to get off drugs and get on with a fulfilling life. He is a riveting orator, a powerful role model for black youth, and, according to many, a political genius.
But he also creates gales wherever he goes. And below the surface of the public achievements is a complex man who rarely lets down his guard, is an expert at self-promotion, and pursues his quest for national recognition with a single-mindedness second to none. Behind the impressive accomplishments lie concerns about poor management and a tendency to move on before the task at hand is fully realized.
Tomorrow Jackson plans to announce his candidacy for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Whether or not he captures the nomination, many political observers say that, especially if he does well in Super Tuesday's Southern regional primary, Jackson could arrive at the Democratic convention in July with enough delegates to exact significant concessions from the party and the party's nominee. In his lifelong struggle for recognition and leadership, few moments have promised such reward.
If there is one thing on which all of the people who have known Jackson agree, it is his overwhelming desire to achieve, to be seen and respected as a leader. It is a lesson he learned early, as a grade-school student in Greenville, S.C.
``Making `A's was a weapon,'' he remembers. ``It was a way of gaining access ... of gaining acceptance ... of making a difference.''
At the same time, the young Jesse was learning about life in the South.
``I remember ... getting on the bus and wanting to sit near the driver and look out the front window ... and then my mother caught my arm and squeezed it and said, `Lets go to the back.' ... It hurt her to have to make me leave,'' he says. ``You had to go downtown and learn that you couldn't drink from a white drinking fountain. ... Early on you grew accustomed to the rigidity of a two-tiered society.''
Segregation, he says, was ``designed ... to break your spirit and make you have a low aim in life.'' If it worked on some, it failed on Jackson. Something within him said that he deserved access to what whites had, and that ``if you fight long enough you can achieve it.''
Jackson was born out of wedlock in 1941. His mother, Helen Burns, lived next door to his father, who was already married. Helen married Charles Jackson two years later, and Jesse was formally adopted in 1957. In the churchgoing community of Greenville, his illegitimacy was often the subject of ridicule both by his peers and adults.
His parents were poor by most standards, but they both had steady jobs and the family was always adequately clothed and fed. Despite the outside tensions, Jackson describes a warm home environment, where the love from his mother and stepfather gave him an important sense of ``inner security'' during his early development.
The striving for excellence that began in grade school soon expanded to physical competition on the Sterling High School playing field in Greenville. With black schools in the South bursting with athletic prowess, the athletes that actually got their cleats dirty ``were those who were the most fit, the most rugged,'' Jackson explains.
Jackson excelled in football, basketball, and baseball. He grabbed a four-year football college scholarship at the University of Illinois.
Almost immediately he was confronted with rigid segregation and a sports program where ``athletes were being set up to be trained animals.'' He remembers walking across campus one night when he heard music. He went over to the gym to listen, discovering the Duke Ellington Orchestra rehearsing for that night's fraternity and sorority dance. ``None of us who were from black fraternities or sororities could attend ... so I had to slip in with the band.'' Meanwhile, the black sororities and fraternities ``were having their ... dance out in the city above the VFW Hall ... playing 45 r.p.m. records.''
He soon transferred to the all-black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) State College in Greensboro, where he ``could be a football player, an officer of student government, [and] be a part of campus social life,'' he says.
Jackson's leadership qualities began to crystallize while heading local civil rights marches (he was arrested once) during college. He had read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s books and followed his actions in Selma, Ala. Jackson made his decision to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary at least in part because Dr. King had also attended seminary. The pursuit of religion reflected both his deep roots in the church since childhood and a keen sense of the political power emanating from the black pulpit.
Jackson dropped out of seminary during his third year because King ``said I could probably learn more theology from him on the road in three months than I could [at school] in three years,'' he says. Mr. Jackson became the Rev. Jackson in 1968.
Jackson now speaks of ``a sense of courage one gets from the Bible as you watch the biblical heroes ... fight the odds.'' He has come to see the Bible as a ``series of movements of people ... fighting for land, fighting for self-determination.'' For him, the parallels to the civil rights movement are obvious.
Jackson describes his relationship with Martin Luther King as close. ``I was in awe of him,'' he says. ``I stayed at his home. I had the number [of the phone] by his bed. I would be used as a surrogate speaker.'' Jackson describes as one of his proudest moments King's invitation to him to preach before King's congregation.
Jackson sees himself as swimming against the current of fate. When he looks back on his childhood, he says he feels he ``was being assigned a very inferior spot.'' Every accomplishment - college, graduate school, leading student demonstrations, and working with King - is viewed as another example of fighting the odds. ``Breaking out of the shell'' has ``become a rather dominant characteristic,'' admits Jackson.
Jackson knows that many of his actions are controversial. He offended many American Jews by hugging Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yassar Arafat during a 1979 trip to the Middle East and by referring to New York as ``Hymietown'' during the 1984 campaign. He raised eyebrows by having Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakahn as a traveling companion early in his 1984 campaign. And conservatives and anticommunists were hardly impressed that year when he visited and heaped praise upon Fidel Castro in Cuba.
These were not all political blunders. Jackson has purposefully taken significant risks to remain a national public figure.
``Those who would follow a tail wind are not leaders,'' he says. ``For the most part leaders do not follow opinion polls, they mold opinion.'' He is not surprised by the controversy; he plans for it.
Even so, Jackson is sensitive to what he sees as an overly critical press. He says, for example, that the embrace with Mr. Arafat was not planned. That the PLO leader reached out when Jackson entered the room is no different from Jimmy Carter's embracing former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Jackson argues. ``He didn't embrace Brezhnev's doctrine,'' Jackson proclaims.
Jackson's contacts in the Middle East paid off when he flew to Damascus, Syria, and obtained the release of a US Navy airman, Lt. Robert Goodman Jr., whose plane had been shot down by Syrian gunners over Lebanon in December 1983. Jackson returned to a hero's welcome, including a Rose Garden ceremony with President Reagan. And during his visit to Cuba six months later, Jackson induced Dr. Castro to free 48 US and Cuban prisoners.
The press is not the sole source of critical comment toward Jackson. Grumblings have also been heard among the ranks of the black political ``family,'' a group of black leaders including Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and House Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D) of the District of Columbia. These black leaders will rarely criticize each other on the record, however.
``Why do people of the black political family refuse to criticize other [black] political leaders?'' asks a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People board member, Joe Madison. ``Very simple: because white folk do it enough. We don't need to add to what is already there.''
Some of this ill will started early, when a young Jesse Jackson used to argue with Dr. King during meetings with the top lieutenants of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Jackson admits he never refrained from speaking his mind. ``We were all very strong personalities in our own right,'' he says. ``Dr. King often said that his team of disciples or followers was like a team of wild horses. It was his job to be the wagon master.''
Mr. Fauntroy says the primary ``source of tension was ... the perception that more than the movement and more than the objectives which we were seeking was a sort of aggressive self-promotion'' on Jackson's part. Fauntroy says he was not personally bothered by Jackson's actions, however.
When black leaders are pressed on specific criticisms of Jackson, the wagons start to form a circle. ``I am not disposed at this period,'' Fauntroy says, ``to discuss the shortcomings publicly, for the reason that I ... and most of my colleagues in the leadership family view his candidacy for the presidency as a golden opportunity ... to project the issues that have claimed our attention for decades in an articulate and clear way....''
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Jackson's past is his claim that he was the last person to speak to King before the civil rights leader's assassination on a motel balcony in Memphis and that he was next to the black leader when he died.
Fauntroy, who was not present when King was assassinated, says he has ``heard denials on the part of people [including] Ralph David Abernathy that Jesse in fact was the last person [to talk to King], or [that Jackson] even came to the balcony. ... People whose veracity I trust have said that Jesse misrepresented the facts in an effort to enhance his own ambitions.'' Mr. Abernathy confirms this statement.
Barbara Reynolds, author of ``Jesse Jackson: America's David,'' followed Jackson closely for five years. ``In true Madison Avenue style,'' the black author writes, ``he missed few opportunities to promote himself, to jump ahead of the pack of civil rights leaders to take consequential risks, to play political hardball when necessary, and to cut a daring path across the national political landscape.''
Despite his perceived shortcomings, most black leaders are very supportive of Jackson's bid for the presidency. ``We view any magnifying ... of his shortcomings, at the expense of a focus on the strengths that he brings to our issue orientation, as self-defeating,'' Fauntroy says.
Jackson deflects critics by asking them to show someone who has done better. ``The field for service is wide open,'' Jackson says. ``Those who are complaining, they have the same opportunities to negotiate with major corporations, the same opportunities to bring Americans home from foreign lands, they have the same opportunity to conduct Southern voter-registration campaigns as I have.''
``It's open season on public figures,'' Jackson says of the current political climate. ``My point is that I am not a perfect servant, I am a public servant. You simply have to judge me by my ... generation ... by the level of risk I have taken, and by the level of effectiveness I have been able to realize.''
Jackson adds: ``You certainly cannot remain a creative, contributing person [by] looking backwards while trying to go forward. If so, you will stumble as you go.''