Whatever Jesse Jackson's eventual success with white voters, he has already achieved singular status among blacks. His popularity is so high that black critics are reluctant to speak out. But privately, these critics harbor serious doubts about the presidential candidate. ``Jesse has had an insatiable need for PR,'' a black activist in Chicago says. ``He is a usurper. And that does not bother me so much. But what bothers me is that he is not strengthening'' the black political movement.
In fact, these critics charge, the Rev. Mr. Jackson's success may cause Democratic losses in November, making the party more gun-shy about future black presidential candidates - including those with better prospects for white support.
It is difficult to assess the depth and breadth of these concerns. Many more black political leaders have endorsed Jackson in the 1988 campaign than during his '84 run. Even the Chicago activist cited above has publicly endorsed Jackson.
Avid Jackson supporters say these critics are old-line politicians who resent the tremendous inroads he has made with blacks.
``They're a little jealous, but they're getting on board because they don't have a choice,'' says David Paterson, a New York state senator representing Harlem and Manhattan's Upper West Side.
In Democratic primaries and caucuses, Jackson usually gets an astounding 95 percent of the black vote. Opposing Jackson in the black community has proved politically embarrassing. That's what happened in last month's Michigan caucuses, when powerful Detroit Mayor Coleman Young refused to endorse him. Jackson won handily, getting 43 percent of his statewide vote from the two congressional districts that cover most of Detroit.
Black critics of Jackson tend to fall into two main camps: those who harbor doubts about the man himself and those who worry about the impact of his presidential run.
About the man himself, only a very few blacks are critical.
``Jackson is still black. That is someone that we are proud of,'' says Hurley Green Sr., publisher of the Chicago Independent Bulletin. But Mr. Green does not support Jackson. ``When I was with Jesse, you realized Jesse was using you. After you have been around him a few years, you realized he kept saying the same things.''
To other black critics, the problem with Jackson is political. These blacks argue that his very success this year works against the chance of someday electing a black president.
``Jesse looks very good,'' says Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who chaired Jackson's 1984 campaign there. But ``I don't see that that's going to help us ... put a person of color in the White House.''
A key concern is that Jackson's style will never appeal to enough white voters. He is often compared to other black politicians like Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Rep. William Gray III (D) of Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who have more moderate styles.
``I'm really concerned as a politician, as a civil rights worker, that the Democratic Party is being destroyed,'' says Hosea Williams, Atlanta city councilman and the activist who led last year's protest marches on Forsyth County, Georgia.
If, for example, Democrats rebuff Jackson at their convention, then the party's nominee stands to lose crucial black support in the November election. Even black politicians who have not jumped on the Jackson bandwagon are concerned about a potential Democratic snub.
``I am never in total agreement with his views,'' says Leon Davis, a former national director of Jackson's Operation PUSH. But ``I would react very angrily if he were denied.''
If, on the other hand, Democrats allow Jackson to play a prominent role in the nomination, the Republicans will campaign against him and run away with the election, some black politicians argue.
``I'm still convinced,'' Mr. Williams says, ``that white America is not only going to vote against any black presidential or vice-presidential candidate, they are going to vote against a party where blacks wield significant power.''
While Jackson's 1984 campaign broke ground for blacks, Georgia's Representative Brooks adds, Jackson will always carry the stigma of the militant to whites. Even though Jackson has toned down his style this campaign, Brooks warns that if Jackson becomes a Republican target after the Democratic convention, they will parade the old, radical Jackson before voters ``again and again and again.'' Jackson fired Brooks from the Rainbow Coalition early in the current campaign after Brooks advised him not to run.
Even if Jackson doesn't drive white voters to the GOP, his black critics are concerned he will come in for heavy blame if the Democrats lose in November.
This blame, in turn, may scotch any opening for black candidates with more appeal to whites, according to Brooks. ``We'll have to wait 20 years.''
Jackson supporters see these fears as outmoded views of overcautious blacks.
``The [grass-roots] reaction has been incredible,'' says Mr. Paterson. But ``I don't think black leaders have been aware of the impact we can have.... Down the road this is paving the way for real unity in the Democratic Party.''