Jackson Returns to PUSH For Higher Political Profile

IT'S Saturday morning at Chicago's Operation PUSH, and Jesse Jackson Sr., flanked by Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and a host of other national and local Democratic luminaries, is leading about 200 people in gospel music, prayer, and ''the [Newt] Gingrich hex.''

''Down, down, down,'' the Rev. Mr. Jackson chants from the stage, laughing as he thrusts out his fists and wiggles his fingers toward an imaginary House Speaker, to the delight of the crowd in the cavernous, South Side meeting hall.

The scene affirms that Jackson's return to Chicago to revive PUSH, the once-powerful grass-roots civil rights group he founded in 1971, is an effort to raise his national profile and reclaim his role as a key agenda setter on issues of social justice. Jackson is also seeking a stronger political base as he weighs a possible third presidential bid.

''We're close to Iowa,'' Jackson told the Monitor after the rally, agreeing that a strong Chicago base would help propel a 1996 campaign for president. He declined to confirm whether he would run, saying only, ''We have to keep all options open.''

Jackson's move back to his Midwestern turf also raises an interesting question: How will the civil rights veteran work - or merely coexist - with another, increasingly influential Chicago-based black leader, Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan?

''They could be a very powerful team. But they have to respect each other's power,'' says Ron Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University in Washington and deputy manager for Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign. Citing recent polls, Professor Walters says Mr. Farrakhan's appeal among blacks has approached but not eclipsed that of Jackson.

Teaming up with 'Junior'

The timing of Jackson's decision to take up the reins at PUSH is linked to the widely expected victory his eldest son, Jesse Jackson Jr., in a special congressional election Dec. 12.

By reviving PUSH, Jackson seeks to bolster local support for his son. Similarly, ''Junior'' Jackson, who won a Nov. 28 Democratic primary by drawing out thousands of younger and previously unregistered voters, can help his father make political inroads with the young.

And although he likes to say he is a ''tree shaker'' and not a ''jelly maker,'' the elder Jackson apparently also seeks to reap the benefits from a stronger organizational apparatus.

PUSH, an acronym for People United to Save Humanity, has lost much of the dynamism it enjoyed under Jackson in the 1970s. Then, it aggressively protested job and other economic discrimination against blacks by major US corporations. The revival-style Saturday morning meetings drew as many as 2,000 people. But PUSH has languished under a string of short-term leaders since Jackson left for Washington and founded the multiethnic National Rainbow Coalition in November 1983.

Jackson says he will now jointly run PUSH and the Rainbow Coalition, which will focus respectively on economic empowerment and political activism for minorities as well as women, union workers, and other groups. ''Blacks and white have convergent needs. You can't really get social progress without a coalition,'' he says.

Waning influence in Washington

Some analysts, however, assert that Jackson is turning back to Chicago because he feels his influence in Washington dwindling.

''Jackson's star has waned some in recent years. He was not really been that effective in Washington,'' says Ron Daniels, chairman of the New York-based Campaign for a New Tomorrow and a former Jackson campaign manager.

Daniels and others say Jackson has lost some popularity among his traditional liberal constituency because he has shifted toward political caution and mainstream views. For example, they note that Jackson waited until the nearly last minute to support the Oct.16 Million Man March, initiated by Mr. Farrakhan, which drew hundreds of thousands of black men to the capital for a day of ''atonement.''

''In some ways he [Jackson] is having to react to the Million Man March,'' Mr. Daniels says. ''[Jackson] is no longer the preeminent leader. Louis Farrakhan has emerged as the other leader.''

Sitting on the edge of his desk in his PUSH office, Jackson declines to comment specifically about cooperation with Farrakhan. Instead, he speaks broadly of ''operational unity'' with any group that shares his goals of building multiracial coalitions to lobby for better jobs, education, and health care.

Still, Jackson, who has an autographed color photo of Farrakhan, among others, on the wall of his PUSH office at 930 East 50th St., points out that Farrakhan lives only two blocks away. The main Nation of Islam mosque is three blocks away. The two families have dined together, and their children grew up together, Jackson says.

More important, perhaps, the Nation of Islam says it has supported the campaign of Jackson's son and the goal of registering black voters.

''Minister Farrakhan has worked with Reverend Jackson over the years, and I think that will continue for the betterment of the people,'' says Nation of Islam spokesman James Muhammad.

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