Jesse Jackson isn’t on people’s minds these days as much as he was, say, 30 years ago and more. Especially white people.
He was more or less a bête noir (pun intended) back in the days of St Ronald Reagan. When the most virulent anti-Jacksonists weren’t dropping N-bombs on him in their private conversations, they were publicly calling him a grandstander and a publicity hound. As if white leaders were shrinking violets who all cared only for the good of humankind and had no interest in reaping laurels and riches from their work. Y’know, people like to-be-president Donald Trump.
Jackson ran for president in the Democratic primaries of 1984 and ‘88. Competing against seven other Dems in ’84, including former vice president Walter Mondale, former Dem presidential nominee George McGovern, Ohio senator and retired astronaut John Glenn, horn-dog Gary Hart, and others, Jackson garnered a fairly respectable 18 percent of the primary vote, winning four contests. Four years later, facing another group of Dems including future vice president Al Gore, Hart again (his horn-dogginess forced him out early in that race), Paul Simon (not that one; this one), and others, Jackson did quite well, earning better than 29 percent of the primary vote and winning 12 states plus the District of Columbia. He ran second to the eminently forgettable Michael Dukakis that year. Many observers credit Jackson’s ’88 campaign with paving the way for Brack Obama’s successful run for the nomination and eventual accession to the presidency in 2008.
Jackson’d been a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the height of the civil rights fight in the late 1960s. In fact, he was present when King was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Jackson was in the motel parking lot when the shot rang out. Later that evening he appeared before cameras wearing a blood stained shirt. Andrew Young — future congressperson, mayor of Atlanta, and US ambassador to the United Nations — vividly remembered the scene in an interview for a PBS Frontline documentary, The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson. Young said:
After they removed [King’s] body, Ralph Abernathy got a jar and started scraping up the blood and said, crying, it was Martin’s precious blood. This blood was shed for us. It was weird. But people freaked out and did strange things. Jesse put his hands in the blood and wiped it on the front of his shirt.
Lots of white people seemed to be far more offended that Jackson would perform such a showboating display than they were that the nation’s leading civil rights activist had been slain by a white supremacist loner.
For my money, Jackson’s act only proved he understood, innately, that politics is mainly theater. To many church-going blacks, Jackson’s blood-stained shirt demonstrated that he would carry on King’s legacy and work, just the way Roman Catholics drink wine transubstantiated into the blood of Jesus Christ. Religion, too, is mainly theater.
In that sense, Jesse Louis Jackson, an ordained Baptist minister, straddling both types of stage, is a thespian as accomplished and heralded as Meryl Streep or Marlon Brando.
Journalist Robert McClory wrote in Illinois Issues back in 1984 that criticisms of Jackson’s desire for the spotlight were pretty much spot on. “First of all,” McClory wrote, “let’s clear the air on the Rev. Jesse Jackson and admit the criticisms of him.
“Yes, he possesses a large, demanding ego. He has a deep-seated need, as some of his oldest and closest friends will readily admit, to be at the center of things, to achieve, to prove conclusively that he is somebody. That undoubtedly is related to his growing up poor, black and illegitimate in his native Greenville, South Carolina, and it all makes interesting material for psycho-biographical analyses….”
Jackson gained King’s attention in 1965 when he, Jackson, participated in the historic Selma, Alabama voting rights marches. King named Jackson, a South Carolina native, the leader of the Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket in 1966. It was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference‘s national economic and business advocacy organization. According to lore, Jackson presented himself to then Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, the Democratic king-maker and reputedly the second most powerful man in the country at the time (exceeded only by President Lyndon Johnson). Jackson asked Daley what he could do to help in Chicago. Daley, it is said, offered him job as a cashier in an expressway tollbooth.
Jackson never forgot the slight, the story goes. If the tale is true, Jackson got his revenge on Mayor Daley in 1972 when he co-led a successful revolt against the Daley-led Illinois Democratic contingent in the party’s 1972 national convention.
After serving as eventual national leader of Operation Breadbasket, Jackson would found Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity, later changed to People United to Serve Humanity). PUSH later would merge with the National Rainbow Coalition to form Rainbow/PUSH. That iteration is still very much active, pushing for universal healthcare, living wages, fair housing, voter registration, gender equality, affirmative action, and environmental justice.
Early on, Jackson would exhort crowds at PUSH events to shout out the mantra, “I am somebody!”
For a grandstander and a showboater, Jesse Jackson sure has had a profound influence for good in this holy land. Of course, that has never been of much interest to the people who called him a grandstander and a showboat.
In any case, Jesse Jackson, now aged 81 and confined to a wheelchair, has announced he’s retiring from his leadership position in Rainbow/PUSH. As far as I can determine, he’s the last of the King coterie to remain active. Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, Bernard Lee, Georgia Davis, James Orange, and King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, all have died. Young is in his 90s.
When it came time for America to elect a black president, only a not-too-black, Harvard-educated, mostly middle-of-the-road figure like Barack Obama would do. The fiery orator, the angry black man, the King protege with blood on his shirt would never do.
Much of white America had apoplexy when the relatively safe Obama took up residence in the White House. The Tea Party, many white anti-government militias, the Trump presidency, and the January 6th insurrection all ensued from that breakthrough.
Imagine how a lot of Americans would have reacted had the fiery, angry Jackson been elected to lead this nation.