Jesse L. Jackson's emergence in front of the pack in the Democratic presidential race is widely attributed to his greater name recognition. How he achieved celebrity status is, therefore, a matter of legitimate public concern.

Jackson became a media star literally overnight after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Jackson was only 26 and a junior member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was with King's party in Memphis that day. Jackson's actions -- and the instant lionizing of him -- still mystify some of King's old associates.

He flew home to Chicago within hours of the assassination. "We saw him on TV at the Midway Airport in Chicago doing a press conference on the tarmac," recalled the Rev. Bernard Lee, then a special assistant to King, now an aide to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. "All of us were surprised . . . . He had some blood on his shirt, saying, 'This is Dr. King's blood.' I personally did not see him touch Dr. King."

Our reporter Lisa Sylvester talked to another SCLC leader, the Rev. Hosea Williams, now a member of the Atlanta City Council. "Jesse was talking to the press out in the yard after we were sure Dr. King was absolutely dead," he recalled. "Jesse . . . showed them the blood on his shirt, and I know the blood didn't come from Dr. King."

Williams said he and other King associates watched Jackson on television the next morning. "Jesse said he was feeling bad and sick. Before we knew it, he was on the 'Today' show. I thought it was horrible," Williams said. "Why would he keep a bloody shirt on all night? The blood did not come from the body of Dr. King." Williams attributes Jackson's actions at the time to his youth. "I feel very bad about it," Williams said. "He was just a young man and made a mistake. It could hurt him."

The Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, who succeeded King as head of the SCLC, expressed a similar view. Abernathy, who was the first to reach King's side when he fell to the floor of the motel balcony, said he has heard of press accounts saying Jackson was the first to reach the fallen leader and the last to talk to him. "I am sure the press has been told that," Abernathy said. "But that was not important to me, because we had lost our leader. I can only say Jesse has grown. He has matured greatly."

Abernathy and Williams recalled Jackson being in the courtyard at the time, but they do not recall him reaching King's side. Yet the Chicago Defender of April 8, 1968, reported that Jackson "said he rushed to Dr. King's side immediately, but got no response when he asked, 'Doc, can you hear me?' "

We called Jackson's campaign office for comment. His press aide, Frank Watkins, said Jackson makes no claim that he spoke with King after the shooting. He said that just before the murder, Jackson was in the motel courtyard talking with King as he stood on the balcony. Watkins suggested that could be the basis for the claim that Jackson was the last person to talk to King. As for the blood on Jackson's shirt, Watkins said: "Were there other people shot? I'm just talking about the logic of it. Where did it come from if no one else was shot?"

Watkins noted that Williams is alone in directly charging Jackson with having exploited King's martyrdom, and said: "Everyone else says Jesse is such a media hound {they} wouldn't put it past him."