The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson wears a watch given him by the late president William Tolbert of Liberia. The Washington Post reported incorrectly in editions of July 31 that the watch was a present from the president of Libya.
Look at him on this Sunday morning--Jesse Jackson in jet-black suit and white Dior shirt, the power and glory of him up there in the pulpit of the Baptist Tabernacle Church, perspiring, jabbing the air with his hands. It is 92 degrees and people are overflowing into the aisles and fanning themselves with church programs. The mosquitoes are awesome. But no one fidgets. His voice is working a venerable cadence of irony and exhortation.
"I got to disturb you one more time," he keeps saying.
And then come the truths that he has seized on to turn himself from flashy civil rights activist into would-be Democratic Party power broker and contender for the presidential nomination.
"There are 26,000 blacks unregistered in Richmond County," he says, "yet there are 10 Georgia congressmen, zero black . . . I have to disturb you one more time."
"Go on!" the congregation shouts.
"There are 56 senators, only four are black . . . I have to disturb you one more time."
He made his name maneuvering for the mantle of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. With boycotts, educational programs, Operation PUSH and now voter registration, all of it shimmering with media attention, he has worked for 15 years to be the leading spokesman for black concerns. For the first time he has a chance of succeeding.
"There are 691 judges, only eight are black . . . I got to disturb you one more time . . . There are 59 counties, zero black sheriffs . . . I got to disturb you one time . . . The Democratic party is accepting integrated votes but running segregated slates. I have to disturb you one more time."
"Go on!" they answer.
"Repeat after me: There is . . ."
There is . . .
"A freedom train a-coming."
A freedom train a-coming.
"But you have to register to ride . . ."
Voter registration has been an ongoing effort by southern black leaders and white Democrats for more than two decades. But on May 10 Jackson launched his own registration campaign, claiming that he will register from 2 million to 5 million blacks for 1984, an effort that some recognize as the possible key to a Democratic White House win.
Challenging the formula, changing the numbers. Just like that.
But there is one string attached--Jesse Jackson comes with the deal.
Jesse Louis Jackson, 41, is very publicly considering a bid for the Democratic nomination, and the controversial "country preacher," as he likes to be called, is making some people rather nervous.
Presidential hopefuls are courting him--former Vice President Walter Mondale, Sens. Alan Cranston and Ernest Hollings. Kathy Wilson, chairman of the National Women's Political Caucus, has contacted him, and he has already met with Sens. Gary Hart and John Glenn.
This is more than civil rights activism. Jackson has hired Lamond Godwin, once an aide to former secretary of labor Ray Marshall and a Phd in economics, as an adviser. Recently he made a well-orchestrated splash when he brought the assistant attorney general for civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, down to Mississippi. They sang "We Shall Overcome" together and gave the nation a glimpse of a Reagan appointee doing civil rights work.
During a four-day swing through Georgia, Jackson went to Plains to see former president Jimmy Carter, granted 10 formal press interviews, called two press conferences and attracted impromptu media gatherings in churches and airports. He played basketball with young men and hugged the old women who came to hear him preach. Constantly, he invoked Martin Luther King's name.
He has incensed some who have been trying to register voters for decades. This is the sludge work of politics, but he zigzags around the South turning it into a charismatic crusade. Many black national leaders think he is using the issue to win support for his own ambitions--including a presidential bid.
Jackson responds: "There is no conflict between emancipating a race of people and reserving the option to run. If I chose to register people because I'm motivated to run, that's legal and ethical."
Still, he makes people nervous.
"The point of Jesse running for president is that it will result in a brokered convention where he would use his votes to have a decisive voice in the outcome," says Hamilton Jordan, former top aide to Jimmy Carter. "But if it's clear who that candidate will be before the convention, and that is generally the case, then his influence will not be felt. And Jackson gets to the convention and finds a Democratic nominee without the support of the black population. Do the benefits really outweigh the risks?"
Says Joseph Madison, director of voter registration for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, "I think it's the biggest hoax that's been pulled on black folks that I can think of."
His attempts to climb on the bandwagons of two black mayoral candidates, Harold Washington in Chicago and Wilson Goode in Philadelphia, were rebuffed. Said a Washington aide: "Jackson is a controversial figure in Chicago and there are those who consider him a threat." He added that Washington had limited his appearances with Jackson.
Then the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Goode had repudiated Jackson's endorsement and was "urging the Chicago activist to stay out of the city's Democratic primary."
Furthermore, his support among American Jews is questionable since he traveled to the Middle East three years ago and met with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. He came away from the meeting calling for a U.S. dialogue with the PLO. He also wears a watch given him by the president of Libya in 1979.
On the other hand, Democrats value the drama surrounding his possible candidacy as a good opportunity to register voters for the party. At the very least, they can't afford to ignore him while he is threatening to take black support from the other six candidates. And as former president Carter said: "I just observed the tremendous effect of the voter registration drive in Chicago municipal elections and I think it was one of the most vivid demonstrations of success I have ever seen."
But if Jackson demonstrates the ability to line up votes--which he did this year in Chicago for Harold Washington--he can also hold them hostage for himself.
Jackson talks about forming a "Rainbow Coalition" of the "rejected"--blacks, Hispanics and women--and he has placed third after Walter Mondale and John Glenn as the choice for Democratic nominee in some national polls. Jesse, the solo flyer, the celebrity, is yet again pushing.
"I do think I could win," he says staring out of a car window on the three-hour drive from Augusta to Atlanta in a silver limousine. "I think so."
He wears a tan Nike warm-up suit, he drapes his legs across the length of the back seat. His manner is guarded yet easy. He is every inch the professional politician, a man who can make a stranger into an instant ally.
In response to arguments that he will only take votes away from front-runner Walter Mondale, he explains: "One could argue with Gary Hart. Hart can't win, why can't Hart support Mondale? No one is challenging Gary Hart on that. Hollings, Cranston, Askew. You guys are right behind Jesse Jackson in the polls. You guys say you're progressive. Why don't you line up behind Mondale? Why challenge me for challenging Cranston, Hart, Hollings and Askew?"
As for critics citing the fact that he has never held an elected office: "Well, kings don't either."
And he defends his maverick approach to the 1984 elections by saying: "Gandhi didn't go to the leaders for approval for his movement. Neither did Jesus."
YY ou are God's child. I was born out of wedlock . . . I only slept in my Daddy's house one night . . . You are somebody . . . Call me illegitimate, call me a bastard . . . You are somebody . . . You are Y God's child.--Jesse Jackson.
Jackson's life is a testament to the adage: Act like you are somebody and you'll be treated like somebody. He moves with an air of superiority, like someone who has once been hurt, but who realizes the balance of power has shifted in his favor. Jesse Jackson learned early on that 90 percent of life is in the mind. He leaves little to chance.
Says longtime friend Andrew Young: "The thing I find about Jesse is what I find about a lot of people who grew up poor and rejected as children. They have the drive to prove themselves . . . and Jesse was born with a tremendous amount of abilities to do that. If Jesse Jackson were white, there would be so many more opportunities open to him."
Jackson says he is not bitter toward whites, but he speaks often and intensely about the double standard and discrimination he experienced growing up in Greenville, N.C.
"Now the schools that rejected me want me to come back and speak. I feel like I have conquered," he says.
"I had a dual motive for getting involved in the sit-ins. One was personal. I was humiliated. I mean my sense of dignity was infringed upon by the social system. As I sought to form my personhood, the social order negated it. I couldn't go to the high school of my choice . . . I couldn't go to schools closest to me like Clemson College and University of South Carolina. I had to go all the way to the University of Illinois to attend school. And even though I went to the University of Illinois, I had to come back home and I couldn't use the bathroom downtown. Something within me told me I ought to be free."
Jackson left the University of Illinois after one year. He had been promised, he says, a shot at starting quarterback, only to be told that a black would never get it. He transferred to the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, where he was not only quarterback but also president of the student body.
It was there that he met his future wife and became involved in the civil rights movement. He was arrested in 1963 for leading students in a sit-down in front of a municipal building, and soon became known as a mover within the movement. It wasn't long before he was part of Martin Luther King's southern coterie.
He attended Chicago Theological Seminary at the University of Chicago, but although he is known as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, he dropped out with six months to go till graduation, he says, recalling that Martin Luther King asked him to leave school for the civil rights campaign.
The King mantle may be his most precious possession--but it is one of his more controversial ones.
Within a few days of King's assasssination, reports began circulating that Jesse Jackson said he was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel with King when he was shot, that he held the dying man, that he wore his blood on his shirt.
The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, reported on April 8, 1968, that "Jackson, whose face appeared drawn, talked briefly with newsmen about the moments just before and after the shooting occurred. He said he rushed to Dr. King's side immediately, but got no response when he asked 'Doc, can you hear me?' "
A year later, in an interview with Jackson, Playboy magazine said: "He was talking to King on the porch of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when the fatal shot was fired and cradled the dying man in his arms."
The Washington Post reported: "He was the man standing next to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when Dr. King was gunned down on a Memphis balcony in 1968."
Those who were present do not recall the events that way.
"I never saw him near the balcony," says Hosea Williams, then a voter registration project director for King, and now a Georgia state legislator. "The first person who got to King was Ralph Abernathy, the second was Andy Young, the third was an African journalist. I was the fourth person. Dr. King was taken to the hospital and then came the announcement that he was dead. Jesse was out there in the yard telling the press 'I was the last man in the world to be with Rev. King before he was shot and I spoke to him last.' I just jumped on Jess physically because he was telling lies. I lost my cool. I started beating on him.
"That evening we called a meeting, to pledge our support to Dr. King. Jesse claimed he was sick. The next morning he showed up on the 'Today' show telling the same story. He used the death of Dr. King to suit himself."
"Jesse was not on the balcony," says Andy Young, "but I don't know how that story got started."
Jackson acknowledges that he was not on the balcony, and denies ever telling anyone differently.
"One couldn't very well lie about such a thing," he says, "because everyone saw where everyone else was."
As far as being the last person to speak to Dr. King, Jackson says: "I was. He was talking to me in the courtyard."
Jackson started his Chicago-based Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in 1971 after a falling out with Ralph Abernathy and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Through PUSH, he has waged or threatened successful boycotts of some of America's largest corporations--The Seven-Up Co., Burger King, Heublein and Coca-Cola--and extracted agreements from them to give more of their business to minorities.
In early 1982 he attempted a boycott of Anheuser-Busch, brewers of Budweiser beer, but he met resistance from both the company and other civil rights activists, who approved of the company's minority programs.
"I am," he says pausing to glance at the moving countryside as his entourage moves through Georgia, "a member of a rejected caste, and my personal options in life have been limited because of my race."
He has done everything he can to provide unlimited options for his children. His oldest daughter, Santita, is studying in a pre-med program at Howard University. He says he sends 18-year-old Jesse Jr. to St. Albans, an exclusive prep school in Washington, to give him a chance to develop independently of both the stigmas and glorifications that come with the name. On the other hand, Jesse Jr. occupies a special position in this Georgia swing--he is the only member of Jackson's party who is allowed to sit in on a meeting with Jimmy Carter in Plains.
Jesse Jr. is his father's son. He is a charmer, always deferential to adults. He carries the press releases, and flirts with the girls his age who swarm around his Dad. He does a mean Eddie Murphy imitation.
"Isn't it great?" he says, when complimented about it. "I've been practicing it for a while."
He says he has no interest in following in his father's footsteps, but nonetheless, he hangs on Jesse Sr.'s every word. "I don't know how he does it," says the son. "It must be something personal inside of him."
And the father dotes on the son.
"Jesse baby, I am so proud of you," beams Jackson when the younger Jesse follows the pilot's instructions about opening the Lear jet door latch. "You knew right where that was."
"Be serious," says Jesse Jr. "I'm a math major."
TT he sun is barely struggling up over Savannah and Jackson has already been up for two hours, talking on the phone, meeting with local supporters, eating grits. T "Jesse," Roy Jackson, a well-to-do black businessman, has just told him outside a longshoreman's diner down the docks, "I want you to know you can count on me if you decide to run."
"I appreciate that, brother," Jackson has responded.
Now, back at the hotel, he is asked if his personal life and finances could withstand the scrutiny of a presidential campaign.
"Absolutely. It's stable as far as I know--emotionally, domestically, financially, it's stable," he says. "I always pay my taxes. I overpay my taxes just in case. There is no problem."
He walks away, striding toward his room.
His finances have always been a source of curiosity. Last week, the Department of Education released the results of a six-month audit of Operation PUSH, which until 1980 had been heavily financed by the federal government. The audit states that Jackson owes the federal government about $700,000 and questions his use of another $1 million in grant money, saying that part of it was spent on unauthorized salaries and expenses and part was spent without adequate documentation.
"If we owe any difference, we'll pay," says Jackson. "The point is that it is not true. Our accountants and their auditors have been working on this for several years. It is not news. The release at this time was politically motivated and it has strengthened my resolve to stay in the political area."
These days, he says, the money comes from concerts and donations. Furthermore, 500 minority businesses give him $500 a year apiece, he says. He also actively maintains a network of black businessmen he knows from the civil rights movement, and he taps them for money in the cities he visits.
It is these supporters who are often the most articulate about Jackson's appeal: a doctor and a restaurateur in Albany, a bar owner in Augusta, a service station owner in Savannah.
Roy Jackson, for instance: "I think that out of the announced candidates Jesse is one person being considered who has the charisma and dynamics to excite the voters of this country."
His appeal is basic, grass roots.
"He saved my business in the late '60s," says Brady Keys, owner of Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, who was about to be put out of business when Jackson intervened.
And even more basic, Jackson knows how to get money from followers in a style not unlike the old-time Baptist traveling salvation shows.
"I'm not begging, this is an appeal," he tells his audience at Paine College in Augusta. "Don't make me look bad with my friends all over the world. I don't want to have to sweat. I want to feel like a Presbyterian. Freedom is not free."
"Now, if you can give a hundred dollars, please stand up," he says, going into a routine as old as traveling revivals. "Don't look at your neighbor. Just look in your heart. Please stand up."
Two people move forward.
Then he talks to the $50 people. Then $20 and on down to $1. Slowly but deliberately, the well-dressed crowd trickles to the front of the hall to drop their donations in baskets. He has them lined up for 20 minutes waiting to give a total of $2,000.
Afterwards, he says: "I believe . . . that if I were there campaigning for president, we could have raised $10,000."
WW e must move from battle ground to common ground . . . From fighting in the schoolyard to working at the shipyard . . . Jail without bail . . . From the outhouse to the statehouse to the W White House . . . We are not fighting for charity, but parity, not for welfare, but for our share . . . we must go from the guttermost to the uppermost . . .
He is asked where he finds this endless supply of rhymes and rhythms.
"I think of them myself," he says, explaining: "There are ways of saying things that capture the substance because when you're in a struggle people relate to battle cries.
"That's one dimension. The other dimension is that in the TV age, in the mass media, you have to be aware of 30- and 45-second slots. You could talk on and on and use the basic rhythm of conversation. But it just doesn't fit."
II t is often said that Jesse Jackson has an insatiable ego and that his constituency is the newspaper editors of this country. The files of major publications nationwide overflow with stories on him. He made the cover I of Time magazine at 27 years old as an heir apparent to King, and has commanded news coverage and headlines over and over again, often by his own orchestration.
"I've been in the public situations long enough to acquire the skill," he says unabashedly. "I don't do it more--I do it better. That's the difference."
But doesn't he love to see his name in print?
He slouches back and sighs.
"I don't sit around with my clippings playing with myself," he says slouching back in an overstuffed chair during dinner at Atlanta's Marriott. It is midnight. He is sipping on a strawberry daiquiri. "I have always commanded attention just by the nature of who I am. I became known as a comer when I was growing up. I had certain leadership characteristics . . . People who are used to getting attention sit around and pass judgment. The media becomes the classroom. It's a chance to teach. They read the black boy . . ."
He is asked if the meeting with Jimmy Carter has been set up to impress the traveling press, which by this time includes the BBC, The Wall Street Journal and a half-dozen local reporters. He smiles mischievously at them.
"Say 'Thank you, Reverend,'" he whispers.
He is fearless when it comes to the media. He has a ready-packaged answer for everything, it seems.
On being an opportunist: "The opposite of being an opportunist is not taking advantage of opportunity. And not taking advantage of opportunity is a sin. I view being an opportunist as competency."
On being an egotist: "An overt egotist is less dangerous than a covert egotist. You always know what he is, where he wants to be, and how he is going to get there. A covert egotist just goes and cuts up people along the way."
On bringing William Bradford Reynolds to Mississippi: "If my client is in hell parching and needed some water and the only person who's got the water is the devil, I'll meet with the devil . . . All you cynical people on the Potomac question motives--he did it for publicity, he did it for this, for that. But you know what the people of the Delta think? All they know is that the feds are coming to resolve the voting rights violations. The feds are coming!"
II f Jackson is accused of conning the public, it is also clear that his object is not always stark self-promotion. There are too many 20-hour days, too many of the same small towns, repeating the same story, getting the I same answers.
Whatever his motivations, he flies thousands of miles a year, speaking and protesting, despite his battle with sickle cell anemia, which causes him headaches and sneezing in high altitudes. He has been hospitalized five times for exhaustion, and has received two assassination threats.
He likes to project himself as a spiritual introvert, although it would appear otherwise. "Believe it or not," he says alone in the den of a crowded house in Albany, "I have to fight lonesomeness. You know--alone in a crowd . . . In a way I'm an introvert. I go as far into myself as I go out. I am really a very spiritual person. That's where I get my strength."
Yet, he is always center stage, kissing the ladies' hands, spinning stories, strutting. When he goes to Plains, he takes along an eight-car entourage led by a state trooper. They travel at 75 miles an hour. He never just arrives. He comes with a police escort, sometimes with sirens howling.
He never simply walks into a hall. He strides. He takes command. Everyone follows. He brings them to their feet, whether it is at a Baptist church where he pontificates about segregation, or a thousand white educators in North Carolina, where he skirts around racism as if were a contagious disease. He feels his audiences, he moves with them.
Girls and women, white and black, sigh when he arrives. At stop after stop they touch him and say: "I'm never going to wash my hand again."
One gets the impression, finally, that Jackson is working for his place in history, aspiring not to be merely a follower of Martin Luther King but to stand alongside him. In fact, he talks of King and how "people tend to raise dead leaders and bury living leaders."
He is acutely aware of the way people "by and large watch you over a period of time and develop cumulative judgments." He knows that he could be credited in time for legitimizing a black candidacy--whether or not he runs. Jackson claims that he deals in "broad strokes of history."
He is a paradox. He speaks of the need for family, unity and roots, yet spends half of his time away from his wife, Jacqueline, and their five children.
He speaks on behalf of the oppressed, and 18-year-old Jesse Jr. attends the exclusive St. Albans prep school. He flies from church to church in chartered jets, and when in Washington, often stays at the Jefferson Hotel for at least $115 a night.
He could be easily be labeled a liberal or progessive Democrat, yet he is uneasy with the issue of abortion, endorsing the concept of choice, but condemning abortion morally. He evokes much antipathy from some other black leaders, but he refuses to respond to them with name-calling.
"I attempt to defend him," says his wife. "Sometimes it is very aggravating to me to hear the critics."
He is adroit at solving conflicts with his wits.
When he gets on an overcrowded elevator with his black entourage in Savannah, a white judge mumbles snidely, "If I had known this was going on, I would have stayed home."
"Hey, relax, judge," he says and breaks the tension. Everyone laughs.
"Forget it," he says when told that certain black leaders dislike him.
"You become hostile and you lose your gift of redemption and redemption is a great weapon. I won't get into that stuff. I just never have. Opinions are like a-------, everyone has one."
Many black leaders have not embraced his independent presidential notions, fearing that his posturing could drive a wedge through the movement at time when a unified front is advantageous.
"Some of the black leaders . . . they just don't trust Jesse because of his ego," says Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), chairman of the Democratic National Committee's Black Caucus. "It's causing a lot of infighting right now. We will not be blackmailed into supporting Jesse simply because he is black. We will make a sophisticated political decision about who we will support--black or white."
"This is not an election to take a chance on," says Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. "I guess I still hope he doesn't do it."
"I think a lot of people are becoming alienated--period," said Geraldine Thompson, chairman of Atlanta's Voting Registration Project, the oldest and most prestigious organization of its kind in the South. "They are beginning to realize that what was touted as a voter registration project is developing into a Jesse Jackson for president campaign, not a voter registration campaign. He doesn't follow through. This is work that has been done for years and now he's coming in and taking the credit. Black people are being taken for granted once again. They will automatically vote for a black because a black is running. It's going to cause a lot of confusion."
Jackson bristles at the suggestion that he is not following through, that he has robbed the limelight from the dedicated voter registration workers, that he is simply preening.
"That's a cheap shot because my mandate is to motivate," he says between church stops on a steamy Sunday morning. "You know my point is if Billy Graham comes to town and 100 people profess the faith, the ministers do the baptizing and cultivate them. So you would not expect Billy Graham to come back to town next week and baptize them and give them instructions. When Dr. King came to town people used to say, 'Well, he just comes to town to get people aroused. What happens when he leaves?' People who remain--it's their job to keep them aroused."
Town after town, the message: "Raise your right hand and repeat after me. I swear I am registered. If I am lying, I hope the Lord will let my right arm fall off. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth. I hope I catch a herpes before midnight . . ."
HH e is at ease with the press, knows how to charm a reporter and knows how to ice one out in an instant. On a Beechcraft flying from Atlanta to Albany he tries to tease H one reporter out of fearing the turbulent flight.
"Now repeat after me." he says. "Help me, Reverend, and I promise I'll never write a bad thing about you."
A few seconds later another reporter tells Jackson he doesn't have a chance of winning the Democratic nomination.
"What's your point?" he snaps, glaring him down.
II t is the end of the four-day swing through Georgia. He has dragged voting registrars everywhere he has gone. He has registered about 400 people on the spot and set up committees to register more. Now he settles I back in his chartered Lear jet, heading for Washington. He says he is concerned that his motives be presented correctly. It is not self-promotions, he says. Nor is he hoping for a place in history.
"I did the best I could with what I had and I gave my best against the odds," he says, measuring every word.
And will he announce a candidacy for president?
"If no one one else does," he says, meaning no other black, "I become increasingly obligated."