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Looking beyond the myths of Jesse Jackson

FIRST of all, 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, S.C., and it all makes interesting material for psycho-biographical analyses, a surfeit of which is currently circulating in the media.

And, yes, Jesse Jackson has been known to seize certain situations and use them for his personal or organizational advantage — Exhibit A being his controversial appearances on national television the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. He produced a bloody shirt and claimed to have cradled the head of the dying leader in his own arms, a claim that is still hotly disputed after 16 years. More recent exhibits might include his taking exorbitant credit for the election last year of Chicago's first black mayor or his rushing off to Syria earlier this year to rescue a downed U.S. flier.

Yes, Jackson does spread himself too thin, leaving others to pick up the apples while he goes around shaking trees. Instead of developing a solid administrative base for his national organization, Operation PUSH, or following up on several critical political breakthroughs in the past 12 years — ousting Mayor Daley and his delegation from the 1976 National Democratic Convention, for example — he trotted around the country and the world, bouncing from one campaign to another in a restless quest to be relevant.

And, yes, a cloud of fog floats over even his most highly touted achievements. The covenant agreements Jackson has negotiated with large corporations like Coca Cola inevitably seem to offend other black leaders and organizations, who contend Jackson's friends, not the unemployed ghetto dweller, receive the major benefits. Similarly, Jackson's PUSH EXCEL program, designed to instill idealism and a love of learning in minority youth, has been shrouded by bad press, including a charge by federal auditors that more than 40 percent of the $5 million in grants to EXCEL was misspent, largely through staff incompetence.

But while we're at it, let's also dispose of a few myths frequently associated with the country preacher.

No, he does not live in baronial splendor, or own a secret mansion in an all-white suburb of Chicago, or possess a string of Swiss bank accounts. He lives quite modestly with his wife and five children on the city's south side, drives a 10-year-old station wagon, rarely eats out, and until his campaign for the presidency, owned only three suits. His income, according to reliable sources, is $115,000 a year ($39,000 from his PUSH salary and the rest from speaking engagements). But he regularly gives huge sums away in the course of his travels. No one who knows Jackson, including his fiercest critics, has ever accused him of personal financial greed or being motivated by money.

And, no, Jackson is not a black racist. Because he stresses black empowerment, which requires an end to racial discrimination and the rooting out of institutional racism, he is often accused of racial polarization, setting blacks against whites. In fact, his agenda is much broader than that. The civil rights movement and its major offspring (like the Voting Rights Act) have benefitted far more whites than blacks, as he continually points out. He is an integrationist in the tradition of Dr. King.

No, Jesse Jackson does not despise Jewish people, despite his much regretted "Hymie" remarks. You will look in vain through his speeches or programs for any negative reference to Jews or to Israel's legitimate rights to existence and self-protections. What he has done is question the rationale of a U.S. foreign policy that so totally embraces Israel that it effectively denies any consideration to the rights of the hordes of uprooted Palestinians.

And, no, he does not advocate unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United States and a surrender to the forces of godless communism. He supports a "strong and adequate" national defense, along with a negotiated, bilateral, verifiable freeze on the production and deployment of nuclear missiles, if such can be worked out with the Soviets. If he seems soft on communism, it is because he, unlike the present administration, believes discussions should be initiated from our side.

6/June 1984/Illinois Issues

Having gotten all this out of the way, we may now proceed to the matter at hand, namely an analysis of the contribution the Rev. Jesse Jackson is making to the consciousness of the nation and to the direction of the campaign in his 1984 presidential bid. He really is bringing a welcome moral dimension to the important issues, and he really is stirring up interest among people who are thoroughly disenchanted with the American political system. His contribution would probably receive more serious attention if so many people were not misled by the distracting stories and myths that swirl about him. Jackson is like a man whose wisdom and logic do not get through because his audience's attention is focused on some facial blemish. All those old associations, rumors, generalizations and plain untruths hang around his neck like an albatross, and it's sometimes hard for people to pay attention to what he's saying. As Jackson put it himself in the New York debate, "My personal weakness is my inability to get my basic thoughts across." On closer inspection, the "blemish" may be Jackson's color as much as any of these lesser distractions. But more of that later.

Consider first these significant accomplishments, all of them connected to Jackson's presence in the race:

• Minorities are registering to vote in unprecedented numbers. "How many of y'all are not registered to vote here in Orangeburg?" he asked during the South Carolina campaign. "Don't be 'shamed. Be proud you are able to vote. We got some registrars here in the front of the room. So come on down now. Come on down." And, noted Charlotte Observer reporter Frye Gaillard, "when they came down by the hundreds, as if in a peculiar version of a Billy Graham altar call, he grinned and said, 'How many of y'all are going to vote for me?' "

In every state primary in which Jackson has been on the ballot, especially in the South, local registrars and county clerks have reported amazing increases in the turnout of first-time voters. To be sure, there is no guarantee their political enthusiasm will outlive Jackson's candidacy. But in many cases these are older persons who were not persuaded to register even during the halcyon days of the civil rights movement. Or they are younger people, who, despite better schools and a more open economic and employment situation, never before took that much interest in politics. This is different: a flesh and blood embodiment of racial equality running for president, articulating his ideas in the same arena with established leaders. There is something compelling about that presence; it transcends opinion polls, the assessments of the commentators and the enormous odds against winning. Practically speaking, this candidacy may awake minority voters all over the country who are weary of trickle-down talk, and it may send them flocking to the polls to elect district attorneys in Mississippi, mayors in Alabama, city councilmen in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

• Major issues are being examined from a fresh perspective. "America is not a blanket, all of one piece," he said during the New Hampshire primary. "It is more of a quilt, and every piece and every color fits somewhere. I want this campaign to be the conscience of a nation, to set a new direction. We must measure character by how we treat our children in the dawn of life, how we treat our poor folk in the pit of life, how we treat old folks in the sunset of life. And we must have character to be a great nation."

The simple fact is that Jackson is not talking a great deal about race as he treks across the land. Observed reporter David Moberg of In These Times, "Jackson speaks more about peace than about race, more about acid rain than affirmative action, more about Central America than Africa." It's not just that he is facing the problems and trouble spots at home and abroad; he is saying that the United States must cease operating on the basis of fear, suspicion and greed, and that it must use its strength to lead, to risk, to be open.

His attack is on the pinched narrowness of politicians and bureaucrats who are unwilling to try anything new — especially trust. Jackson does not go into detail about specific legislation very often, nor does he have to since he will not soon be moving into the White House. He is talking instead about the kind of mindset out of which comes humane legislation. The approach may be labeled idealistic, even naive by many. But it can be like a bracing shower in the desert of election year rhetoric.

• The level of debate between the two principal Democratic candidates is being raised. "Please, please stop this!" Jackson pleaded at one point during the three-way debate in New York City. "Because tomorrow the issue will be this rat-a-tat-tat without dealing with direction. The reason they are having this kinship struggle is that there is such similarity in their policies. It's a matter of both going in the same direction, one just a little slower. That's all it is!"

Even Jackson's sworn enemies admit his participation has prevented the nationally televised debates from becoming a dull intramural squabble between Sens. Walter Mondale and Gary Hart, who, despite their anti-administration reputations, are unable to generate much excitement. Not only has Jackson refereed their disputes, he has struggled mightily to get the disputants off pet positions. For example, when Mondale boasted repeatedly during the New York debate that he, not Hart, was the first to support the nuclear freeze, Jackson interjected incisively, "He may have been slow on that. You were slow on the invasion of Grenada and slow on the second primary system .... The issue is not who has a given weakness at a given point in time. The issue is how can we deal with the Soviet Union."

Mondale looked at Jackson like a scolded schoolboy, and for a few minutes the three actually discussed whether the United States should take some initiative in trying to end the arms race. Invariably, Jackson attempts to return the discussion to fundamental issues. Why, he asks, such concern about communism in the Third World when the real enemy there is poverty and social injustice? Why such concentration on military solutions when less violent answers have not been considered? Some have criticized Mondale and Hart for treating Jackson with so much deference, claiming that the major candidates give him a wide berth because of his race. A more likely reason for their wariness is that they are simply not prepared to discuss the major issues from a moral and ethical point of view.

June 1984/Illinois Issues/7

• The Democratic party cannot conduct "business as usual" in the development of its platform. "Never again will the Democrats take us for granted," said Jackson in North Carolina. "We have changed our minds and there is nothing so powerful as a mind that is made up." According to the most extreme projections, Jackson cannot amass more than 200 pledged delegates for the convention in July (1,966 are needed to win). But the bloc he holds could well spell victory or defeat for Mondale or Hart in a close race; and even if his votes prove irrelevant in the final analysis, Jackson can rightly claim to represent a vocal minority within the party — a minority which is attuned to Jackson's brand of populism.

Jackson won 20 percent or more of the popular vote in many states including Illinois and New York. This substantial showing has been provided largely by overwhelming support from black voters in the large cities (70 to 80 percent in Chicago and New York City). But it is an absolute certainty that the eventual Democratic standard-bearer must have a similar black turnout in November if the party is to have any chance against Ronald Reagan. Hence, Jackson's mark must be on the party platform, and he must actively support the candidate. A Jackson walkout at the convention — or a Jackson pout during the campaign before the general election — would put the kiss of death on Democratic hopes. That is why it is absurd to contend that his presence in the race is an empty, foolish gesture which will do nothing for himself or for poor people. Jackson means, as he always has, to make a difference. Nothing will be gained, he says, by getting off an elephant and onto a donkey which is going in the same direction. Assuredly, Jackson will not ride the donkey in November, but he can take credit for steering it along a slightly different path. To that extent, there is more than oratory in his declaration that "we have already won!" Nevertheless, he rarely gets more than grudging credit for all this — even from those who are philosophically sympathetic with his message. The so-called Rainbow Coalition has failed to stimulate many poor and middle-class whites and Hispanics who would seem to provide a natural constituency. Instead, the Jackson candidacy stirs up far more resentment than appears appropriate for one who is exercising his rights as a citizen and representing with reasonable credibility the concerns of the poor and powerless.

One need only scan the letters to the editors of the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times or Time magazine to sense the animosity the man inspires. Here are some examples from these letters: He is "a dedicated practitioner of the crybaby politics of self-pity," wrote a man. "A loudmouth, showboating ignoramus!" wrote a woman. "I would rather live in Russia under communist dictatorship than accept Jesse Jackson as the leader of my country!" wrote a nearly hysterical man. Those who have followed Jackson's career in Chicago know that such diatribes are not new. Almost from the day he started Operation Breadbasket in 1969, he has been the object of nearly continuous scorn — with Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko setting the standard for sarcastic contempt, continually calling him "Jesse Jetstream."

On occasion Jackson has lashed back, attributing the popular reaction to old-fashioned white racism. That is also what he did after failing to perform as expected in the Virginia primary. "It is not my fault that whites have developed over their history a lack of regard for the intelligence and hard work of black people," he thundered. He responded in like manner when his Rainbow Coalition did not show any strong color except basic black in the Illinois primary. Blacks have always supported white candidates, he scolded; now whites ought to accept "the moral challenge of reciprocal voting." Predictably, this race-based appeal (which has been rare on Jackson's part in the campaign) only earned another barrage of ridicule. As the pre-convention campaign winds down, there is little likelihood Jesse Jackson can relax and enjoy the gains of 1984. Too much of his energy will be spent trying to establish what should be patently clear by now: He is a legitimate leader and a genuine political pioneer.

As a reporter for the Chicago Defender in the 1970s and as a freelance writer since, I have followed Jackson's career, interviewed him many times and written about him often. And I have always been inclined to attribute his inability to earn a more solid base of respect to those glaring faults discussed above: his ego, his rushing from agenda to agenda, his less than spectacular administrative record, etc. But Jackson is now receiving broader exposure to a national audience, which is only dimly aware of his personal and organizational faults. Indeed, they are seeing him in the far more dignified role of mediator and referee. There have been relatively few overtones of arrogance or pomposity in his public appearances. Still the hate mail comes in and people ask by what authority he dares to insert himself in this sacred American institution, the election of our national leader. I am therefore tempted to believe that Jackson may be close to the mark when he says that basic, gut-level racism is really behind much of the animosity he stirs. It may not be his ego or his record that drives some people crazy after all — just his color and the way he handles it.

In charging white racism following one primary, Jackson listed "five deadly ways" in which the media still portray blacks: as less intelligent than whites, less hard working, less universal, less patriotic and more violent. The entrenched stereotype is reinforced, he said, and the public clings to it like a lifesaver in a stormy sea.

Now comes Jesse L. Jackson. He appears more intelligent, and is certainly more articulate and incisive than either of his Democratic rivals. He is, in addition, the incarnation of hard work. His appeal is consistently to universal principles while the others argue over who has more experience in governing. He stresses the old-fashioned American virtues of hard work and commitment — so much so that he sometimes sounds more like Ronald Reagan than a liberal black intruder. And he is less violent than the other contenders, both in his manner under fire and in his proposals for ending the nuclear arms race. In other words, Jackson contradicts the "five deadly ways" by what he says and what he is. And that raises in the depths of many a nonblack American's soul a kind of unspoken resentment.

I will make a confession here. I recall one occasion in 1974 when I interviewed Jackson at length for a personality profile. He was open, responsive and quick with the spontaneous analogies, rhyming alliterations and homey metaphors that have always characterized his speech. Yet when I left with pages of notes, I felt strangely disturbed, alarmed, almost hostile. It was the way he looked at me, I thought at the time, as if to say, "You think you're a white liberal; all concerned about your fellow man, but you're a racist at heart and you know it. You have benefitted from the advantages whites hold over blacks, and you haven't really lifted a finger."

He didn't say that, mind you. He didn't say anything like that. The whole scenario was playing itself out in my feverish brain — based on the way he looked! What was going on?

I am now beginning to think I reacted so emotionally because I was in the presence of a proud and aggressive black man who was clearly smarter than I, more dedicated, more perceptive and articulate. He could have judged me if he had wanted to, and something deep inside me did not like that. These days many more white Americans are being confronted for the first time with the Jesse Jackson phenomenon and they don't like it either. In a limited but true sense, Jackson has already achieved one of his cherished goals: to become white America's conscience. It's a dangerous role since it stirs deep, troubling fears. But the biggest mistake anyone can make is to underestimate the potential power of Jackson

Robert J. McClory writes regularly for the Chicago Reader, the National Catholic Reporter and other publications. He is the author of several books including Racism in America.

8/June 1984/Illinois Issues

The sayings of candidate Jackson

DURING the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has indicated the style and direction of his administration — should he be elected.

On the role of government: "Government is at its best when you have a balance between labor and management with the government playing the balancing wheel. When government tilts to workers, it can destroy business. When government tilts to business, it can destroy workers."

On working together as a nation: "The great issues of the day transcend race and sex and religion. Acid rain falls on all sides of town. Nuclear fallout affects everybody. The military budget affects everybody. The industrial collapse of integrity affects everybody. But as we are exposed to each other, there's a growth, almost a romance. We are developing rapport."

On the foundations of U.S. foreign policy: "The first step in foreign policy is to be able to count. We are 6 percent of the world, 6 percent. Ninety-four percent of God's children are beyond us. Six percent consume 40 percent of the resources. . . . Our foreign policy must count the people in the world and measure human rights by one yardstick, because human rights is the key to peace."

On committing U.S. troops to foreign trouble spots: "It should be determined based upon where our national interests are threatened. Those troops in Western Europe now can be reduced. We ought to be more aggressive in mutual reduction policies with the Soviet Union. At this time if we are more aggressive with a human rights policy, using economic leverage and technology and education, we would have less need to confront."

On interfering in the affairs of other nations: "The American government was founded in revolution. It was led by a general for a decade before there were elections. It underwent its own civil war. For nearly 200 years after its founding, elementary civic rights were denied to many. We must be patient with other folks because we have not been a perfect democracy ourselves."

On the first use of nuclear weapons: "I would absolutely declare that we will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, period."

On corporation tax breaks: "Corporations got this big tax break, so big it traumatized the economy. Blood is to the human body what money is to the economy. If blood goes out, and it doesn't come back, you have anemia, enough of it you hemorrhage and you die. ... If corporations are obligated to invest and reindustrialize, we can make America strong again."

On import quotas: "We can protect ourselves through competition. We run competitively in the Olympics. We don't ask for breaks — to run 90 yards in the 100-yard dash. You can run industry like you run track. Look at how we hurt ourselves with foolish things, like the grain embargoes on Russia that since 1979 have cost American agribusiness $22 billion."

On why he's running: "When new voters step forward to register, we're winning. When our spirits are revived, we're winning. When our people put down the bottle or stay away from the needle, we're winning. When little children have false notions of inferiority removed from their minds, we're winning. Who knows but what in some child's mind —- born out of wedlock, locked into welfare — might be the cure for cancer? Who knows but what in the mind of some child born in the slums might be the equation for world peace? Today there are 5 million more people in poverty, and most are not black. . . . If we can feel the pain and hurt, we can do something about it."

And for the record: Jackson supports a nuclear weapons freeze and the negotiation of a meaningful arms agreement with the Soviets "as the highest priority of this nation." He opposes the MX, Pershing II and cruise missiles, as well as production of chemical weapons. He wants a 20 percent cut in the military budget. He favors restoration of funds for human development and social service programs, and he strongly endorses the Equal Rights Amendment.

— Robert J. McClory

June 1984/Illinois Issues/9

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