Now poised in the early twilight of a tumultuous public life, Rev Jesse Jackson has come back to South Africa to receive one of the country’s most prestigious national awards. He’s 72 years old, but close up he is still an imposing, even formidable, physical presence that easily recalls the picture in the mind’s eye of the young, ever-energetic civil rights activist. Jackson is a big man – he automatically claims his space – and holds it easily, without effort. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
As he walks through the hotel lobby from his breakfast to our meeting, people spontaneously come over to him. They sing out, “Hiya Jesse”, “Hello Rev”, reaching out to touch and be touched by him. One almost expects that trademark call, “Run, Jesse, run!” to ring out yet again – an echo of that precedent-setting but now more distant 1988 presidential campaign when he became the first African American to mount a dead serious, credible challenge for the presidential nomination of a major political party.
It is a truth that for decades, Rev Jesse Jackson has been both one of the most galvanising as well as one of the more divisive public figures in American public life. No one ever seems to have taken a neutral stance about him. Born dirt poor to a single mother in the deeply segregated American South, well before the civil rights movement had fairly begun, Jesse Jackson’s life has been one long arc that has transcended his origins and made a real contribution to the demise of America’s answer to Apartheid.
Marshall Frady, his biographer (Jesse), said of him that by the time of his astonishing bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1988, “He had become by then an altogether singular figure in the nation’s life, that was obvious. But who was he really? What did he mean? What had happened to that original promise? Too, there undeniably is, for many, a certain blare and swagger about his persona – a reaction that may owe not a little to that same racial tension, actually. But at the same time, largely unrealised, un-noted, is the enormous popular admiration and even enthusiasm about him that’s still out there across the reaches of the country, massive in the black community but in no negligible measure in white quarters as well, on campuses, in the environmental movement…”
Frady adds, “It is not so much that he is a quintessentially American figure, as that his has been an extraordinary American pilgrimage in its themes… He’s fully got the magnitude of some character in, say, Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Richard Wright, Graham Greene, in Dreiser…”
The most iconic photographs from Jackson’s life – the ones everyone remembers – seem to have been connected to the life and death of his mentor/colleague, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. There is the one where King and Jackson are on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee where they had gone to support a dustman’s strike – but then there is dreadful succeeding frame where Jackson is pointing to where the assassin, James Earl Ray, had been lying wait to shoot Martin Luther King. But even his presence at so many national and international events seems to provoke controversy for some. There are those who say they recall the day Nelson Mandela was released from his imprisonment and that Jackson – who had just happened to be in South Africa at the time –had to be encouraged not to go out onto that Cape Town balcony – to hold back – as Mandela gave his first public speech in nearly three decades.
Even now, judgements about the impact of Jesse Jackson seem sharply split. A veteran African American journalist, now living in South Africa, can say of him, “Rev Jackson has spent a lifetime in giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless in ways that reverberate through history. Barack 0bama’s election is just one example. Rev Jackson’s own presidential campaigns reformed party nominating rules like winner-take-all. Perhaps more importantly, he first identified a Rainbow Coalition of voters that has Republicans wondering if they can ever win another election.”
But another similarly experienced American journalist could say, instead, “His time probably has passed. The president’s reluctance to embrace or even to be seen with him is important. There seems to be real antipathy between the two… He has lost support among blacks and most whites have hardened their view that he is predictable, tiring, and increasingly out of the mainstream. All that said, he will be judged positively for what he accomplished in earlier decades and it would be unwise to count him out should future events unfold in ways where he could insert himself once again into public debate. He is a skilled opportunist.”
While an American academic, long resident in South Africa, offers yet another perspective on Jackson’s life and times, saying, “Jesse has always had more substance than the media give him credit for, preferring to use him as a jester and a foil for ‘serious’ politicians. His high-flying rhetorical style both played into and against this characterisation, as his serious speeches were serious and memorable indeed, and I would rate him as amongst the greatest political orators in English in the 20th century; yep, right up there with King, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Churchill.”
This scholar went on to explain, however, “One flaw is that he never ran for any political office except president. Charisma is for getting elected, but government is policy, persuasion, gamesmanship, and administration… Jesse’s idea that ‘working America’ might find expression through a liberal rather than a conservative, individualist ideology was and is a precious principle for Democrats, and to the extent that Obama embodied that in 2008. His is a Jacksonian [i.e., a broad populist president like Andrew Jackson] legacy… Jesse Jackson: an outstanding American and more influential than he is thought to be, but too parochial and too verbally oriented to be President.” Even now, the jury argues over his living legacy.
And with such a swirling stew of conflicting ideas in mind, our time with Rev Jackson begins, as he looks back over his career in American life and politics, agreeing that his entry into presidential politics came directly from the civil rights struggle rather than the more traditional political office route. But he argues there was also an essential continuity in his efforts, reaching back to the early struggles for equal access to public accommodations, and then on the right for all to be able to vote.
By the 1980s, the struggle had expanded into getting black Americans to run for elective office at the federal, state and local levels. Specifically in Chicago, he says that he saw the bankruptcy of liberalism in its support for Jane Byrne to become the city’s mayor, arguing, “our struggle was for liberation, not liberalism. Liberalism and conservatism are just two sides of the same coin. Liberation is another coin, a transformative change in direction.”
He adds, “And so I said, ‘somebody needs to run to challenge this system.’ We couldn’t get our agenda onto the agenda – for worker rights, a two-state Middle East solution, free Mandela and all the rest…. And somewhere out of that dusty road, there came a cry, ‘Run, Jesse, run!’ Without any kind of preparation or planning, we decided to go for it. To remove the psychological barrier, I decided to go for it. That we could compete at that level; that was beyond our imagination. We’d never gone in that zone before.”
He describes the historical psychological barriers to an African American running and winning, reflecting his thoughts at the time, “If you don’t run you’re guaranteed to lose. If you do run you might win; you could expand the tent and raise the roof and put new and additional items on the agenda and change direction in 1984” – that in his first try for the presidential brass ring. Jackson goes on to say, “The rainbow coalition came out of the situation with all those smaller groups like Asians and blacks and so we formed the rainbow coalition. There were a whole lot of people locked out of the contest. The reaction [within the Democratic Party] was the creation of the [more conservative, mainstream] Democratic Leadership Conference – and we ran to get what we had never had, and they ran to get what they had lost.”
And, in truth, Rev Jackson’s two presidential campaigns did break new ground. According to his official biography, “his 1984 campaign registered over one million new voters, won 3.5 million votes, and helped the Democratic Party regain control of the Senate in 1986. His 1988 campaign registered over two million new voters, won seven million votes, and helped boost hundreds of state and local elected officials into office. Additionally, he won historic victories, coming in first or second in 46 out of 54 primary contests.” Jackson notes that the changes in his party’s winner-take-all rules were due in large part to his campaigns. “Under the old rules, Hillary would have won [in 2008], not Barack. The change was to expand the tent, remove the roof and globalise our policies.”
When asked about the 2016 election, he notes the first rule of all politicians: four years is an eternity in politics. But in evaluating Hillary Clinton’s chances, he does agree she has all the credentials and she is formidable politically. But, in 2008, who saw Barack coming? “She ticks all the boxes. Yes she does.” And are there any other candidates? He answers, “No, they’ve not surfaced.” Yet.
Looking back at 2008, when asked how it came to be that the African American community ultimately embraced Barack Obama’s candidacy, he says, “It changed because a lot of people did not know him, and they knew Hillary, and they knew Bill, but as they saw more of him, they liked more of him.” Still he had not come through the traditional route through politics. African Americans asked themselves, Jackson explains, “But can he win? Is this the best use of my vote? But as the momentum began to build, by the time they got to the South Carolina primary (with its majority of black voters), they just kept going. Then Oprah Winfrey came.” Ultimately, “he had the right message and the right technology.”
Our conversation turns to the Rev Jeremiah Wright controversy and how it suddenly pushed Obama into a moment of serious doubt as to whether he really was a credible candidate. We agree that speech helped Obama to turn the corner in his candidacy. “He took on the broader question of race and direction, versus com-plex-ion. And people heard that accepted it.” And here in that formulation one hears that absolutely distinctive Jesse-Jackson-African-American-Baptist-preacher-timbre with its long drawn-out, rolling vowels, and the call and response, opposing phrase style that even had its echoes in some of those famous taunts from boxer Muhammad Ali that he would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”.
And as to when he felt Obama was his candidate? Jackson says, “I encouraged him to run right from the very beginning…. A loss would be credible, but a win would be over the top. He had the right combination of skills and perfect timing.”
In America now, looking forward, where is the place of race now? Jackson avers it is still “center stage. The ideological dialogue of states’ rights becomes a kind of cover for a racism conversation. ‘We want to defeat him’. Under cover of states’ rights, ‘he’s a liar, he’s not a Christian, where’s his birth certificate?’” When asked whether that highly publicised initiative in that small town in Georgia where the town’s high school is finally going to have its first integrated graduation prom (matric) dance, Rev Jackson takes the long view.
He says, “We are learning to live together; we’re in a survival pod. In the military, you learn to live together. In the world of athletics like with football teams – it’s the same thing. We’re learning the processes now. It’s kinda like South Africa now. Race Apartheid is simply epidermis. [But] there is still everything else, land, banking, capital, healthcare, education…. Racism is not just skin deep, but it’s bone deep. The skin colour part of Apartheid is over, but there is all that other stuff.”
Does Jesse Jackson foresee a time when race will not be central to the American ethos? He answers, “Race should not vanish, racism should vanish. People go to school together, they’re on political tickets together…. It takes time, but that day is coming. It is supremacy’s notion that you have some kind of inside track that is the problem.”
He goes on, “We are 50 years after the King speech, 150 after abolition, 350 years after slavery. We have that in our ‘DNA’. We were enslaved longer than we have been free. We see morning is coming, but it has been a deep dark night; but those who have never experienced it, think it was always sunlight.”
As the conversation shifts to South Africa, he says, “This has been a great transformation. Mandela is a historic figure, but it is the transformative dimension that makes him very different. He became a great transformer. There are those who became historical figures because they sat on the bus first. Mandela has supposedly said that in some sense he was glad he was arrested at Lilliesleaf because otherwise the blood of (of a planned bomb at) a hospital would have on his hands.”
Asked what he still wishes to achieve in his life at his age, he explains that, there is, “Nothing greater or grander than human rights and social justice, trying to raise the moral bar. Each day offers me another way to serve.” He goes through the litany of personal diplomacy experiences he has participated in: gaining the release of a captured US Navy pilot from Syria; the release of 48 Cuban and Cuban-American prisoners in Cuba; bringing home citizens from the UK, France and other countries who had been held as “human shields” by Saddam Hussein in Kuwait and Iraq in 1990; his negotiations to gain the release of US soldiers held hostage in Kosovo; or the negotiations for the release of journalists in Liberia who were working on a documentary for British television.
Jackson is on a rhetorical roll, even at this early hour in the morning, “Our struggle has gone from the darkness of Apartheid and segregation to the morning of voting and elected officials, but we’ve got to go from freedom to equality and globalisation…. We’re in the morning of our struggle. I’ve seen great people assassinated and the blood…. [But] we must not equate freedom with equality…. The big nations can still break international law…. We must honor international law, human rights, worker rights, children’s rights, self determination, transparency.”
Jackson unveils an extended story of a famous American football game in which one team, the New York Jets, is on the raw edge of losing when a player on the other team suddenly throws his helmet in the air in preemptive celebration. That’s an automatic penalty on that team and suddenly the Jets win in an absolute nail-biter in the final seconds of the game. The story is designed to explain that those in a struggle for justice can never give up hope. We are back in the world of sermons, where the lessons of sports transfer to become the larger lessons for the righteous life.
And about South Africa’s own challenges in living up to its dreams? Jackson pauses and then says, “Sometimes we fall short and then we get back up again.” The next day, Rev Jackson gave a sermon at a local church in Johannesburg that includes many African Americans resident in South Africa as its parishioners. One person who attended the service said later that in his sermon, Rev Jackson had been insistent South Africans cannot be “premature” in their celebrating of freedom. “We are free but not equal,” Jackson had preached. As it was described afterwards, without ever naming names, he had proceeded to deliver what could only be described as an indictment of the failure of the government to achieve equality for most black South Africans.
Listening to Jesse Jackson, one could not help but hear the biblical cadence in his language and in his thinking; in the way he described the big issues in starkly moral terms and in his insistence on never stopping in the work of carrying some big, heavy stones up a very big hill. But another biblical metaphor comes to mind as well, in an echo of his mentor’s own 1968 speech during that ill-fated visit to Memphis. King had said then, “He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” At least metaphorically, Jackson too is of a kind of American Moses. He’s been brought to the very edge of his secular Promised Land; he had been allowed to gaze upon it and to long for it; but he was fated to never quite cross over that last stretch of land from where he was now to where America can go. DM
● The Rainbow Push Coalition (Jackson’s social action agency) website
● At Random Magazine’s interview with author Marshall Frady via the Public Broadcast System’s website
Photo: Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson attends the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, 4 September 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle