Jesse Jackson: One Leader Among Many

  • Two years ago this week, on the bleak balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, black America lost its greatest modern-day leader. In the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the entire nation also lost a part of its conscience-a very human scale by which to weigh its commitment to racial justice. Bewildered whites dedicated to nonviolence wondered to whom they could now relate when they thought-as they did perhaps all too rarely-about blacks. For a time, blacks reacted with inevitable rage as well as sorrow, and agonized over their lack of leadership.

    Today most blacks and thoughtful whites have accepted the fact that leadership on the magnitude of a Martin Luther King is uncommon in any race or time. This realization has contributed to a new mood among the blacks who now form the vanguard of the mass drive for racial progress. They are angrier than ever, more impatient with social, economic and political servitude, and even more determined to revolutionize race relations and achieve full equality in American society. Although blacks were never in full agreement with all of King's tactics, they now look less longingly for any single man to provide a sense of unity that, however uplifting, must necessarily be an illusion when applied to a people who are as diverse as any other in their talents, interests and philosophies.

    The black movement today is fractionalized. Many blacks would argue that it always has been, but that the condition is now more readily recognized by blacks as a positive asset. Strongly linked by a fierce pride in their very blackness and by outrage at continued white racism, the movement's leaders are pursuing progress on many highly specialized fronts. More than in the past, the assault on inequality, the use of black pride and power, is taking place on the local community level. The lack of national voices makes the decibel level of black protest seem lower. Actually, the many local voices have been speaking loudly, but white America has not always been listening.

    Three-Way Split

    This new localism draws much of its strength from the intense feelings and aroused energy of an increasingly activist and impatient generation of black youth. It also coincides with a philosophical and pragmatic fragmentation of the entire black movement. As analyzed by Charles V. Hamilton, professor of political science at Columbia University, there is sharp disagreement among the traditional integrationists, best symbolized by King and the N.A.A.C.P.'s Roy Wilkins; the black nationalists, of whom CORE's Roy Innis and US's Ron Karenga are leading spokesmen; and the Marxist-oriented revolutionaries, represented by the Black Panthers. In Hamilton's view, the integrationists have discovered that their classic techniques of progress through the courts, the Congress and the Federal Government are no longer as effective as previously. The nationalists, who appeal to black pride and push for black studies, local control of their communities and black political and economic power, are gaining strength. At the same time, more blacks are becoming radicalized. Though still a minority, those who lean toward the Panther concept of waging a class struggle, sometimes in alliance with white revolutionaries, to overthrow the present capitalistic system are gaining attention-much of it repressive. The probable result of this three-way split, contends Hamilton, is that the civil rights action will continue to "center in the local communities and not at the national level in the next few years."

    For black leaders, all three courses pose risks. A return to purely passive conventional protest would destroy the morale and thrust of the black movement. Black nationalism, if carried to extremes, could lead to separatist schemes and policies which are unrealistic for and 11% minority that must live with whites. As for "revolution," it is clearly impossible, and irresponsible talk about it, however justified the anger that prompts it, can be dangerous because if may mislead blacks about the extent of their power and may serve to confirm whites in fear and repression. The most hopeful strategy thus seems to be the determined use of political organization and economic pressure that have been used countless times before within the U.S. system. This strategy can make full use of black nationalism to build pride and spirit.

    The current impact of the black extremist groups is mixed. Severely crippled by most of their leaders' having been killed, jailed or propelled into exile, the Black Panthers face mounting financial and organizational problems. Yet their very difficulties with the law have drawn sympathy from many fellow blacks, especially youths. The Panthers have further sensitized black communities to what they regard as police repression. Their program of providing breakfast and tutorial help for young blacks has been both admired and copied by black students on some college campuses. But there is no indication of any significant gains in Panther membership. At the same time, the Panthers' wild rhetoric and order-shattering tactics, most notably in Chicago and New York City, have seriously antagonized whites.

    Such a fluid situation could heighten conflict and stir personal rivalries. Indeed, especially on the black left, there has been some fratricide. But for the most part, the factions seem determined to go their own way and allow others to do the same.

    One of the most promising signs of future racial progress is the way in which growing numbers of blacks unite behind black political candidates. Working at precinct and small-town levels, blacks are seizing levers of local power in city halls, county seats, school boards and sheriffs' offices. Without broad black backing, Richard Hatcher could not have been elected mayor of Gary, Ind., nor could Carl Stokes have been twice chosen mayor of Cleveland.

    Localism as Core

    Such battle-tested national organizations as the N.A.A.C.P., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Urban League have long selected specific communities to score victories that could become pacesetting precedents or affect the national mood. As localism becomes more the core of the struggle, they continue to perform the vital role of keeping local communities from backsliding on integration of schools and public facilities, expanding voter registration, breaking white barriers against blacks in industry, training blacks for better jobs. Such leaders as the N.A.A.C.P.'s Wilkins, the Urban League's Whitney Young and S.C.L.C.'s Rev. Ralph Abernathy may lack appeal to many younger blacks, but their organizations still carry impressive black support.

    More often, the new black localism is the work of lesser known figures who are learning how to create black self-help groups, to force coalitions of white civic leaders and black activists where necessary, and to work among the black poor to give them hope and the techniques to improve their living conditions. It is hard, painstaking, unromantic work in which success seldom comes swiftly, but once achieved, can have lasting effect.

    Any one of a dozen such grass-roots leaders could be used to symbolize the ways in which black gains, however modest, are being achieved in communities. One who is more articulate and arresting than most is Rev. Jesse Jackson, an intense, passionate advocate of using black economic power to force white-run businesses to provide more and better jobs for blacks and to open chain-store shelves to black products. Tall and sensuously attractive, Jackson is the kind of leader who suggests both a dignity of bearing in his brooding dedication to his cause and a sense of brotherly warmth in his casual Levi's, boots and open sport shirts. He possesses what he himself matter-of-factly accepts as charisma, and he inspires devotion among a wide range of followers.

    Orator v. Organizer

    As the Chicago-based national director of S.C.L.C.'s economic arm, Operation Breadbasket, Jackson has effectively coerced some 15 companies in Chicago's heavily black South Side into opening up 5,000 new jobs for blacks in the past four years. At 28, he effectively bridges the widening gulf between the young activists and the old-style moralistic preachers. His strength is his use of evangelistic fervor to achieve pragmatic ends. "You can be an orator or an organizer," he insists. "I am an organizer." Actually, he is a blend of both, and sometimes describes his occupation as that of a "moral engineer."

    Jackson fully recognizes the uses of diversity in black leadership, and is the first to put down anyone who attempts to fit him for the mantle of Martin Luther King or even label him first among his peers in local organizing. He has chosen to work within the system and manages to twist it against itself into grudgingly granting black demands, but he does not disparage other voices, other tactics. "No man can tell a man who is hurting how to holler," he argues. "The business of trying to decry people because of the way they complain of injustice is past and gone."

    Thus Jackson does not condemn the Black Panthers; neither does he embrace their Marxist philosophy or all of their tactics. Because the Panthers are so widely seen as victims of police repression, they pose a delicate problem for many black leaders. Jackson handles that problem rather skillfully. He accepts their claim that they espouse violence only defensively, in response to white terrorism against them. He lauds their contribution to black pride. With the same ease, Jackson can endorse moderates; he praises Roy Wilkins for fighting racial injustice "long before I was born." He sees the usefulness of tuxedoed black leaders who attend banquets and charm wealthy whites into donating to black causes. He is willing to work with whites to create a social, if not a political revolution: "The young white radicals who are rebelling against their mamas and daddies because their lives are empty and meaningless are fighting the system for one reason. Those of us that are black are fighting it for another reason, but both of us are fighting it. And the system is either going to adjust or it's going to deteriorate."

    Jackson neither advocates nor castigates violence as a tactic, but he doubts its effectiveness: "Our experience with the hot war is that it is a bit futile, given the Man's military superiority," he says. "There is no more shock value in riots. The Man is ready for that too." But Jackson argues that whether blacks turn to violence will actually depend upon white decisions. "If more of us are starving, more of us will be fighting at the desperate level. If the question is survival, the reaction is independent of any black leader's thoughts of it. They are irrelevant, because of the nature of man." But if violence must come, he pleads, "let it be as mellow as possible."

    These and other Jackson views place him closest to the black nationalists in the current philosophical spectrum of the black movement. He feels that many blacks have common economic grievances with poor whites; Breadbasket's campaign to get the Chicago city council to fight hunger in the city embraces such whites. But Jackson's basic approach is to stimulate the black community into forcing concessions from whites. The nationalism he defends is a nationalism based on a shared experience of oppression rather than on race.

    Separatism v. Integration

    Always the pragmatist, Jackson is equally undoctrinaire on the argument over separatism and integration. "We're already separate," he observes, "and blacks didn't do the separating-and we don't have the power to do the integrating. So the question becomes whether we remain separate and dependent or become separate and independent-obviously, that's the way we've got to go." Noting that blacks do not remain in ghettos because they love all their neighbors but because they are forced to stay, he observes that those who do manage to move out do so not in pursuit of "the soul, joy and fulfillment" of living with whites, but to escape "the pain, misery and agony" of the slums. He sees no magic in having black kids sit beside whites in schools. "You don't learn anything by osmosis because you sit next to whites." Nevertheless, Jackson prefers school integration because "given the reality of American racism, white children are magnets for capital in education-whites don't intend to leave each other ignorant." As for black studies, Jackson finds them of value in developing self-appreciation, but suggest that it is more important to "spend our energy on the black future."

    A pensive man in private, Jackson expounds his opinions forcefully in public. He does not arouse a crowd as readily as King did, but he employs cadence, sweeping hand gestures, a penetrating gaze and abrupt changes in volume to command attention. He deliberately mangles grammar and throws in mild profanity to develop rapport with audiences. He is hopelessly addicted to preacherly metaphors, some effectively illuminating, others either mystifying or inept. "We need leadership," he likes to say, "not leaders. The ship is what's important because each person can be a plank."

    Augmenting his homey style of speech, Jackson, once a conventional suit-and-tie dresser, has turned casual and has also taken to an Afro haircut. He wears a huge medallion bearing an image of U.S. Olympic Track Stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith, their clenched fists raised high in their defiant Black Power salute at Mexico City. Jackson was dressed that way in a recent talk at Harvard University's Eliot House, where he delighted black and white students with his opening words: "Now y'all have to 'scuse me 'cause I'm just a country preacher here in this big citadel of learning."

    Some of Chicago's tough-minded businessmen have learned the hard way that Jesse Jackson is no country preacher. They have felt the black-pocketbook power of his Operation Breadbasket, which permits Jackson to enjoy testing his theories in the arena of practical action. Estimating that blacks constitute a consumer market that spends about $36 billion per year, Jackson figures this represents a potentially decisive leverage to wrest concessions from white businessmen. "We are the margin of profit of every major item produced in America from General Motors cars down to Kellogg's Corn Flakes." He contends. "If we've got his margin of profit, we've got his genitals." Theoretically, if all blacks were to act in concert, that statement might be credible; practically, it is of course a vast exaggeration.

    Appointed by King in 1966 to establish a Breadbasket office in Chicago, Jackson works out of a dingy building in the South Side ghetto. He began by marshaling the support of many of the community's ministers. Their strategy was simple: they first demanded to see the employment records of a target company in their neighborhood. They then told the company how many more jobs it must offer to blacks and at what levels. It told them which black products must be displayed on their shelves. In the company how many more jobs it must offer to blacks and at what levels. It told them which black products must be displayed on their shelves. If the company would not sign a statement of agreement, the ministers spread the word: Do not buy there.

    The first firm that Breadbasket approached was a dairy, Country Delight, Inc., which refused to disclose any of its records. On the following Sunday the call for a boycott was heard in 100 black churches. Within three days, Country Delight agreed to offer 44 new or upgraded jobs to blacks-a full 20% of its employment. It took ten days for Breadbasket to crack High-Low Foods Inc., a Chicago grocery chain with 54 stores. It agreed to hire 183 blacks in jobs ranging from department managers to delivery boys. One badly managed grocery chain, Red Rooster, Inc., was boycotted by blacks who objected to its inferior meat. It could not take the pressure and went out of business. Its bitter president called Jackson "a liar and a phony," while other white executives complained that they were being victimized by an extortionist. Obviously however, blacks had long been more severely victimized by high prices, surly service and shoddy products, as well as job discrimination, in many ghetto stores.

    Monopoly on Rats

    Breadbasket's most spectacular success was its 16-week drive against A. & P., which operates more than 40 markets in Chicago's black neighborhoods. The chain finally surrendered. It not only signed a compact to hire 26? more blacks, including twelve as store managers and six as warehouse supervisors, but it agreed to stock some 2? black products, including Grove Fresh orange juice, Mumbo Barbecue Sauce, Staff of Life bread, Joe Louis milk and King Solomon spray deodorant, and to give them prominent display. A. & P. also agreed to use black-owned companies for its janitor services, garbage removal, and rodent extermination ("We have a monopoly on rats in the ghetto-and we're going to have a monopoly on killing them").

    After that victory, Jackson's troop moved on to persuade neighborhood companies to do their banking in black banks and savings and loan associations. The combined assets of two such banks rose quickly from $5,000,000 to $22 million. Grocery chains were pressed into using black contractors to build their new stores in the ghetto. Many stores have capitulated to Breadbasket without any direct pressure at all because, as Jackson puts it, "they heard our footsteps coming."

    With less success, but considerable potential, Jackson has set up other Breadbasket operations in eight cities, including Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Brooklyn, Houston and Cleveland. The effort in Cleveland was broadened to include political action. One surprising tactic there was designed to combat what blacks feared would be police harassment of black voters to prevent the re-election of Mayor Stokes last November. The interference was expected at polling places late in the day, when city voters usually turn out in greatest numbers. But Breadbasket sent its band, accompanied by some 600 black teen-agers, into Negro areas at 5 a.m. on election day. They raised a racket that thousands of irate residents awoke-to be told to vote early in the morning. The early black turnout helped clinch a Stokes victory.

    I Am Somebody

    Although Breadbasket has become linked almost solely to Jackson's name and image, it is far from a one-man show. Efficiently organized into functional divisions, it runs smoothly, even when Jackson is away, under the day-to-day administration of such able aides as the Rev. Calvin Morris, the associate director, and a lively woman minister, the Rev. Mrs. Willie P. Barrow.

    Wherever he may travel during the week, however, Jackson inevitably returns to Chicago for the one big showpiece effort that keeps Breadbasket spiritually together: a three-hour Saturday morning meeting (90 minutes of it broadcast locally by radio) in which black ministers mingle with black businessmen, tough youth-gang leaders sit beside aspiring politicians, and some 5,000 of Jackson's fans shout their "Right on, Jesse!" and "Tell it, brother!" as he pitches for the current Breadbasket programs. He calls it "hustling time," and he sells pride as well as products. "I am somebody," he chants. "I am somebody," comes the crowd's ringing echo.

    Jesse Jackson is somebody all right. He has a host of adoring admirers as well as caustic critics. But he is still too young to assume a black leadership role on a national scale. He rightfully resents white journalists who portray him as the heir to King or the rival to Abernathy. If S.C.L.C. were to seek a new leader today, the Atlanta-based organization would not be apt to reach outside the South. Until he decided to run for Congress, the most likely replacement among S.C.L.C.'s rising officials seemed to be its brilliant executive vice president, the Rev. Andrew Young. "A guitar has room for many strings," says Jackson. "We need to orchestrate harmony, no rivalry."

    Jackson is well-acquainted with the problems of poor blacks. He was born in Greenville, S.C. where his father was a cotton grader who lived next door to his mother but was married to someone else. The fact that other black kids with "so-called legitimate beginnings" teased him, Jackson recalls, made him determined to succeed. His mother later married a janitor, and young Jesse often accompanied him his night duties. One office his stepfather cleaned belonged to a Greenville lawyer named Clement Haynsworth.

    From his house, Jesse recalls, he could look down one street and watch gamblers and bootleggers running from cops. "Firemen, rent collectors, store owners, police-these were my symbols of white authority, and we hid from all of them." He could look in another direction and see symbols of black respectability: a neatly kept house containing a family with three well-educated schoolteachers. He could also see a white school, but instead of attending it he had to walk five miles to reach his black school. He experienced cruder prejudice early. At the age of six, he rushed happily into a store, whistled innocently for service-and saw the white shopkeeper point a gun at him. What later bothered him most was that no black adults in the store said anything.

    Jackson's early self-confidence was developed largely through high school athletics. He quarterbacked the football team, starred in basketball, pitched baseball-and won an athletic scholarship from the University of Illinois.

    But Jackson was shaken by the separatism then imposed on black athletes at Illinois. "While the white guys were out there partying with girls on weekends, the blacks sat in their dorm drinking Coke and playing cards." He quit in disgust at the end of his freshman year and secured a scholarship to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, an all-black school in Greensboro, N.C. There he excelled as a football star, an honor student majoring in sociology-economics and student body president-and he moved, almost automatically, into civil rights activism. He had organized a sit-in at his home-town library when he became infuriated to find that he could not even use reference books that he needed for his college studies. In Greensboro he found himself leading sit-ins at lunch counters and protest parades through town.

    Jackson's personal commitment was sealed in the summer of 1963, when he led a demonstration at the Greensboro jail. There some 400 black protesters were crowded into cells designed to confine only half that number. "It was hot. Those blacks were hanging on, suffocating, passing out. I began crying. It threw me into a whole new psychic pattern. It became a commitment for life." He also became adept at a kind of psychological warfare with the dominant whites. He discovered that when black demonstrators broke into the national anthem, puzzled cops stopped and took off their hats; when blacks knelt in prayer, no one attacked them.

    Thoroughly fatigued by the struggles in Greensboro and convinced that activism also required expertise, Jackson considered law, then settled on the ministry, even though "I didn't dig that stereotype-donning black suits and hats, no bosoms and all that." He accepted a foundation-financed scholarship to Chicago Theological Seminary. There he proved a quick and perceptive student. "He is the only person I know," claims the seminary's Dean of Students Robert S. Moore, "who can talk Tillich to sixth-graders and make them understand." But Jackson was more interested in talking Black Power to black ministers, whom he began organizing while still a student. He became convinced that the Bible was "nothing but a succession of civil rights struggles by the Jewish people against their oppressors." If the Jews could do it, why not the blacks? He rushed off to Selma, Ala., in 1965 and met Martin Luther King for the first time. "King was like a giant-this articulate black cat down in Alabama, which we thought was hell; but he was not afraid of violence and bullets and bombs." Jackson was the last man King spoke to before he was shot in Memphis. Jesse ran to the balcony, held King's head, but it was too late.

    Jackson lives with his wife Jacqueline, 26, and three children (Santita, 8; Jesse Jr., 5; and Jonathan Luther, 4) in a six-room apartment in the predominantly black Jackson Park area on Chicago's South Side. His wife, whom he met at North Carolina A. & T., has worked with him on civil rights activities, including Breadbasket.

    One of the common strengths of many of today's black activists is their unselfish application of considerable intelligence to an unchallengeable moral cause, creating an aura of confidence that they ultimately will prevail. Such a man is the Rev. Leon Sullivan in Philadelphia, whose organization called Opportunities Industrialization Center has opened 90 branches across the nation. Its office in Brooklyn, for example, uses an abandoned jail as a classroom for training unskilled blacks for jobs with established firms. Its on-the-job training programs have been even more effective.

    In St. Louis, Percy Green, a radical leader who clothes himself in U.S. Army fatigues and sports a cap with five stars on it, nevertheless fights within the system. He heads up ACTION, which provided key testimony before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that convinced the Defense Department that McDonnell Douglas Corp. would have to hire more blacks if it wanted to retain its contract to produce F-15 fighter aircraft.

    One of the most unusual self-help groups is called Thugs United, based in New Orleans. Organized by leaders of tough black gangs, it claims a membership of some 6,000 ghetto blacks, including pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers. Far from a reformist outfit, it tries to get such anti-social types to put some of their illicit income back into the community to help train ex-convicts to hold straight jobs, promote voter registration, teach remedial reading. It also pressured most hard-drug pushers to lay off such sales to high school youths. When one pusher was caught soliciting near a school, someone broke both of his arms.

    Mainly under labor union sponsorship, an action committee in the Watts section of Los Angeles owns and operates its own automobile service stations, where it trains black mechanics. It also controls four Shop-Rite Markets, which do $9,000,000 in business annually, trains black management, even leases land to employ blacks to grow agricultural produce.

    Even in the Deep South, blacks are uniting on the local level to assert their economic strength against the white-dominated status quo. In central Mississippi, for example, some 400 blacks have joined the Simpson County Civic League to operate a low-rent housing project, purchase fertilizer in mass amounts to reduce operating costs for about 100 black farmers, and open a cooperative grocery store to lower prices.

    Midnight Raids

    Black localism is also strengthened by the leadership of many forceful and talented black women. The role of women in the ghetto and elsewhere has been doubly difficult. They have been exploited sexually and have also had to find jobs, often as domestics, to support their families, when their men have been unable to get jobs in the white world. Now that the black man is nurturing his own new-found strength and pride, the black woman's role is particularly complex and sensitive. Nevertheless, because of her tradition of working and asserting herself, she has much to offer the movement.

    One such leader is Mrs. Helen Howard, a housewife in the black Vine City section of Atlanta. She has turned her considerable energy to the Vine City Foundation, Inc., which has set up a health clinic, a nursery for children from disrupted homes, counseling for blacks on welfare programs and a campaign against rent-gouging landlords. On a national scale, Mrs. Johnnie Tillmon is a key member of the National Welfare Rights Organization, one of the most effective defenders of the black poor. It has chapters in all 50 states that are working to help welfare recipients secure their full legal benefits without bowing to such indignities as midnight raids designed to uncover males in a household. A mother of six, she was born in a shack near Little Rock and now works out of Los Angeles. Such determined black women as Brooklyn's Mrs. Shirley Chisholm are proving effective in politics. Formerly a consultant on child welfare for New York City, she successfully ran for the state assembly. Then she bucked the Democratic organization to become the first black woman elected to Congress.

    Politics is, in fact, the field in which many blacks place their highest hopes. Perhaps the best example of the emerging black politician is Julian Bond, whose cool style charms both blacks and whites even as he assails white racism in blunt terms. Tough and smart, he has used his local position as a member of the Georgia legislature to achieve national prominence as a hall-packing speaker. A less glamorous but no less aggressive politician is Charles Evers, one of a growing number of black officials in small Southern towns. In Fayette, Miss., Evers has refused to yield before assassination threats, and is demonstrating that blacks can run a local government efficiently-without resorting to racism in reverse.

    All such efforts serve to strengthen blacks' conviction that they can eventually compete with whites, but in a sensed these steps can offer only distant hopes for real interracial progress. Proud as he is of his pact with A. & P., Jesse Jackson concedes that it accomplished little toward eliminating racism in the Chicago area. "We didn't change the hearts of the executives," he says. "We simply changed the behavior of the corporation. You don't strive for love between institutions; you strive for love between individuals and just between institutions. And sometimes justice has its own way of creating, if not love, at least respect."

    Respect will also come, as Jackson and many of his peers among the new black leaders see it, when the slowing expanding middle class in black communities commits itself more completely to racial progress rather than self-service. "The black doctor should study medicine in order to improve public health and not just to secure personal wealth," warns Jackson. "The black lawyer should study law to distribute justice, not just to secure a judgeship. The black teacher should teach to spread information and not want to tear the school down for a $10 raise."

    Such a change would not erase racism overnight, but today's restive blacks insist that racism is a white, not a black problem. "When blacks are unemployed, they are considered lazy and apathetic," observes Jackson. "When whites are unemployed, it's considered a depression. That's racism. And this pink-skin worship is pathological. It must be dealt with by psychotherapists and not by politicians."

    If this is no prescription to remedy the nation's racial ills, it does reflect the growing disillusionment of many of the nation's most concerned and thoughtful blacks with the often professed, but too rarely fulfilled, good intentions of white leaders and white institutions. At a time when blacks feel they are being further repressed, rather than liberated, they are turning inward, but this does not dismay them. In Jesse Jackson's apt summation: "There is still reason for optimism. But it is not based upon what the white man is going to do. It is based upon what we are going to do-and upon what we are going to do-and upon what we are going to make the Man do."