From Country Preacher to Populist Politician


Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Race, by Thomas H. Landess and Richard M. Quinn, Ottawa, Ill.: Jameson Books, 276 pages, $17.95

This is the legend of one Jesse Louis Burns, who became "the Reverend" Jesse Jackson, who became a black populist politician, who became very rich and famous (or infamous). From Greenville to Greensboro to greenbucks! From Gatsby-like legend to the ultimate media manipulator, Jesse persists:

I AM somebody! I am black, beautiful, proud! I must be respected. I must be protected. I am God's Child. What time is it? Nationtime! Ahw right—look out!!!

This ritualistic catechism was a part of the Saturday morning sermon and dialogue by Jackson at the Church of Operation Breadbasket, which eventually became PUSH, People United to Save Humanity (later, to Serve Humanity) in the 1970s. This catechism is typical of the constant rhetoric that Jesse Jackson, Muslim dissident Louis Farrakhan, and too many others use to excite their followers. He excels in the self-serving tradition of magniloquence and empty phrases, often bordering on hot air, hocus-pocus, hokum, hooey, and bunk.

Who is this Jackson fellow, who claims to speak for Africamerica (my word, for American people with roots in African tradition and culture by virtue of their ancestors having been slaves imported from Africa)? Who really is this Jesse Jackson, who embraces the Third World, who reaps great prosperity and seeks the presidency in the very system he seems to despise?

Jesse Louis Jackson is little known among whites except for what the media have conveyed. And that image is contradictory. The New Deal liberal types honor and protect him; their conservative counterparts generally crucify him reflexively. Ironically, he is even little known in his own black community, except as a voice speaking "eloquent" oratory to the white world. In any case, when it comes to Jackson, all three elements—the liberal and conservative media and the black community—suffer from the "Don't Confuse Me with the Facts" syndrome.

In Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Race, Thomas Landess and Richard Quinn paint a portrait of an opportunistic, driven, ambiguous man. Before even opening the cover of the book, I had some serious concerns.

First of all, who are these guys Landess and Quinn? Are they black or white? Was this going to be more superficial "political analysis" by someone who probably had never heard of Barbara Reynolds's well-documented, extensive, audacious exposé of Jackson? Reynolds's book, Jesse Jackson: The Man, the Myth and the Movement, appeared on bookstore shelves in Chicago in 1975 but disappeared shortly thereafter. I read portions of the book in 1976 and personally knew much of it to be credible. I was not at all surprised that none of that information ever surfaced during Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign. Would these authors cover for "the Reverend" too?

Well! To my surprise and relief, the authors not only know who Barbara Reynolds was, and of her book, but derived much of the first few chapters of their book from Reynolds's work. Now these guys had real credibility as far as I was concerned. Equally as impressive was their original research and, most of all, their outstanding insight into this man's saga, told with passion, penetrating judgment, and authenticity (and I still don't know whether the authors are black, white, or whatever, and really don't care after all).

In the book we move from an even-handed, detailed account of Jackson's background and mythical "deprived" childhood to his theatrics and almost morbid opportunism immediately following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. We observe in great detail (for which the authors apologize, but which is absolutely important and enlightening) Jackson's loyal friendship with the violently anti-Semitic, apocalyptical, and equally ambitious Louis Farrakhan. Why such a link?

The authors detail how Jackson quickly grabbed a leadership role in the late civil-rights movement and how he pushed aside Dr. King's anointed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) successor and closest friend, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. In a foreword to this book, Abernathy reflects on what has happened to the civil-rights movement since King's death and offers wise counsel on how to set things right. Abernathy's only criticism of the book focuses not on its accuracy but on the straightforward, rather than critical, presentation of Jesse Jackson's flagrant abuse of both him and the SCLC.

It had been with an uncanny sense of theater, some snake oil, and much self-promotion that Jackson operated the SCLC's Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. The group effectively utilized the power of the boycott to encourage businesses to better serve blacks, an approach started in 1959 by Rev. Leon Sullivan in Philadelphia and expanded by King through the SCLC by 1962. But Landess and Quinn show how Jackson took the boycott further, applying quasi-extortionist tactics first against local businesses and later nationwide, after he ceremoniously departed from Operation Breadbasket to his own PUSH. PUSH became Jackson's "bread" basket and power base in Chicago. The authors document how it evolved over the years through five separate shells to hide the pea from the Internal Revenue Service.

But too many of Jackson's efforts and personal gains came at the expense of people he purportedly served, such as legitimate black politicians who opposed the Daley political machine in Chicago in the early 1970s. Many of Jackson's gains actually helped "one of the shrewdest manipulators of power in the history of American politics, Richard J. Daley," retain his power. Jackson, say the authors, "made it difficult to believe he really wanted to upset Chicago's boss mayor, either in 1971 or 1975." But in 1983 Harold Washington became king of the hill in spite of Jesse. So after 18 years in the Windy City, Jackson left town for parts south—as in Carolina. The reason why is obvious.

After the resignation of Andrew Young as US ambassador to the UN, it became clear that Jackson would attempt to lead the "new black agenda" (now including overt anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish, or traditional anti-Semitic positions). This led to friendships with terrorist Yasir Arafat (of the Palestinian Liberation Organization), Libya's Moammar Khadafi, Cuba's Fidel Castro, and several other anti-Semitic, anti-American individuals. In their attempt to explain Jackson's multitude of motivations and contradictions, the authors' even-handed account allows the readers to decide for themselves why Jackson forged these relationships.

The book's final chapter had the greatest impact on me. There the authors show that Jackson is not the socialist I had thought he was for years. Instead, they make a good case for characterizing him as above all a populist. Ironically, he uses the same rhetoric and tactics of the post–Civil War southern politicians and the modern populists. The former established Jim Crow laws; the latter seek to end control of the world by "Jewish bankers." Jesse makes for a new twist—black anti-Semitism and bigotry.

Drawing from reports over the years by reliable people such as Reynolds and black journalists such as Milton Coleman (the man Farrakhan threatened to kill or have killed); Angela Parker, who exposed Jackson's miserable bookkeeping to Abernathy and the SCLC; and Vernon Jarret, the authors reveal a seldom-disclosed side of Jackson—scheming, devious, deceitful, self-serving, and sometimes just plain dishonest. The book shows that Jackson, differing greatly from King, has been more concerned with power and money than with "rights"; more concerned with separatism than with a colorblind America; more concerned with Arabs than with Jews. Most of Martin Luther King's ideals are mere mid-January media exposure for Jackson. He gets exposure as the "poverty" leader who spends time in the posh La Costa, California, spa. He gets coverage launching yet another voter registration drive or rejuvenating PUSH EXCEL inspirational phrases for black youth. He calls press conferences almost daily, and the media show up. Landess and Quinn show that Jesse, the Country Preacher, is pure and simple a politician who lacks credibility with most Americans regardless of race, though they are unable to articulate why. They do, however, understand that "nation-time" really means "Jesse Jackson time."

His personal power has come from his oratory, bordering on eloquence at times, as shown at the 1984 Democratic convention before a national television audience. This was perhaps Jackson's greatest moment to date. As a black populist politician, disguised as a man of the cloth for effect, he finds power and strength in the spoken word. But, as the authors imply and one might observe independently, Jackson would increase his worth to all concerned if he were more open and consistent, talked less, and shed his anti-Semitism.

The grand scope of this unforgettable book encompasses not only the poignant tale of the ambiguous and ambitious, often deceptive, always-the-politician Jesse Jackson, but also the deepest feelings of many Africamerican people and our never-ending quest for equality before the law, which is now nearly attained. More important, however, is liberty—which is not equality, but freedom. Apparently, Jesse Jackson and thousands have not made the distinction and therefore don't know the difference.

It is an absorbing, compelling book of a secretive man with a strange mission. It is a stunning peek at a brilliant and troubled man, a book hard to put down and certain to linger in the reader's mind. Using the time-honored cliché of book reviewers…this book must be read.

Richard Boddie is a public speaker and writer.