After Jesse Jackson

Will his brand of civil rights leadership survive him?

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy. The 39-year-old Nobel Laureate was the proponent of non-violence in the 1960's American civil rights movement. King is honored with a national U.S. holiday celebrated in January.    (AP Photo)
1968 AP
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Daniel Libit
Dec. 4, 2015, 5 a.m.

Last Novem­ber in Chica­go, on the Sat­urday after the Fer­guson grand jury de­clined to in­dict the of­ficer who shot Mi­chael Brown, Jesse Jack­son headed to the Plexiglas lectern in the Rain­bow PUSH chapel to de­liv­er his weekly ser­mon. He began his re­marks the way he al­ways does, by re­cit­ing a poem by At­lanta Pas­tor Wil­li­am Holmes Bor­ders that has be­come his sig­na­ture.

I am some­body.

I am some­body.

Re­spect me. Pro­tect me. Nev­er neg­lect me.

I am some­body.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the chapel at the Rain­bow PUSH Co­ali­tion—the civil rights or­gan­iz­a­tion Jack­son foun­ded in 1971—was crammed each week with hun­dreds of wor­ship­pers, re­port­ers, and politi­cians wait­ing to hear him speak; TV satel­lite trucks routinely idled out­side. “The un­writ­ten book should be called, Any Giv­en Sat­urday, be­cause any giv­en Sat­urday, you didn’t know who you were go­ing to meet,” says Marty King, who has been chair­man of the Rain­bow PUSH board since 2000.

Today isn’t any giv­en Sat­urday: It’s one on which Jack­son will re­spond to a sig­ni­fic­ant civil-rights-re­lated event and lead con­greg­ants in a protest after the ser­vice. And yet there are only about 60 people in at­tend­ance. These days, it’s not un­usu­al for the Sat­urday crowd to be figured in dozens; vo­lun­teer ush­ers have grown ac­cus­tomed to cor­ralling wor­ship­pers in­to the first five or six rows of the middle sec­tion of the sanc­tu­ary, so as to present a suit­able back­drop for the live-broad­cast cam­er­as. (The event is streamed on Rain­bow PUSH’s web­site, and sim­ul­cast on iHeartRa­dio and the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an re­li­gious sta­tion The Word.)

“It doesn’t both­er me one bit,” Jack­son told me a month or so later, in his of­fices at Rain­bow PUSH, when I asked him how he felt about speak­ing to largely empty pews. “If I was go­ing to fo­cus on Chica­go like I used to, and went to every loc­al meet­ing and kind of beat the drums, it would be dif­fer­ent. I got back this morn­ing, I speak to­mor­row, and then I go to New York. That is more im­port­ant than hav­ing a church full.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, head of the Rainbow/Push civil rights organization in Chicago poses at the organizations headquarters. A(c)Ralf-Finn Hestoft 2012

Jack­son, the son of the South­ern Chris­ti­an Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence who seized the civil rights torch after Mar­tin Luth­er King’s as­sas­sin­a­tion, tells me he’s all about the big pic­ture these days. The civil rights move­ment, he likes to say, is in the fourth stage of the struggle: The first was to end slavery, the second was to end Jim Crow, the third was to win the right to vote, and the cur­rent phase is to gain ac­cess to cap­it­al, in­dustry, and tech­no­logy. This kind of change, he says, re­quires na­tion­al and glob­al, not loc­al, think­ing. So Rain­bow PUSH, which is fo­cused on urb­an eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment and minor­ity hir­ing, has branched out from its Chica­go base over the past dec­ade and now has satel­lite of­fices in At­lanta, De­troit, New York, San Fran­cisco, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. And over the past year, Jack­son has led a pub­lic lob­by­ing cam­paign to in­crease the di­versity of the work­force and cor­por­ate board­rooms in Sil­ic­on Val­ley. These ef­forts have met with some suc­cess: Com­pan­ies like Apple, In­tel, Twit­ter, and two dozen oth­er tech firms have re­leased their demo­graph­ic stat­ist­ics and set new hir­ing tar­gets for blacks and Lati­nos. Mean­while, Apple has pledged $50 mil­lion to non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions fo­cused on cor­por­ate di­ver­si­fic­a­tion, and In­tel an­nounced a $300 mil­lion minor­ity hir­ing ini­ti­at­ive.

Why, then, do Jack­son’s friends and as­so­ci­ates sud­denly sound so wor­ried about his leg­acy? Al­though he still works con­stantly and main­tains a pun­ish­ing travel sched­ule, he is no longer the ubi­quit­ous pub­lic pres­ence—or the mass-me­dia fix­ture—he was for more than four dec­ades. He very much sees him­self as a link in a chain, yet he has no ob­vi­ous suc­cessor; no one seems in­clined or po­si­tioned to fol­low in his foot­steps the way he fol­lowed in MLK’s. In­deed, in re­cent years, the dis­tance between him and those be­hind him has been grow­ing: He has found him­self all but sum­mar­ily dis­missed by the na­tion’s first black pres­id­ent; sup­planted by Al Sharpton as the voice of the old guard on cable TV; and at odds with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. He has had strong pub­lic dif­fer­ences with his name­sake son, whose once-prom­ising polit­ic­al ca­reer went down in scan­dal. And the fu­ture of his Rain­bow PUSH Co­ali­tion is also very much in doubt. Can it live bey­ond him? The ques­tion gives even his closest al­lies pause. “My guess is when he is no longer with us, that is when we find out,” says Frank Watkins, Jack­son’s long­time aide-de-camp.

The reas­ons have to do with Jack­son him­self—who he is, the choices he has made, the battles he has fought and won—but also with the pas­sage of time. Things have changed and so, per­haps, has the na­tion’s need for, and use for, Jack­son’s brand of civil rights lead­er. “We are wit­ness­ing all tra­di­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions in a crisis mo­ment,” says Raphael War­nock, the pas­tor of King’s former church, Ebenez­er Baptist, in At­lanta. “I think we are in a post-mod­ern mo­ment where all in­sti­tu­tions are viewed with sus­pi­cion, par­tic­u­larly by mil­len­ni­als.” This sus­pi­cion ex­tends to in­di­vidu­als like Jack­son who, to some ex­tent, are in­sti­tu­tions them­selves.

Although he still works constantly and maintains a punishing travel schedule, he is no longer the ubiquitous public presence—or the mass-media fixture—he was for more than four decades. 

As the ob­it­u­ar­ies con­tin­ue to fill up with the names of King’s aco­lytes, those who re­main—Jack­son, Andy Young, C. T. Vivi­an, Joseph Lowery—are in­creas­ingly dis­con­nec­ted from the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion on race and rights in Amer­ica. There are per­son­al con­sequences to this, of course: Without strong links to young­er act­iv­ists or the causes the next gen­er­a­tion finds most com­pel­ling, in whose memor­ies will the old guard and their con­tri­bu­tions live? But there is also the ques­tion of what a break in the chain would mean for the move­ment. If we are see­ing the last of a par­tic­u­lar type of civil rights lead­er, what, if any­thing, will we have lost when Jack­son and his peers are gone?

BORN IN GREEN­VILLE, South Car­o­lina, in 1941, to a teen­age moth­er and her mar­ried neigh­bor, Jack­son began at an early age to use his prodi­gious tal­ents to define him­self. By the time he reached high school, he was known for hav­ing a way with words and was also a prom­ising ath­lete; he later be­came a star quar­ter­back at North Car­o­lina A&T, as well as class pres­id­ent. But Jack­son also had a strong sense of high­er pur­pose, which led him to sem­in­ary school in Chica­go, where he moved with his wife, Jac­queline, and their young fam­ily be­fore re­turn­ing briefly to the South to join the protest marches in Selma and Mont­gomery. It was in these theat­ers that Jack­son won the af­fec­tion of King, who draf­ted him in­to the SCLC to serve as head of Op­er­a­tion Bread­bas­ket—an ini­ti­at­ive that or­gan­ized cam­paigns for eco­nom­ic justice. Their work­ing re­la­tion­ship would last just a few years, be­fore King was as­sas­sin­ated in Mem­ph­is in 1968.

Al­most from the mo­ment of King’s death, Jack­son began to lay claim to the civil rights lead­er’s mantle. His mach­in­a­tions in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math—most in­fam­ously, his ap­pear­ance on the Today show wear­ing a tur­tle­neck he said was stained with King’s blood—put him in the spot­light but also drew the wrath of King as­so­ci­ates, in­clud­ing Rev­er­end Ral­ph Abernathy, King’s suc­cessor as the lead­er of the SCLC, and Cor­etta Scott King. Three years later, on­go­ing ten­sions with Abernathy led Jack­son to resign from Op­er­a­tion Bread­bas­ket, which he had suc­cess­fully ex­pan­ded from At­lanta to Chica­go. Jack­son, by then an or­dained min­is­ter, formed his own or­gan­iz­a­tion, PUSH, People United to Save Hu­man­ity. (He later changed the name to the more mod­est People United to Serve Hu­man­ity.) Ini­tially, the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s mis­sion was sim­il­ar to Op­er­a­tion Bread­bas­ket’s: It ad­voc­ated for eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity, spe­cific­ally fair em­ploy­ment and hous­ing prac­tices. But over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s, as Jack­son him­self be­came more in­volved in main­stream polit­ics, the group in­creas­ingly con­cerned it­self with voter re­gis­tra­tion and vot­ing rights.

The apo­theosis of this ef­fort came dur­ing Jack­son’s runs for pres­id­ent. In 1984, he won 3.5 mil­lion votes dur­ing the Demo­crat­ic primar­ies; four years later, he nearly doubled that tally, fin­ish­ing a strong second in the nom­in­at­ing con­test and win­ning 11 primary races. Jack­son also chal­lenged the win­ner-take-all sys­tem of award­ing del­eg­ates, ul­ti­mately per­suad­ing his party to al­ter its rules and al­loc­ate seats pro­por­tion­ally. To­geth­er, his cam­paigns brought hun­dreds of thou­sands of new minor­ity voters in­to the polit­ic­al pro­cess.

In 1991, Jack­son moved from Chica­go to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he over­saw the es­tab­lish­ment of the Rain­bow Co­ali­tion, the mul­tiracial polit­ic­al pro­ject that grew out of his pres­id­en­tial bids. He also served as D.C.’s shad­ow sen­at­or, the closest he would ever come to hold­ing polit­ic­al of­fice. He re­turned to Chica­go in 1995, after his son Jesse Jr. was elec­ted to Con­gress, and merged his two or­gan­iz­a­tions. Today, Jack­son’s domin­ion in­cludes four dif­fer­ent en­tit­ies: He serves as founder and pres­id­ent of the Rain­bow PUSH Co­ali­tion; pres­id­ent of the Cit­izen­ship Edu­ca­tion Fund, a voter-out­reach and pub­lic-policy or­gan­iz­a­tion; pas­tor of PUSH’s church; and founder of PUSH for Ex­cel­lence, an edu­ca­tion­al non­profit.

“I think Jesse is like most of us—his time is over,” says C.T. Vivian, a veteran civil rights leader. 

At 74, Jack­son has now lived al­most twice as long as King did, and in some ways, the years them­selves have chipped away at his abil­ity ever to be the same kind of icon. “Hymi­etown,” an af­fair with a staffer, an out-of-wed­lock child, and trouble with the IRS, among oth­er comedowns, have all di­min­ished the odds that he will ever be me­mori­al­ized on the Na­tion­al Mall. And his stumbles have been re­li­ably seized upon by a cast of crit­ics, on both the left and the right, who have con­demned him as an op­por­tun­ist, eager to sell the mor­al high ground to the top bid­der.

But the pas­sage of time has also al­lowed some of the seeds he helped sow to bear fruit. When we met back in Janu­ary, I asked Jack­son about Sharpton—spe­cific­ally why he, not Jack­son, was the one with the MS­N­BC show (it has since been can­celed) and how Jack­son felt about it. (Jack­son hos­ted a weekly cable show on CNN from 1992 to 2000.) “I have known Al since he was 12; I helped push him along,” Jack­son said, in a voice gone ragged from his non­stop speak­ing sched­ule and a slight cold. This, to some ex­tent, is Jack­son’s an­swer to all such ques­tions: that he has al­ways known he was en­sur­ing his own ob­sol­es­cence—that it is what he has been work­ing to­ward. When I ask him about the fu­ture of Rain­bow PUSH, for ex­ample, and about who might take the helm from him, he re­sponds: “I have al­ways spent time cul­tiv­at­ing the next, if not the next two, gen­er­a­tions. So many came in­to the move­ment dur­ing the 1984 cam­paign. They are now coun­cil­men, con­gress­men, and the like. So many came through the ’88 cam­paign, and they are now work­ing in the private sec­tor, the pub­lic sec­tor. So there is now a broad fam­ily that has come through here.”

One of the doors Jack­son helped open, his friends and sup­port­ers are quick to men­tion, is the one to the White House. Not only did his two cam­paigns help make it pos­sible for voters to en­vi­sion an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent, they note, but it was Jack­son’s in­sist­ence on the pro­por­tion­al al­loc­a­tion of del­eg­ates that al­lowed Barack Obama to win the nom­in­a­tion in 2008. In Septem­ber, at the fu­ner­al of Jack­son’s moth­er, Helen, in Green­ville, South Car­o­lina, Max­ine Wa­ters, the Cali­for­nia con­gress­wo­man, told mourn­ers: “If there had been no Jesse Jack­son, there would be no Barack Obama.”

But it is also true that, now that there is a Barack Obama, it is harder, if not down­right im­possible, to have a Jesse Jack­son. “Jesse is han­di­capped. All of us are han­di­capped,” Andy Young, the former King lieu­ten­ant, may­or, and dip­lo­mat, told me late last year at his At­lanta home, “be­cause we have a black pres­id­ent who won’t work with us … and whom we really don’t feel com­fort­able cri­ti­ciz­ing.”

C. T. Vivi­an, an­oth­er King as­so­ci­ate and civil rights icon, put it this way when I spoke to him dur­ing that same trip: “The lead­er now is Obama. The lead­er is polit­ic­al lead­er­ship. It has shif­ted from the kind of church lead­er­ship, from the kind of ac­tion lead­er­ship, but the su­preme ac­tion, the su­preme deal is with Obama and the White House.” He ad­ded, “I think Jesse is like most of us—his time is over.”

A June 4, 2007 file photo shows Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., right, laughing after saying goodbye to Rev. Jesse Jackson, reflected left, after Obama addressed the Rainbow PUSH Coalition's annual conference breakfast in Rosemont, Ill. On Wednesday, July 9, 2008, Jackson apologized comments he made about Obama during what he thought was a private conversation with a reporter. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Jack­son was un­doubtedly destined to find him­self sup­planted to some ex­tent by the first black pres­id­ent, but he helped push him­self to the mar­gins with a com­ment he made dur­ing an ap­pear­ance on Fox News in the sum­mer of 2008. He was caught on a hot mi­cro­phone whis­per­ing to an­oth­er in­ter­viewee that Obama had been “talk­ing down to black people,” which made Jack­son want to “cut his nuts off.” Jack­son was up­set with the Fath­er’s Day mes­sage Obama had de­livered at a black church in Chica­go a few weeks be­fore, in which Obama had cited ab­sent­ee fath­ers as a ma­jor factor in the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an struggle. Three days later, Jesse Jr. is­sued a state­ment con­demning his own fath­er’s re­marks: “I thor­oughly re­ject and re­pu­di­ate his ugly rhet­or­ic.”

Dur­ing the en­su­ing years, Jack­son, ac­cord­ing to Mark Halper­in and John Heile­mann’s 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign tome Double Down, was “ef­fect­ively banned from the White House.” There have also been no pres­id­en­tial vis­its to Rain­bow PUSH, al­though it is loc­ated just around the corner from Obama’s Chica­go home. “The or­gan­iz­a­tion’s re­la­tion­ship with this White House has not been the tra­di­tion­al re­la­tion­ship it has had with oth­er ad­min­is­tra­tions, in­clud­ing both Bushes,” Marty King told me.

In June, at the me­mori­al ser­vice for the pas­tor slain in the Char­le­ston, South Car­o­lina, church mas­sacre, C-SPAN’s cam­er­as cap­tured Jack­son’s pain­fully di­min­ished polit­ic­al stand­ing: The rev­er­end ap­peared to be re­peatedly ne­go­ti­at­ing with Secret Ser­vice agents for per­mis­sion to ap­proach Obama. At long last, he re­ceived a po­lite, if un­enthu­si­ast­ic, hand­shake.

“Barack has been very in­sult­ing and un­ap­pre­ci­at­ive and dis­respect­ful to Jesse Jack­son,” says Her­mene Hart­man, a long­time Jack­son fam­ily friend who pub­lishes the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an magazine N’DIGO. She ad­ded that when she has brought this up to Jack­son him­self, he has ex­pressed “won­der­ment” over it.

When I asked Jack­son dir­ectly about Obama, he said simply: “He oc­cu­pies a lot of space, be­ing an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an in the White House.” Then he ad­ded, “I am glad Mc­Cain didn’t win, and Pal­in, in terms of what the op­tions were. He has been a tre­mend­ous pres­id­ent—tre­mend­ous.”

ON THE FIRST Sat­urday of Oc­to­ber, a lar­ger-than-usu­al crowd has con­vened in the Rain­bow PUSH chapel to cel­eb­rate Jack­son’s 74th birth­day. The me­dia has also showed up, in an­ti­cip­a­tion of a press con­fer­ence in which Jack­son will re­it­er­ate his chal­lenge to Obama to ad­dress the gun vi­ol­ence in Chica­go. But be­fore that, sev­er­al friends take their turns at the mi­cro­phone to praise Jack­son’s life and work.

“An old pro­verb says that as long as the story of the hunt is told by the hunter, then the tale will al­ways be to the dis­ad­vant­age of the li­on,” says Fre­d­er­ick Haynes, a Dal­las megach­urch pas­tor and fre­quent speak­er at Rain­bow PUSH. (Haynes was ment­ored by Jeremi­ah Wright but iden­ti­fies him­self as a Jack­son dis­ciple.) “And here we are today com­mem­or­at­ing a le­gendary life, the leg­acy of Rev­er­end Jesse Jack­son, and we are de­clar­ing un­ashamedly and un­apo­lo­get­ic­ally that no one can define Jesse Lewis Jack­son for us but us.”

He con­tin­ues: “We re­fuse to al­low oth­ers who want to im­pris­on him in ir­rel­ev­ance to have the key, be­cause you don’t know that the very free­dom you en­joy is be­cause of the price he paid and the sac­ri­fice he made.”

When I sit down with Jack­son again a few weeks later, we be­gin to get at some of his dif­fer­ences with those Haynes was dress­ing down in his re­marks, al­beit ob­liquely. We are talk­ing about the long-term work re­quired to achieve ra­cial justice versus the kind of ac­tions that Jack­son calls “flash hits”—which are what hap­pens when “someone says, ‘Build­ing is on fire,’ ” or when “someone is get­ting beat on the corner: Flash! But in terms of en­dur­ing work, voter edu­ca­tion, voter re­gis­tra­tion, ne­go­ti­at­ing with cor­por­a­tions, fight­ing ger­ry­man­der­ing—you can’t fight Sec­tion 4 with a flash.”

His ref­er­ence to someone “get­ting beat on the corner” is cas­u­al but poin­ted; al­though he doesn’t say so dir­ectly, it is clear that he is im­ply­ing that the loudest pub­lic voices in the civil rights move­ment in the United States right now are too con­sumed with “flash hits.” He re­calls a con­ver­sa­tion he had last Au­gust with an act­iv­ist in Fer­guson after the Mi­chael Brown killing. While there, Jack­son had been at­tempt­ing to make the case that the story of Brown’s death went much deep­er than po­lice—that the root of the prob­lem was elect­or­al and eco­nom­ic. He re­calls telling the young man that the pro­test­ers needed some “con­tent bey­ond the flash,” and that “one reas­on why these po­lice are in power” is that “you voted 6 per­cent in last elec­tion.”

That vis­it to Mis­souri was not en­tirely well re­ceived. Ac­cord­ing to a pop­u­lar black act­iv­ist on Twit­ter, at one protest Jack­son was “booed off for ask­ing for dona­tions for church.” (Jack­son told me the act­iv­ists he was ad­dress­ing had been meet­ing at a Fer­guson church that was “run­ning up a lot of bills” be­cause of it, and that the min­is­ter had so­li­cited his help.) A few days later, in one of sev­er­al cell-phone-video-taped con­front­a­tions that went vir­al on the Web—this one set in the park­ing lot of a Mc­Don­ald’s—a pro­test­er chal­lenged Jack­son’s motives for be­ing in Mis­souri: “Are you go­ing to march with us today, or are you just go­ing to sit in the car?” the pro­test­er yelled at Jack­son, who was in the pas­sen­ger seat of a van with his win­dow open. “Be­cause we haven’t seen you march­ing, Jesse. When are you go­ing to stop selling us out, Jesse? We don’t want you in St. Louis.” Jack­son, rarely at a loss for words, went wide-eyed and mum.

“The fam­ily called and asked Rev­er­end to come,” Betty Mag­nus, one of Jack­son’s closest con­fid­ants at Rain­bow PUSH, re­called re­cently when I asked about Jack­son’s vis­it to St. Louis. “People thought he went down on his own, which is not the case. One of things he does not do is go in­to places that are fire­crack­ers without be­ing asked.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., walk down the House steps together after a series of votes on the House floor as Congress attempts to pass healthcare reform on Sunday, March 21, 2010.  CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Per­haps not these days, but Jack­son’s own long-stand­ing taste for “flash”—and his pen­chant for the spot­light—might have something to do with the skep­ti­cism that has hovered around his ef­forts to en­gage with the po­lice-protest move­ment. In his mem­oir, re­leased earli­er this year, former Obama polit­ic­al ad­viser Dav­id Axel­rod refers to Jack­son as an “in­vet­er­ate cam­era hog” and re­lays an an­ec­dote from 1988, in which he re­calls that, upon win­ning reelec­tion, then–Chica­go May­or Har­old Wash­ing­ton phys­ic­ally res­isted Jack­son’s at­tempt to lift his hand in a vic­tory sa­lute. Jack­son re­mem­bers the mo­ment dif­fer­ently. He says it took place after Wash­ing­ton’s primary vic­tory, not after the may­or was reelec­ted, and that the re­straint was mu­tu­al: “Har­old and I didn’t want to over-cel­eb­rate that night.” But even Jack­son’s friends say his need to be the cen­ter of at­ten­tion can some­times cross the line. When I spoke to Del­mar­ie Cobb, who has served as press sec­ret­ary to both Jesse Sr. and Jesse Jr., she re­it­er­ated a story she has told re­port­ers be­fore, about how, in the week fol­low­ing Jesse Jr.’s elec­tion to Con­gress, the eld­er Jack­son tried on two oc­ca­sions to block the lens of a cam­era­man try­ing to shoot fa­vor­able pho­tos of his son. “He couldn’t hold him­self back long enough for Jesse Jr. to re­ceive that at­ten­tion,” she re­called. Again, Jack­son told me a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of that story: “Jesse Jr. al­ways had this great re­luct­ance for press cov­er­age, and he kept strug­gling to avoid over­ex­pos­ure,” he said. “That was on his own ad­vice—I was help­ing him in that re­gard, and that was at his re­quest.”

Her­mene Hart­man told me she be­lieves Jack­son really is try­ing to play an eld­er-states­man role in this fight. “He’s so of­ten ac­cused of tak­ing over, so I think he’s con­scious of this be­ing their thing,” she said. “But he’s there to be sup­port­ive. It’s kind of like when your chil­dren are grown, and you go to their house. You don’t take over their house—you learn to be a guest.”

The par­ent-child ana­logy turns out to be re­mark­ably apt, on both sides. Al­though in our dis­cus­sions it was clear that Jack­son dis­ap­proved of how the po­lice-protest move­ment has fo­cused its en­er­gies, he has also laid claim to that same wave of act­iv­ism, telling The Guard­i­an in Au­gust that Black Lives Mat­ter—or­gan­iz­a­tion­ally flat, sec­u­lar, and so­cial-me­dia driv­en, in many ways the po­lar op­pos­ite of the mod­el King epi­tom­ized and Jack­son rep­lic­ated—was es­sen­tially an ex­ten­sion of his work. “There is a false nar­rat­ive that the move­ment stopped and then star­ted again,” Jack­son told the Brit­ish news­pa­per.

On so­cial me­dia and in vari­ous pub­lic pro­nounce­ments, Black Lives Mat­ter pro­test­ers have soun­ded both dis­dain­ful of Jack­son’s at­tempts to claim a con­nec­tion to their ef­forts and angry that the rev­er­end—with his fin­an­cial re­sources and polit­ic­al cap­it­al—hasn’t offered more sup­port. De­Ray Mck­esson, the teach­er-turned-so­cial-me­dia-guru of BLM, re­fused to speak spe­cific­ally about Jack­son on the re­cord when I tracked him down in Chica­go, say­ing he didn’t want to add to hos­til­it­ies. But in a fol­low-up phone con­ver­sa­tion, he did tell me this: “I re­mem­ber those days last Au­gust when we were look­ing for that ad­vice and sup­port, and we didn’t get it from the people we thought we were go­ing to get it from.”

In re­sponse, Marty King told me that Rain­bow PUSH is simply not built to mo­bil­ize its re­sources for the cur­rent crop of po­lice protests. Moreover, there has been con­fu­sion in­side the or­gan­iz­a­tion over how to en­gage with a move­ment that doesn’t have a hier­arch­ic­al struc­ture. Betty Mag­nus re­calls that in the wake of Fer­guson, the group had a hard time know­ing who to even reach out to after one Chica­go-based act­iv­ist, who had served as its point of con­tact, stopped re­turn­ing phone calls. (No one even con­sidered try­ing to con­nect via Twit­ter, which Jack­son’s team mainly uses to post schedul­ing an­nounce­ments and retweets for his 70,000 fol­low­ers. “I am not sure he un­der­stands—I really don’t, my­self—the tech­nic­al di­men­sions of things,” Frank Watkins told me.)

“We think it is going to take four or five people to replace him,” says Bill Dickerson, a longtime Jackson associate. 

After the in­cid­ent in St. Louis, Jack­son vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared from the po­lice-protest scene for months, as­sert­ing him­self only briefly in early Janu­ary when he led a march over the po­lice killing of a men­tally ill black man in Mil­wau­kee. Then, in Novem­ber, al­most ex­actly a year after the Fer­guson de­bacle, the po­lice-protest move­ment came to him: A judge ordered Chica­go of­fi­cials to re­lease a video­tape of the 2014 po­lice slay­ing of Laquan Mc­Don­ald, in which an of­ficer is seen fir­ing 16 shots in­to the black teen. It was shortly be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, and Jack­son called for a protest to dis­rupt the Black Fri­day shop­ping on Chica­go’s renowned high-end re­tail strip, the Mag­ni­fi­cent Mile. No in­ter­loper here, Jack­son helped rally thou­sands in an ac­tion that com­bined “flash” with the kind of hit-’em-where-it-hurts dis­rup­tion of eco­nom­ic activ­ity that has long been his pre­ferred type of protest. The crowds snarled traffic and de­terred hol­i­day shop­pers. Jack­son used the plat­form to call for mass demon­stra­tions and mass voter re­gis­tra­tion. He was in his ele­ment.

He told me later that, on the Wed­nes­day be­fore the protests, he had con­vened a meet­ing at which the old guard agreed to march be­hind the young act­iv­ists. (“Where do the youth fit? They fit up front. … They marched on the front lines. That was all cal­cu­lated, all planned.”) But still—even at home—he col­lided with the new gen­er­a­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the Chica­go Sun-Times, as Jack­son, sur­roun­ded by more than a dozen oth­er min­is­ters, began to ad­dress the crowd, young men with bull­horns in­ter­rup­ted, chant­ing, “In­dict Rahm”—Chica­go’s may­or and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. When the min­is­ters replied with, “Let us pray,” one of the pro­test­ers re­spon­ded, “We’re not here to pray.” Pro­test­ers then pulled on Jack­son’s mi­cro­phone and the cord con­nec­ted to the sound sys­tem, dis­con­nect­ing his au­dio—at which point, the Sun-Times re­por­ted, Jack­son and the oth­ers ceded the plat­form to the men with the mega­phones.

THE LAST TIME the ques­tion of who would suc­ceed Jack­son was pub­licly dis­cussed was in 2002, fol­low­ing a set of em­bar­rass­ments. The first was the dis­clos­ure that he had fathered an out-of-wed­lock child with Karin Stan­ford, a former PUSH staffer. (The daugh­ter, Ash­ley, now 16, re­cently stepped in­to the spot­light with a rap song that eli­cited some TMZ cov­er­age.) A few months later, Jack­son was forced to de­fend him­self after a con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tion filed a com­plaint with the IRS over his or­gan­iz­a­tion’s tax dis­clos­ures. This promp­ted a series of me­dia in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to Rain­bow PUSH’s fin­ances. Jack­son denied any im­pro­pri­ety, but the Cit­izen­ship Edu­ca­tion Fund even­tu­ally ac­know­ledged that it had failed to dis­close the salar­ies of its top-paid staffers, in­clud­ing Stan­ford, who had made $120,000 a year. The or­gan­iz­a­tion called the omis­sion an “over­sight”; Jack­son later ad­mit­ted that Stan­ford also re­ceived a $35,000 sev­er­ance pay­ment.

Amid the tu­mult, Jack­son an­nounced that James Meeks, Rain­bow PUSH’s ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent, would suc­ceed him as pres­id­ent, al­though he gave no timetable for when the trans­fer would take place. But Meeks, who had already carved out his own polit­ic­al-re­li­gious fief­dom—a num­ber of in­flu­en­tials, in­clud­ing Jesse Jr., wor­shipped at Meeks’s Salem Baptist church—had oth­er ideas. Meeks quickly turned around and ran for the Illinois state Sen­ate, won, and began es­pous­ing views at odds with those put forth by Rain­bow PUSH.

Since then, Jack­son has said noth­ing about who might take over for him one day. When I asked wheth­er they had re­cently con­sidered the ques­tion, Jack­son and those with­in the or­gan­iz­a­tion told me they were work­ing on a plan for the fu­ture and de­scribed the out­lines of one. Bill Dick­er­son, a long­time friend of Jack­son’s, who is chair­man of the board of the Cit­izen­ship Edu­ca­tion Fund, said the search for a suc­cessor was largely fo­cused on pas­tors at large black churches. And al­though neither he nor Marty King sug­ges­ted that any of Jack­son’s chil­dren might take the reins, both said they be­lieved it vi­tal that the fam­ily re­main in­volved. (Jonath­an, 49, a busi­ness­man and man­age­ment pro­fess­or at Chica­go State Uni­versity, cur­rently serves as the na­tion­al spokes­man for Rain­bow PUSH; Yusef, 45, the chair­man of PUSH, is said to be an act­ive par­ti­cipant in dis­cus­sions about the group’s fu­ture; Santita, 52, a Fox News con­trib­ut­or, pro­duces her fath­er’s weekly ra­dio show. An­oth­er daugh­ter, Jack­ie Jr., 40, is not vis­ibly in­volved with the or­gan­iz­a­tion at all.)

When I asked Jack­son about Jesse Jr.—who once served as the field dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Rain­bow Co­ali­tion—and wheth­er he might have a fu­ture at Rain­bow PUSH, the rev­er­end said flatly, “I doubt it.” (None of Jack­son’s chil­dren re­spon­ded to in­ter­view re­quests.)

“We think it is go­ing to take four or five people to re­place him,” Dick­er­son told me. Or, as Haynes put it while talk­ing about the chal­lenge fa­cing Rain­bow PUSH: “There is not an­oth­er Jesse Jack­son out there.”

Dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion in Oc­to­ber, I asked Jack­son about the fu­ture and wheth­er he was con­cerned about his leg­acy. “A lot of time is spent on build­ing kings and king­doms and statues. … None of this has to do with the quest for so­cial justice,” he told me. “I mean, the fi­nal judge of my ser­vice will be those who close the book at the end of the night. It is not for me to do. It is my job to live as I live while I live and lay the best tracks I can for where the train is go­ing.”

But if, in the end, there really is no single fig­ure poised to step in­to Jack­son’s shoes—if, with his passing, we will wit­ness the dis­ap­pear­ance of an ar­che­type of civil rights lead­er­ship: the cha­ris­mat­ic cler­gy­man who both in­spires in the mo­ment and sees him­self as lay­ing tracks “for where the train is go­ing”—what might be lost along with that paradigm? Jack­son’s al­lies had plenty of thoughts on the sub­ject, but one of the main themes was the same one to which Jack­son al­luded when he talked about “flash”: the sense that the struggle is long, that it re­quires vis­ion and forti­tude, pre­par­a­tion and per­sever­ance, memory and con­tinu­ity.

“King and them had strategies. They didn’t just wake up one day and tweet and say, ‘Meet me on the corner of 25th and King Drive; we are go­ing to protest,’ ” Del­mar­ie Cobb told me. Haynes also cited the need to work to­ward over­arch­ing goals in­stead of just “re­act­ing and re­spond­ing to im­me­di­ate emer­gency”—adding that, in his view, this re­quires someone who has the cha­risma, dy­nam­ism, and ex­per­i­ence both to of­fer the road map and light the way. “Black Lives Mat­ter shows you can have a lead­er­less move­ment,” he says. “But there is al­ways go­ing to be a crowd that hun­gers for vis­ion and dir­ec­tion.”

Jack­son’s ca­pa­city to of­fer that vis­ion and dir­ec­tion is ar­gu­ably a dir­ect product of the church-centered mod­el that MLK set forth. Jack­son tells me he finds par­tic­u­lar value in his ex­per­i­ence as a cler­gy­man. “Clergy tend to have a broad vis­ion of people and re­la­tion­ships,” he says. “A law­yer sees cli­ents, a doc­tor sees pa­tients, a teach­er sees stu­dents. Min­is­ters tend to have a broad­er view.”

A sense of his­tory, a sense of lar­ger pur­pose, a long-term vis­ion, the abil­ity to in­spire with words, all wrapped in a single, im­per­fect hu­man be­ing—this is the Jack­son paradigm. His al­lies mainly see the strengths of the mod­el; right now, young­er act­iv­ists seem fo­cused on the weak­nesses and in­tent on break­ing the mold. But des­pite the fears ex­pressed by Jack­son par­tis­ans, the new gen­er­a­tion may ul­ti­mately find that they have more in com­mon with the aging rev­er­end—and his tra­di­tion—than they real­ize. Jack­son, “as far as I am con­cerned, is the ori­gin­at­or of ‘black lives mat­ter,’ ” Haynes told me. If you think about it, he said, the phrase is really just “a re­mix of ‘I am some­body.’”


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