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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.)
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.’”