Jesse in 1984: Whites Wept, Blacks Frowned

Editor's Note: Westview Press has just published "Jesse Jackson & the Politics of Charisma: The Rise and Fall of the PUSH/Excel Program" by Ernest R. House. The story begins on Jan. 15, 1975, when "the Reverend Jesse Jackson was leading a demonstration around the White House to protest the lack of jobs for black youths. As the demonstrators marched, Jackson was shocked to discover that many of the black youths marching with him were drunk or on drugs, many of them 'out of control.' Abruptly, he called a halt to the demonstration and sent the marchers home. Within a few months, Jackson launched a national campaign in the urban high schools of the nation to save the black youths of his country, to get them off drugs and motivate them to work hard, study in school, develop self-discipline, and become successful in American society. A program called PUSH for Excellence, or PUSH/Excel, was an outgrowth of his Operation PUSH organization. Society had no solutions for the black teen-agers whom Jackson was trying to help, and his efforts were highly praised, at first, by the media and government officials."

Unfortunately, House reports, by 1982 "the national saga of PUSH/Excel was mostly over. . . . As a national effort to institute school reform, the program must be judged a failure. Why this failure occurred is a difficult question to answer," and House by no means blames everything on Jackson: "The intransigence of the public schools toward change, interference and mismanagement by the federal government, and recalcitrant racism" all played a part.

What House makes clear, however, is that in PUSH/Excel, Jackson continued to perfect his charismatic style of leadership. The book closes with Jackson's extraordinary speech to the 1984 Democratic Convention, a speech that, as the excerpt below shows, meant something different to blacks from what it meant to whites. Four years later, as Jackson delivered a similar speech to the 1988 Democratic Convention, his black audience was as ready for it as his white audience. Why did Jackson's speech to the 1984 Democratic Convention bring the whites to tears and the blacks to anger? After their respectable showing in the primaries, his supporters at the convention were given few concessions by the Democratic Party, and they were angered by this rebuff. They waited for Jackson to lambaste the white leaders of the party in his speech. The whites, for their part, must have feared strong words of retribution from Jackson.

Many of Jackson's black supporters were extremely disappointed in the actual speech, thinking it far too conciliatory:

"I thought it was bullshit. . . . Gradually I'm realizing that white people around me are crying. I mean the men. I'm not talking about no lightweight little white girls. I'm talking about we're-going-to-fight-you-nigger-till-you-gone white folks. They were sitting in tears . . . (and) this white lady from Mississippi . . . there in tears on my shoulder. I realized, my God, I'm part of something very important. . . . I don't think any of us were prepared to sit there and watch those white men and women from Mississippi sit there, in tears. I mean, we don't touch each other. . . . Well , goddam, I thought, where am I?"

Jackie Jackson, Jesse's wife, was also angry and disappointed in her husband's speech. The Jacksons had been asked to sit on the other side of the platform away from the other candidates, and she thought: "Why must we always be the ones to apologize? Why do whites always want that? . . . What is wrong with them? . . . Why are they so relieved? Why were they so fearful? Especially of us? I saw tears and we were confused."

What Jackson had done was deliver a powerful speech of unification rather than one of castigation as his followers had wanted. Although Jackson's black supporters were cool toward this theme, the effect on the whites was stunning. They were relieved and emotionally overcome. The speech was laced with symbols, references, and themes of national unity:

"Tonight we must come together, bound by our faith in a mighty God. . . . Leadership must heed the call of conscience--redemption, expansion, healing, and unity. . . .

"America is not like a blanket. . . . It is more like a quilt--many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the Native American, the small farmer, the business person, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay, and the disabled make up the American quilt.

"We are co-partners in a long and rich religious history--the Judeo-Christian traditions. Many blacks and Jews have a shared passion for social justice at home and peace abroad. . . . We are bound by Moses and Jesus, but also connected with Islam and Muhammed. We are bound by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel crying out from their graves for us to reach common ground. We are bound by shared blood and shared sacrifices. We are much too intelligent; much too bound by our Judeo-Christian heritage . . . to go on divided from one another."

The opening part of the speech was in fact a paean to national unity, a theme that any politician with an aspiration to the American presidency must reverberate, especially a minority candidate whose divisiveness is feared. The whites, anticipating retribution, were overcome with the acceptance, forgiveness, and the plea for unity in the speech, while many blacks, anticipating revenge, were bitterly disappointed--at least until they saw the effect the unification theme had on the whites.

The middle of the speech was also unusual in that it was an extended analysis of America's economic condition and the privations imposed on all the poor--a broader theme than the injustices of racism suffered by the blacks. The speech demonstrated that Jackson could handle sophisticated economic issues that embraced the welfare of the entire nation. At the end of the speech, he again forged his powerful religious rhetoric. For this one moment in history at least, Jackson had successfully extended his charisma. His time had come.

From Ernest R. House, "Jesse Jackson & the Politics of Charisma: The Rise and Fall of the PUSH/Excel Program" (Westview Press, 5500 Central Ave., Boulder, Colo. 80301: $23.95; 192 pp.). Westview Press, 1988, by permission. The quotes from a Jackson supporter and from Mrs. Jackson come from Bob Faw and Nancy Skelton, "Thunder in America" (Texas Monthly Press, 1986).

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