Jesse the Orator
WILLIE BARROW, Breadbasket Staffer
The first time Jesse made an impression--well, all of those lieutenants
were impressive young men. They were super smart and super energetic. And
they were articulate speakers. And I guess when I heard Jesse speak in an
organizing meeting (in 1965) he was so convincing. And the other thing about
Jesse was he was always simpler. He kept his message or his appeal very
simple. He always said, 'I always put it where the goats can get it.'
Anybody--I don't care how old you was, how young you was--you can always
understand what Jesse is saying.
BOB BOROSAGE, A Key Advisor in `88 Campaign
The lines that Jackson uses are Jackson lines. He would spend time in the
airplane, the time he would spend that was really thinking time, he would spend
time between speeches often listening to jazz on a set of earphones. He'd play
the jazz recording and while he was doing that, he would be what he calls
Jacksonizing -- all this information that he'd been taking in and all the
impressions that he'd have.
And then about once every other day, you'd see him pull out a yellow pad
and he would write in almost illegible scribbles, a line of argument down the
side of the page. And it would be, it wouldn't be full sentences. It would be
talking points and metaphors that he had distilled in the course of this
thinking. And when you saw him do that, you knew he was about to produce a new
riff, a new set of images. A new one liner that was going to crystalize
something that was on his mind.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE, Former Member of SCLC
He used Martin Luther King's material in his speeches and that sort of
thing. We all borrowed from each other. That was when sometimes, you know,
the other speakers would speak before Martin Luther King and we would try to
use all of Martin Luther King's great lines, before he'd get up. So that only
served to get Martin Luther King to rally more and be more creative. So it was
great. There was a little competition going on among all of the speakers and
preachers and that sort of thing. There always is.
BOB LUCAS, CORE Activist in Chicago in the '60s
I remember it was 1965 and CORE had organized these rallies and on this
Sunday I was the moderator, and there were three speakers: Jesse Jackson, Dr.
King and James Farmer. And Farmer spoke first because he had to leave, and
after Farmer spoke, I brought Jesse on. And Jesse Jackson gave this rousing
speech -- a really a great speech. I had never heard Jesse speak before,
neither had most of the people in this church and he literally brought the
house down and he brought people to their feet 6 or 7 times while he was
speaking and you know people really enjoyed it, and I'm certain a lot of
people were saying to him, hey this guy is gonna be great, we may have another
King here this afternoon.
And when Jesse finished, Dr. King called me and I went over and he says,
Bob, I think that I have laryngitis and I'm not going to be able to speak today
and will you please tell your people. Well, I don't believe that Dr. King had
developed laryngitis. I believed that Doc didn't think that he was equal to
Jesse that day, you know. As you know public speakers some days your arm sound
like a baseball pitcher. Some days, you feel up to it, and some days your
aren't and I think that Dr. King was somewhat demoralized as a result of
Jesse's great speech and again, he decided that he wasn't really up to it, he
couldn't equal it and decided not to speak.
Q: How old was Jesse and what was the speech about?
Bob: Well, Jesse was 23 years old and the speech was about how
Mayor Daley was treating the poor blacks in the city.
KNIGHTON STANLEY, Campus Ministry, North Carolina A&T
In 1963, the movement in Greensboro took on very massive proportions and at
one given time we had 1500 students who had been arrested and were being held
by the city of Greensboro, not only in the jails but in various other places.
The Polio Hospital was one. And then finally the Coliseum became a holding
area for students. We had so many who were arrested.
Heaven knows how many students were in that hospital. It was packed.
Perhaps there were 300. And the conditions were miserable. It was a polio
hospital that had been closed for a period of time. Most of the students who
were in it were young women from Bennett College which was an all-girls
Methodist school across the way from A&T College.
On a Sunday afternoon a great crowd had gathered on the outside of the
hospital. The young women who were imprisoned in the hospital were at the
windows looking out. And we had a little program.
And one of the things that happened is that Jesse Jackson spoke. It was a
marvelous speech. Extremely articulate. Extremely knowledgeable. He was on
point every step of the way in this speech. It flowed. It was poetic. And it
was a marvelous thing. Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham jail
had come out a little while before Jesse gave that speech. And those of us who
heard it, and we had heard some great speakers in the movement, we said, my
God, this speech that Jesse has given is comparable to Martin Luther King's
letter from the Birmingham jail.
And so after the little rally, the gathering was over, we rushed to Jesse
and we said Jesse, this is a marvelous speech and we said we got to get with
you now so we can record it and write it down because this is the kind of
speech that you want to publish and to keep. And Jesse looked at us and he was
quite surprised and he said, 'What did I say?' He had no sense of the impact
of that speech, the wisdom of it.
And at that moment, he apparently had no recall. I would judge that he did
have recall for the speech but since that was perhaps the first speech of that
kind that he had ever given, he had no sense of its importance, the gravity of
it in terms of a very historic moment not only in the life of the Greensboro
movement, but in his own life.
Jesse was not talking about the issues or the harshness of being in prison
doing without soap and toothpaste. But he dealt with nitty gritty issues of
justice. And what this movement meant in terms of it being a turning point in
the history of the nation. He said it in historic context and wasn't
complaining about being in jail.
MARK STEITZ, Policy Advisor in '88 Campaign
He understands the deep connections between language, oratory and real
political leadership. He understands that those things are serious. That
those things are very real. And we live in a time when they're almost always
mistrusted, distrusted, disliked. But he pays deep attention to them and knows
that when the words are right, when he has an idea that leads him to a very,
very clear phrase, he knows he's understood that idea better. He knows that
that idea is in some sense truer, in some sense more able to persuade people to
change their ways to make the world better and that's an important aspect of
I once asked him a question (about his rhyming). He goes, how much time
have you spent in school Steitz? Do you ever watch how teachers work. Do you
ever hear teachers use rhyme. They've used it more than once or twice in my
experience. Things may be different now. But he responds to it by saying that
his job is to figure out a way to lead and change and that means talking to
people in very direct ways. It doesn't oversimplify a message that is so
complex that no one understands it -- is not a better message. There's no
virtue in being unintelligible. And he understands that very well and he just
comes back to that criticism directly.
For the past century, so much of the professionalization of the academy,
that notion that expertise, we think of expertise as intricately linked with
obscurity. That the person who masters the jargon, -- I once heard an academic
professor talk about how a student of his was so brilliant that by the end of
his graduate program, he was writing articles that even his mentor, the
professor, could not understand. But that was viewed as the symbol of
accomplishment. That is not the world that Jesse comes out of politically or
personally. He's trying to communicate in the world and understand the world
in very direct, simple, human terms.
One of the things to understand is when Jesse Jackson is speaking, he is
concentrating very intensely on his audience. He is watching. He is not
working, he very seldom reads a speech or uses a teleprompter. He'll look down
at notes for a minute. You know, where are my notes is a very common Jackson
-- something that I lived with very closely. You know what I mean. He wants
There are many politicians and pundits who are very good at figuring out
what interests the interested. You know what I mean. What will make for a
good story today. And fit into the news flow of whatever political debate is
going on at that particular period of time.
One of Reverend Jackson's piece of geniuses is that he's very good at
interesting the uninterested. He's trying to figure out how to get to people
who don't really believe much of what's going on. And he's trying to figure
out how to inspire hope and interest and belief in people who are otherwise
sitting there somewhat blankly.
When Reverend Jackson is speaking, he is fully engaged in the activity even
if it's a speech he's given many times before. He's always shaping, reshaping,
modifying, making small changes because he's paying exact and intense attention
to what the people who are there in the room with him -- how they are reacting.
It's almost as if the word the audience is a bad word for a Jackson speech
because they are part of the process. And he's building a very, he's paying
very close attention.
He can get very annoyed if there is any unnecessary distraction. I
discovered this one night, late at night, in a very hot church in Alabama. Air
conditioners are clanging. There's all sorts of extraneous noise. Jackson is
giving a speech that he has given many times before. And I'm trying to make a
phone call in the back of the church.
And, you know, keeping my voice relatively low and at sort of a pause
moment in the speech when he's going on and the people are clapping or
something, I hear under their clapping--'Shut-up Steitz.' He's just as mad as
can be because I'm talking during his speech. And he's mad at that because
he's interrupting his concentration. And he was really quite angry about it.
And would generally get quite upset if anything is interrupting that
(On writing for him). He'll say, 'You know what I mean, let me make that
my own, let me make that my own. Let me work on that.' And a lot of the time,
this is again an interesting point in that, a lot of the time when he's doing
that, when I first started working for him, I would think that he'd make
things simpler and it would bother me to some degree and I'd think that's not
exactly the point. But frequently I would find that when he was doing that, he
was actually getting the facts of the argument better and stronger and
correcting errors that I didn't, that I had not noticed.
VIVIAN TAYLOR, Neighbor and Family Friend
At about six years of age, along with two other children, he went to a
Bible convention. They would come back and they'd make a report.
The rest of the kids would say, "We went to the convention, we had a good
time. We ate." When it was his time to give his report, he said that at 11:15
the choir assembled, in all sincerity. And the delivery of the main speaker
commenced... which would show his precociousness. It was actually an adult
delivery. And from where he got that, who knows. But it was just a part of
But, he liked attention. The big words brought him attention. So he
perhaps slept with a dictionary. He perhaps did. And, as I said, his delivery
brought him attention.
ROGER WILKINS, Longtime Friend and Advisor
(At the end of the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C., 1968):
Finally, the Hill's patience was wearing out--the police, particularly the Park
Police were really hostile to the people inside the encampment. And it got
uglier and uglier and we were very much afraid of violence, riot, and police
riot down there. So we negotiated an agreement about how the people were going
to leave peacefully and how people who wanted to be arrested could be arrested
on the steps of the Supreme Court.
And it all worked. Nobody pulled a gun. Nobody shot anybody. Then people
went up and got arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court. But then late in
the day, a crowd began to gather. And up at 14th and U which is a busy
commercial intersection in the Black community. And it got bigger and bigger.
A huge crowd of angry people. There was almost no question that there would
have been a riot and those were the days when, in order to maintain your
leadership position, you had to be more militant than anybody else. It was
always important not to show that you were accommodating to white people and
white people's agendas. Because if you appeared to be doing that, then the
next time you got into a leadership meeting, people would undercut you by
saying, well, he's a soft person. They wouldn't use those words but. They said
'Tom, you got no guts. He's a white folks nigger.' You know.
So I get to the corner and there's a very large mob of young people. And
they are restless. But in the center of it I see, from a distance up on a flat
bed truck, somebody talking to them. And they're listening. At first, I
think, that this is somebody who is going to move them into, you know,
exhorting them to action. I get closer and I realize it's Jesse. But I don't
yet know what he's saying. But he's preaching.
And it's the first time I ever heard his 'I am Somebody' rap. And he went
on and on about 'I am Somebody but people who are somebody don't go out and
tear down a town. People who are somebody gather up their strength for another
fight for the good of the people. But tearing down the neighborhoods where the
people shop and where they need the amenities is not the way for a person who
is somebody to be. If you want to be somebody then you have to have
discipline.' It was just this brilliant flowing rap.
Now, here's a guy who was preaching the riot out of a crowd. He's taking
this enormous risk that people who want to position themselves as the real
militant will say, 'Well look at that Tom up there. He's just trying to protect
the white folk's property and we want to tear the place down to show people how
angry we are.' Jesse--he wasn't afraid of his reputation. He was willing to
risk rejection by this crowd because he knew that a riot would undercut the
whole moral authority of the Poor People's Campaign and also the moral
authority of the poor people who were gathered there. And he did it. He
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