The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson

Excerpt: "JESSE: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson"

by Marshall Frady
To be published by Random House, June 1996.

Chapter IX, The Acolyte

In his short two and a half years with King, there evolved what was probably the single most vital, tortured, exalting, fateful relationship of Jackson's life. Long afterward, Jackson would strangely insist, "King didn't just lean down, you know, and raise me up out of the mire and breathe life and motion into me, like everybody seems to assume. There's not been enough attention to the anatomy of my own development. I was already very active on my own before I ever went with King." In that surprising, faintly churlish assertion, there would seem some defensive need now to validate his own place by abolishing the claim of anyone else, even King, to have been his author. They were, to be sure, different beings in fundamental ways. He had hardly grown up, like King, as the favored son of a fiercely protective father in a comfortably middle-class family of the black community's gentry, amid reverential attentions from the congregation at the church pastored by that father, all of which had left King, from his earliest childhood, with a sense of being at the privileged center of the world around him. In barren contrast, Jackson had had to make himself, and make his place, almost completely out of nothing. Some of King's aides, dubious about Jackson from his first blustery intrusion into their midst, would later tell David Garrow, author of the King biography Bearing the Cross, that even after Jackson's arrival on the SCLC staff, he continued to be "really an outsider in a way, striving very hard to be accepted, to be respected," and would "hang around...currying favor" with King.

To Andrew Young, it was obvious that "one of the things that Jesse wanted and needed more than anything in the world was the support and approval of Martin Luther King and the rest of us. Growing up as a child seeing your father in another family, there is an irrepressible need for the support from the father that you never got as a child." One of Jackson's closest friends at that time, a white fellow seminarian named David Wallace, recalls that, on a trip together to Atlanta for Jackson's first SCLC staff meeting, "we didn't have any money or hotel reservations, so Dr. King took us home for dinner, and we slept there overnight." That evening, and every other time he found himself with King, Jackson besieged him with an unstoppable pell-mell philosophical discourse "in which he'd ask King a question," says Wallace, "and then answer it himself. Because Jesse thinks while he talks, you know. We were flying once from Atlanta to Savannah for a retreat, and the whole flight down, Jesse is sitting by King, with these books he'd been reading in his lap, Tillich and Niebuhr, and asking King questions about them like some hyper student, and then answering the questions himself as he thought through them in asking them. Until King finally said, 'Well, Jesse you don't even give me time to answer the question.'" To Wallace, it seemed not only a ravenous impatience "to glean from Dr. King," but "he wanted to show him that he could think, too, he wanted that kind of approval. But it annoyed the hell out of the others around King. Because Jesse just wouldn't cease , just monopolized King with this endless questioning." Once, King himself, exasperated by Jackson's relentless importunings, curtly told him to leave him alone, and Jackson, with a look of despair, pleaded, "Don't send me away, Doc, don't send me away."

The truth was, he regarded King with an almost abject adoration and awe; Ralph Abernathy would later characterize it as "this deep need" for "a special closeness to whatever seemed holy." But there's little question that King became for Jackson something like the miraculous appearance at last of his own spirit's true, heroic father-- a figure in whom he perceived a realization of the grand scale of his own dreams of what he wanted to become, to mean. Abernathy would state flatly, "Jesse wanted to be Martin." What particularly enthralled Jackson about King was that he seemed to provide a definitive manifestation of that "higher power than man in the universe" and "high intensity of purpose," as Colin Wilson formulates it in The Outsider , which opens up for the lone spirit who feels himself "destined to something greater" the cause and course of action that will "lend a hand to the forces inside him" and enable him to fulfill his own promise.

At that time, after Montgomery and Birmingham and Selma and his majestic sermon at the Washington March, King was already coming to be regarded as the American Gandhi--even if in the improbable form of a middling-sized, slightly pudgy Baptist pastor in staid business suits, his round and faintly Mongolian face, black as asphalt, wearing a bland gaze of placid imperturbability. He always maintained that rather stilted reserve in public as if careful to present, against white southerners' minstrel image of blacks, an unfaltering demeanor of what Matthew Arnold termed "high seriousness." But for all his ponderously sober comportment, his power for moving multitudes largely came from having grown up in the oratorical raptures of black church services like those of Jackson's own boyhood. The genius of his often cumbrous and fustian rhetoric-- "For too long have we been trampled under the iron feet of oppression, too long bound in the starless midnight of racism"-- was that it was the shout of the human spirit rousing itself to slow and stupendous struggle. From all those Sundays of soul-reeling preaching in his father's church, King had acquired an almost physical sense for the protean energy and life of language, in which, as one associate observed to biographer Stephen Oates, "the right word, emotionally and intellectually charged, could reach the whole person and change the relationships of men."

But in a more important respect than oratory did Jackson seem to fashion himself directly out of King. With that swift and ready facility evidenced at the seminary for absorbing whole the ideas of others that illuminated and gave body to intuitions from his own experience, Jackson assumed as his own lifetimes' vision King's radical, gospel, moral metaphysic. King proceeded from the essentially religious persuasion that in each human being, black or white, whether deputy sheriff or hardware dealer or governor, there exists, however dimly, a certain natural identification with every other human being; that in the overarching moral design of the universe that ultimately connects us all, we tend to feel that what happens to a fellow human being in some way also happens to us, so that no man can very long continue to debase or abuse another human being without beginning to feel in himself at least some dull answering hurt and stir of shame. Therefore, in the catharsis of a live confrontation with wrong, when an oppressor's violence is met with a forgiving love, he can be vitally touched and even, however partially or momentarily, reborn as a human being, while the society witnessing such a confrontation will be quickened in conscience toward compassion and justice. It may have been a proposition that, as some later suggested, simply presumed too much of the species, but the transformations it worked in the South's old segregationist order seem, in retrospect, nothing short of epochal. And the relative racial amity that, perhaps more astoundingly, followed that transformation would very likely have been impossible without King's nonviolent strategy of sorrow and understanding for one's oppressors. To that elementally Christian perspective he adapted certain other precepts: King himself may never have been a truly original thinker --his was always an interested, didactic pursuit, its ends active --but not unlike Jackson, he had a formidable ability to assimilate and synthesize ideas. Among those animating him were Niebuhr's notion of "collective evil" to explain why men in herds will behave more monstrously than as individuals, Walter Rauschenbuch's "social gospel" calling for "a moral reconstruction of society" to replace "mammonistic capitalism" with a "Christian commonwealth," and Thoreau's proposal that "one honest man" could morally regenerate an entire society. Marx had only produced a "grand illusion" of a moral society, King concluded, "a Christian heresy." But he became most of all captivated by Gandhi and his expansion of Thoreau's principle of individual passive resistance into massive, patient, nonviolent resistance of a whole subject people, which would exert a moral force that could purge a society of its overt brutalities by posing impossible inconveniences not only to its agencies of authority but to the conscience of its rulers. Thus, King propounded, the universal moral verities evoked by the civil rights movement could, beyond delivering blacks finally into citizenship, "also redeem the soul of America."

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