The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson

'At Random' Magazine's interview with author Marshall Frady

photo of Marshall Frady Marshall Frady has been a
journalist for over twenty-five
years, writing primarily on
political figures and racial and
social tensions in the U.S.

Q: You first encountered Jesse Jackson many years ago when you covered the civil rights movement for the Newsweek bureau in Atlanta. What is it about Jackson that has persuaded you to follow him for thirty years and to write his biography?

FRADY: First of all, it hasn't exactly been one sustained 30-year pursuit. There were a few first passing notions of him when he was an eager young acolyte to Martin Luther King back around 1966 or '67. He seemed then to more journalists than myself to have some special glamour of portent about him, some extra electricity. An uncommonly auspicious young figure. Over the following years, I would glimpse him now and then on television, in press pieces, as he seemed to be coursing about in the country's life for some direction, for his moment of arrival at last. He still carried a promise of somehow continuing, in whatever different form, the mighty moral drama of the movement in the Sixties, which for a lot of journalists who covered it was like a kind of existential Damascus Road experience, a season of super-reality when good and evil somehow hit the bottom of the lungs in a way they never have quite since... But I only reconnected with him personally, to begin this book, at the end of the 1988 Presidential campaign. That's when the real exploration began. He had become by then an altogether singular figure in the nation's life, that was obvious. But who was he really? What did he mean? What had happened to that original promise?

Q: You have talked about the public's "viral resistance" to Jackson. Has this been a consistent reaction since the King years--perhaps as a result of the controversy surrounding Jackson's actions in the hours after Dr. King's assassination, and does it follow racial or social fault-lines?

FRADY: There has developed among many, for sure, a kind of attitudinal air-barrier of cynicism about him over the years. Part of it is, no doubt, a reflection of the abiding, if not steadily deepening, racial schism in the country since the Sixties. Too, there undeniably is, for many, a certain blare and swagger about his persona-- a reaction that may owe not a little to that same racial tension, actually. But at the same time, largely unrealized, unnoted, is the enormous popular admiration and even enthusiasm about him that's still out there across the reaches of the country, massive in the black community but in no negligible measure in white quarters as well, on campuses, in the environmental movement. Travel about him just a little bit, and it amazes you. That "viral resistance" to him you cite, that's really been substantially a phenomenon of the cumulative quick and skeptical squints at him by the media over all these years. To a degree, he's invited their allergy to him by his desperate eagerness to be recognized as who and what he feels, however histrionically, he is. To be affirmed as what he has always grandly most wanted to be-- a social apostle, prophet if you will, in the manner of King and even Gandhi he will readily profess, to the national conscience. But carrying that kind of high and arrant moral-gospel obsession into the rather less spiritual commerce of politics-- along with his sheer avid need to have his meaning recognized, to be discovered, as it were-- all of that has almost insured a dyspeptic reaction to him by journalists. And their choleric perceptions of him, however hasty and partial, have simply accumulated by now into the prevailing fix on him, which has permeated into the wider sense of him. That's not to say he can not be staggeringly boorish and crass-- he's capable at once of a breathtaking magnificence of spirit and effect, and an equally breathtaking pettiness: that's part of the mystery of the man. But mystery and complexity have never particularly been in the perceptual scan of standard every day journalism. So we were about to miss a great character, a remarkable presence in America's story.

Q: Jackson does not seem to have the trust of this larger section of American society, and he has also been the object of tremendous suspicion by the Democratic Party as a whole. Jackson is arguably the only great multi-racial coalition in either party in the last thirty years, and the Democratic Party gives more than lip service to such a coalition in its platform. Why have the Democrats mistreated him so?

FRADY: He has never been finally just a political being. Even in his transfer into a political assertion, he has always been operating finally on different terms-- as an aspiring moral apostle out of the movement. Lacking the great dramaturgy of King's day in which to so realize himself, he thought to amplify his movement witness and find his realization in a Presidential candidacy. But that political resort probably compromised him vitally in his original role-- all the more so when he began to become entranced himself with his startling success in what was supposed to be merely a means to a higher purpose. Even though he seemed this irregular and exotic political curiosity, he had a phenomenal effect, it should be remembered, in those two campaigns, way beyond what anyone, including himself, initially anticipated. He was this uncontainable intruder, a disorderly presence in the game. How could the party regulars, the party management, agree to accept into their inner councils of directing the party's future-- especially in their competition of caution with the Republicans in trying to accommodate the supposed Reagan mentality of the supposed majority of the citizenry-- how could they admit into their midst this radical gospel black social evangel who'd never once before held a single government office? What was surprising was that Jackson was so hurt by that exclusion. I mean, what did he expect? If he still seriously meant to be what he had originally aspired to be?

Q: Bill Clinton has never got on well with Jackson. The election will be in full swing when the book is published. What do you thing Jackson's role will be?

FRADY: Finally as a fretful, and extravagantly troublesome, exhorting, chiding, restless, gospelteering outsider. Born a multi-dimensioned outsider to the main life of this society-- that is, born not only black, but illegitimate, and in the most abjectly poor black quarter of a little South Carolina town-- for all his subsequent urge to belong by the grandiose means of making himself into a moral-heroic figure in the life of that society, yet he remains constitutionally an outsider. This may be the most fundamental, elemental conflict in him. And why in fact the man at least approaches tragic proportions. Because of adversities not only outward but as much inward-- forever to be an unfinished hero.

Q: Looking over the whole of Jackson's career, you say that his phenomenon would not have been possible anywhere else, that he is a quintessentially American figure. Why is that? People outside of the structures of the main political parties can exert more of an influence here than in other democracies, but there must be more to your assertion than this?

FRADY: It is not so much that he is a quintessentially American figure, as that his has been an extraordinary American pilgrimage in its themes-- but yes, because of that, an extraordinary American figure. Or as an advisor to Michael Dukakis put it after Jackson had astoundingly won the Michigan primary in '88 to actually become at that midpoint in the primaries, surreally, the leader for the Democratic Presidential nomination -- "We're up against an American original here." But those quintessential American themes of his life? Race, to start with. Which remains the one inherent American dilemma that could well yet undo the Republic-- that abiding legacy of slavery, our original Cain-Act, whose proliferating effects have now become so diffused and pervasive on our society that we no longer have any real sense of their connection to that source, to the extent that those connections are adamantly and strenuously denied. But from his very beginnings in Greenville, S.C., on to his passage through the classic King phase of the civil rights movement, there's no way to separate what has happened to Jackson through his progress, and the tolls on him, and what he has remarkably done anyway, from that endemic American malaise of race and racism. Beyond that, his democratic energies are of that consummately American folk-political vision of populism. There has always been a dichotomy , or schizophrenia if you will, running through the American experience from our beginning: a duality and tension between the tight, orderly, rectitudinous, autocratic disciplines of the Plymouth theocracy and the rowdy adventurous exuberances of the frontier. That civil war in the American psyche has been played out through our political history, as indeed most politics are really cultural conflicts, like that between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. Any doubt on which side of that American psychic civil war Jackson has landed? Well, actually there is, but it's been played out inside him, as the book tells. It's in that sense, it occurs to me, that he is particularly American: that war in his own spirit between traditional conservative reverence and his more adventurous impulses toward the mystic windy dangerous margins of possibility.

Q: Jackson's wife Jackie has a huge role in his life, and, therefore, is a big part of the book. Few people would probably be aware of Jackie's influence-- just how important to him is she?

FRADY: It has been a turbulent alliance, that's for sure, but then, every real marriage is probably a universe unto itself, ungaugeable by comparison with any other. Jackie's own pilgrimage from her beginnings as a migrant worker's daughter is an American parable paralleling Jackson's. But she is, if anything, an even more unconfinably exuberant spirit than he. One alive woman. What she has given him is that-- the unfailing battery charge of her aliveness. And her patience, her constancy, her belief in him, her very deep savvy, not to mention rollicking wit and humor -- and of course, a home and a family that has held despite everything, an incalculable value for someone of Jackson's own bereft origins. Otherwise, he'd truly have been somersaulting through space. Incidentally, that family -- the five children they have raised -- is widely regarded as one of the most commending things about Jackson. Anyway, Jackie herself has wound up the sub-hero through the book. She has endured. And incandescently.

Q: In the course of writing the book, having known Jackson for so long, what most surprised you about him? There must have been a few things that struck you only when you started looking at Jackson as a biographical subject.

FRADY: That he is far more hugely and tumultuously mixed an affair than I'd ever suspected. Prodigious, prodigally gifted, but with chasmic insecurities despite all he's done. That aggrieved and brooding little boy growing up solitary and outcast in Greenville is still very much in him-- the bottomless hungers of old hurts. In that way and many others, he oddly lives in a collapsed, almost Joycean sense of time, yesterday and today all one simultaneous continuing moment. But all the while, with these extravagant, almost preternatural public powers and ambitions. One can come across any number of chaps holding forth on street corners who imagine themselves prophets to their time, but what makes Jackson fascinating is that he has actually held the wherewithal for it-- the creative largeness of moral vision, the spiritual voltages: as his grandmother used to say, "Jesse can see." His struggle has been to reach that moral-heroic promise he has sensed in himself since the bleak, pent desperations of his youth; indeed, one seldom encounters a comparably consequential public figure who has so consciously set about constructing himself to such a grandiose measure. But it may be that he has lost that possibility, even with all his gifts, simply because he's tried for it too urgently and exorbitantly, has needed it too much, owing precisely to his beginnings. I could have never guessed all this about him when I started out. But Jackson's story is one you just don't come across every day. He's way beyond just a journalistic or political figure. He's fully got the magnitude of some character in, say, Ibsen, Doestevsky, Richard Wright, Graham Greene, in Dreiser. Even close to the Euripidean, if I may so venture.

Q: You are a white man writing the biography of a black political figure. Did this pose you any extra problems as a writer beyond those normally suffered by a biographer, and how important is it that you are roughly speaking, from the same part of the country?

FRADY: As a matter of fact, Southerners, black and white, probably have more in common with each other than with those, black or white, out in the rest of the country. They have been locked together for so long in a common experience in the South that, however often compounded of brutality and flashes of violence by whites, was at least personal, close, unlike the more polite detachments that pertained in the North and elsewhere. This patrician white attorney in Atlanta, an advisor once to JFK, whom I interviewed in the Sixties, said, "Hell, we just got the same personality, all there is to it. Same way of living close to the skin, same relishments in food, same way of talking, same kind of humor, same sense of life, same way of feeling. And in many cases, frankly, the same blood." ...But your point about a white man writing about a black man. It would be fatuous to maintain that there aren't difficulties in that, because no one growing up white in America can ever suppose they have completely escaped its pervasive, almost atmospheric conditions of racism. But look. To insist there are special provinces of human experience, racial, ethnic, sexual, generational, which are reserved and sacrosanct to those who have dwelt there-- so that no white should presume to write about a black, or no man about a woman for that matter, or woman about a man-- strikes me as a dispiriting proposition. There's defeat in that notion. It presumes we're smaller and more limited than we naturally are. It's kind of constricting cultural ghettoizing, a balkanizing of the human experience-- really, in the end, a pious ideological philistinism. It would mean, as I happened to see pointed out somewhere recently, that Flaubert could not write about Madame Bovary, Tolstoy about a young girl's happiness on her wedding day. Or Jane Austen about Mr. Darcy. Or, say, James Baldwin about Norman Mailer, as he nevertheless once brilliantly did anyway. It supposes something drearily less than the great and enduring circumstance that we are all of us, finally, of one hope and one grief and one struggle: we are all of one heart.

Q: You have also written books on George Wallace and Billy Graham. Are there any parallels that you can draw among them? We think of them all as preachers, perhaps, but is there more that they might have in common.

FRADY: They have all been, far more than mass communicators, mass communers-- folk voices, folk leaders for folk sensibilities of whatever kind. There's a certain mystery about that communion they have with people. In fact, in my years of reportage, the only other two figures I've come across who had Jackson's kind of galvanic popular connection were, oddly, Wallace himself, and in his latter days, Robert F. Kennedy. Not particularly Graham, though. He was a different article. Graham was the most difficult one to do in a way, because he had nothing like the musky, glandular vitality of Wallace. He was more about a kind of denatured, cool, sterilized, albeit Wagnerian niceness of righteousness, himself being still as clean and shadowless and simple and sunny as an April morning. And for whom Nixon and Watergate become something like a Gethsemane for the assumptions of his lifetime's ministry. Along with Wallace, by the way, that book is soon to be reissued. Jackson, as a populist moral evangelist, somewhat combines the two perhaps -- the almost rampant, indeed almost monstrous vitality of Wallace, the same sort of popular energies, but with an evangelistic compulsion very different from Graham's, in that it comes out of the radical social gospel of King, that true American-Gandhian prophet to his age. And one can hardly overestimate the degree to which Jackson derives out of King, has made himself out of King's vision.

Q: So, after giving us these three great characters, who do you have your eye on next?

FRADY: A fourth great character, this time in a novel beginning in one of these little Confederate settlements in Brazil after the Civil War.

Marshall Frady is the author of the 1996 book, JESSE The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson.

He also is the author of the critically acclaimed biographies, Wallace and Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness.

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