The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson

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.


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 him.

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 his notes.

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 experience.

(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 him.

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 did.

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