The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson

Interview with Dr. Calvin Morris

photo of Calvin Morris I met Jesse Jackson in 1961, at North Carolina College at Durham. The glee club for my undergraduate school, Lincoln University, was singing there. And there was a quartet in the glee club made up of Omegas, our fraternity. Jesse and I are [in the] same fraternity. And we sang all around and the brothers at the chapter at A&T where Jesse was heard that we were singing and they came over to hear us. And we met after the concert.

He was handsome. He was verbose. He was very personable. Just the nicest person to meet. Had a sense of humor. Was very much a leader, and a very engaging person. And we became friends almost immediately.

He took me back to the campus, introduced me to his girlfriend Jackie who was in the freshman dorm and couldn't leave the dorm and she looked out of her window waving to us and he [had] us sing her the Omega sweetheart song-- and then he took me to the locker room of the football and all that stuff.

On his family and origins....

As it reflected in the sermons and speeches of Jesse, there is this strong need to both admit to his out of wedlock birth, and his ability to move from there to affirm himself and be affirmed. Our discussion at Lincoln was his sharing with me the circumstance of his birth.

He did so with some reluctance but he did so because we were friends, that he really wanted to share this with me. Fortunately, I experienced the same birth in terms of my parents not being married either. And so that was another bond that he and I shared together. I always had a sense, however, that maybe it was because he was born in the South and the circumstance of his mother's and his father's relationship that his out of wedlock seemed to carry more pain for him than did mine. But I guess who was to say. But he did share that and we shared it together.

Jesse has a way of looking. He has an expression that when it is warm, it's one of the most appealing looks you can ever receive. But when he is troubled, another look comes on his face and it was that look that I saw. And it was that look that I felt.

A kind of anguish, a kind of anger, and a kind of braggadocio. That yes, this was my background. Yes, I was put down because of it. And people made fun of me, but I'm really about something and I'm going to be something and I'm going to show those people. I will have the last laugh. So it's a combination of things.

Meeting Jesse's Family

I went to Greenville in the summer of 1964. I spent a week or ten days with him and his mother and his stepfather and his brother in that home with the grandmother who he loves with the depth that -- I think he loves his grandmother more than anybody else in the world. He and I also shared that because I had a grandmother that I loved more than anybody in the world. But he also took me to his father's house. That he was very proud of the father's house because the father's house was in another section of Greenville that was all brick house, very modern. His father was a success. His mother's house, stepfather's house were rather ordinary frame house. But the father's house was a big Negro's house in those days and perhaps these days too.

And I got to meet his half brothers, all of them. They were little boys, young teenagers. And his father's wife. I met some of his aunts.

His father....Just like Jesse. Or Jesse just like him. They are built alike. He's a big man. He's a very handsome man. He's a very powerful man in terms of how he speaks and how he acts and how he moves. I mean, he was a successful man. And Jesse was quite proud of his dad at that level. He was also angry with his dad. But it always seemed to me that if he was angry at anybody, he was angry more with his mother than with his father.

He was very dismissive of his mother. Things that his mother would say, would irritate him and he would snap at her and things of this type. And it [was] maybe that she was just the closer of the two. Obviously, he couldn't be that way with his dad because he was with him so little.

Jesse's Grandmother

Tibby was like grandmothers, and particularly Black grandmothers if there's such a thing. I don't want to be stereotypic here. A woman of deep religious faith. She absolutely loved her grandson. It was unconditional as is unconditional sometimes grandmotherly love. A very bright woman, but very uneducated in terms of formal schooling. I think Jesse has always appreciated his grandmother's get up and go and her ability to get things done even though she did not have real formal training. She was one of the few people that I've ever seen him with all the time when he was both a little boy, the little grandson with her, but also the playful grandson. He would play with Tibby. And she would, 'Oh, boy leave me alone. Or, Jess stop that. Or go about your business.' And loving every moment of it, of course. As grandmother's do. But a very, very powerful influence in his life.

He was her boy. And no matter how famous he became, he was still her boy. The mother--his mother--who I love very much, I think, in some ways, struggled for the affection of the son because so much of that affection went to her mother or his grandmother. But she's always been very sweet to me, the mother.

The grandmothers saw in us those things we did not yet see in ourselves. And in many ways, they believed them so strongly that we came to believe them ourselves. And Tibby was that kind of grandmother. But she was not unusual for me because I had a similar kind of grandmother which allowed the friendship with Jesse, you see, we had these things going on. Similar kinds of births, grandmothers, and then, of course, the urge to go into ministry which we also shared that day at Lincoln University.

His Father

He often talked about how his father related to white people. And particularly other white men and the fact that somehow his father did not have to Tom. The father did not have to grovel. The father had an ability to relate to white people as much as one could be in the segregated South as an equal. He's very appreciative of that in his dad and very proud of his father. And very proud of his father's success. I think there was some other things that was ambivalent because much of that success, Jesse was not an immediate recipient of because he didn't live in the house, he didn't have the father's last name, he was not one of the privileged children of the father. But he still had some identity. He still identified with his dad.

The Ministry

One of the things we discussed those years long ago at Lincoln University--and as I recall Jesse was the initiator of it as he was about his birth--was his strong urge to go into the ministry. I had a similar strong urge and calling. But he and I had not discussed that during our initial times together. And so here was another link. Here was another way of bonding. And he talked about, at that time, thinking about leaving the South and going to the north and going to Chicago. And he was graduating from college. I was in a master's program in History at BU. I had graduated the year before. And as he is wont to do, he had the admission's officer at Chicago Theological Seminary send to me materials, admission materials because he was trying to get me to come to Chicago.

And I said, well, no, I really have some commitments at Boston. But he stilled called two or three times, have you filled out the material. I said, Jesse, I am not going to fill out the material because I'm not coming to Chicago.

I think Jesse and I had two different conceptions of ministry. The ministry for me was a way toward an academic career where I would be a dean at a chapel and teach. I was never terribly interested in a church. I think ministry for Jess--because of the role model of Dr. King--I think, Jesse understood the relationship between the Black church and the Black community. And that to be a minister was to assume a leadership place and status that truckloads of Ph.D.'s wouldn't get you. He saw the kind of influence that Martin Luther King and Andy Young and all these other people, these ministers, Robert Abernathy, were having on the society.

And, I think he saw himself in that kind of role. But I think it was always both a pastoral in a global sense, but it was also a political sense because Black ministers had often played both roles and they had been interchangeable. And I think he saw the ministry as a way of influencing events, influencing currents in the United States, and of course, the world. Because one of the things that first struck me about Jesse when I first met him was the fact that he thought globally about himself and he saw himself in places that young Negro boys like ourselves didn't see.

I mean I saw myself maybe as a college president. That was the biggest thing in the world. Jesse saw himself as President of the United States which was crazy. Not so crazy any more perhaps. But that's the kind of sense of his own destiny that he had almost from the very first time I met him. I sensed in him and heard from him, an awareness of himself that was far in excess of where either of us were at that particular time.

The Influences on His Life

Obviously there are influences. He had a coach that he talked about that seemed to be supportive of him. Obviously, his grandmother. His mother, ambivalently as that relationship may be or perhaps was. He took me to his church, Long Branch Baptist Church and actually I think I was there around even that time, the first time or another, at the funeral of the minister who had been very influential in Jesse's life. And that little church community, I think, was very supportive of him and saw his possibility.

But where that, where that engine comes from that drives him, I think I've said before, that the biographer Herndon talking about Lincoln said that Lincoln had an engine that knew no rest. Jesse has an engine that knows no rest. I have never met a person who can be on 20 hours of the day. And crash 4 hours, put the world aside for 4 hours, wake up, and is about moving and doing and putting things together the next 20.

The move from SCLC to Operation Breadbasket to PUSH

Jesse fought his way into SCLC. From the very beginning, there were people who were wary of him and his ambition and warned Dr. King. But within SCLC included Josiah Williams and James Bevel and Lafayette and Jesse Jackson and Andy Young. Would Dr. King be concerned? No. Now, Dr. Abernathy, later--because he was less secure--might have been more sensitive to some of the things that people said about Jesse in terms of his ambition.

But even so, Jesse always said that the person that he met first was Ralph and that his relationship with SCLC grew out of his relationship with Ralph and Ralph was the one who really recommended him to Dr. King. But, Jesse was seen as a lone king, a lone ranger and Dr. King was warned that Jesse was building his own kingdom in Chicago.

And so, on occasion, Dr. King tried to get Jesse to move and spend more time building Breadbasket chapters around the country. There was a real concern on the part of Dr. King that the Breadbasket program, had some real possibilities for national exposure. And wanted Jesse to give more of his time and effort to building the Breadbasket program around the country. I think, as a way also of providing some space away from Chicago because he was so involved in Chicago.

The way Jesse responded to that was one--to do more in effort to build Breadbasket chapters. Gave me an amorphous title of National Coordinator for Chapter Development, or something or the other. And so I did do some travel. But because the operation in Chicago was so huge, we still had to spend most of our time in Chicago, at least I did. And Jesse was doing things all around the country. But I was never able to give a full response to the building of chapters around the country.

There was a fear that the Chicago operation would become larger than the Atlanta home base. And, it in fact became that. Atlanta was the headquarters, but in terms of staff and in terms of activities, much more went on in Chicago than ever went on in Atlanta because Atlanta really never had a movement here as such.

That was the beginning of the end between Breadbasket and SCLC and the emergence of PUSH. It became involved particularly, around the Black Expo. And the fact that that whole idea mushroomed and significant monies were raised through that exposition. And the way things were set up, the money from Chicago would be sent to Atlanta and the salaries of the staff in Chicago would be paid by the national office. And, in one way, because we were a program of SCLC, I think that was fairly normal. Because our work in Chicago helped benefit other programs in SCLC. I never had any problem with that.

But there were persons in Chicago, particularly among the business community, who began to say to Jesse, and to others, look we can do this thing here. You don't have to be beholden to SCLC. You're making the revenue, you're generating the revenue, much of it, for the organization. And so that kind of talk was about, even before Dr. King's assassination. But following his assassination, then some other things emerged.

I think Jesse really wanted to be President of SCLC. The board would never have voted that--ever. And there were persons, even though they loved Dr. Abernathy, who felt that Dr. Abernathy wasn't up to snuff in terms of his leadership ability. And there were all these articles about Jesse as the heir-apparent to Dr. King and all that kind of thing.

His Friendship

I think as we worked more organizationally and professionally, in many ways, the friendship diminished. I don't think it diminished for Jesse because Jesse didn't see a great dichotomy between the organizational work and the personal work and our friendship. But I did. Because I thought that there were times when he would want to pull on our friendship in terms of observations or points of view that I was expressing, he wanted to lean on the friendship, but I would say, well Jesse, I'm not, this is not, it's not because I'm not your friend. But it's because I see this differently than, than do you.

And so I think for my own sanity, I had to move away a little so as not to get sucked into that friendship thing. So I didn't go around the house as much as I might have particularly after the meetings on Saturday when all the celebrities and all those people would go there. I would usually go elsewhere so as to make some differentiation between the organizational and the personal. But I also missed some of the intimacy that I had known earlier. So it was a trade off, my own integrity necessitated that I do that, but I suffered for it. I lost some things because of it.

When you pull away all of the stuff that has grown around him and in him, I suspect, there is a little guy, a little boy --he's a big man and all that -- but there is a tenderness about Jesse. There is a wonder about him. There is an ability to make you feel as his friend that you're the most important person in the world. He has that ability. Certainly, that was the case when we met. And he can be kind and gentle and caring and he has been so in my own life. For me, at different periods in my life when I needed a friend, he has been a friend. I could never forget that. Never.

And I have often said, if not taking him, at least to him through others, that were he in any need or Jackie or the kids or anything like that, I would be a moment away. Personally.

The coldness comes when he feels that he's being taken advantage of. But I think particularly if he feels that he is in any way being disadvantaged. Jesse's always been kind of the outsider looking in and striving to get in. And so this kind of love affair he has with the Democratic Party and with Clinton and with all of that, you hear the strains, you know, that I have done all of this for the Party but the Party doesn't treat me right. The Party doesn't respect me. President Clinton doesn't respect me.

He can get as cold as the Arctic Sea when he feels that that is the case. And he can feel it very, very powerfully. On the other hand, when he is playful and when he is warm and when he is in a setting where he's not on stage in the sense of being on the political stage -- I think Jesse's always on stage -- I don't think he's ever off stage. But in that sense and he's with people who he both likes but people who he feels can advantage him, then he can be very warm and very charming and all the rest.

Except that you can be on stage in your physical presence but you don't have to be on stage in your emotional. So he can turn off. He turns off even when he's on stage. And it's very difficult to have a conversation with Jesse because--well, it's not difficult to have a conversation with him as long as he leads the conversation and sets the agenda of what to talk about. It's very hard to have a conversation that is more mutual because often times that's not what he wants to talk about or he's not interested in that or whatever.

I was always fascinated, in the younger years, I don't know what he does now, that he would always have gobs of people around him even when he went to sleep. And he wouldn't mind if the room was full of people. He'd go to sleep and sleep soundly. But he liked to have people around him.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King

I think he has moved away from the initial assertion that he cradled Dr. King in his arms and that the blood on his shirt was from Dr. King, and so forth. I don't know. I would think in retrospect, Jesse would have some concerns about what happened. I think there are people in SCLC who are angry with him even until today. Because from what I gather, I was not there, but that at the staff meeting following the assassination, the decision was made that no one would make any kind of public statement until Mrs. King got back or came to get the body and brought it back to Atlanta.

And there was staff people who were furious with Jesse because they said soon after that decision was made that everybody would be silent, Jesse had a press conference. But that would be tremendously difficult for Jesse to do. To be silent. And I think some of the assertions that he made about where he was at the time and the fact that he had a discussion with, was leaning over the rail or something and all of that, he might want to reconsider that. But the only way that I know that it, it it must have some affect on him is because he is rarely reticent when asked a question. And around that issue, he gets somewhat silent.

He had on a kind of turtleneck with stains and he wore that a number of days. I remember he went to speak before the city council, Mayor Daley sitting sort of in the background and Jesse speaks to the City Council. And he had the shirt on. It was a very somber time to say the least. I don't remember Jesse wearing sunglasses very much, but he wore sunglasses during that period. And I always thought maybe it was because his eyes were red from crying, lack of sleep, etc.

I remember the grief, certainly, my own, and those of the staff and his. But I also remember the sense that we must go on and in that sense, that there was a kind of take charge quality about him. And about the staff, you know, the work had to continue.

When the word came that Dr. King had died, many of us, myself included, began to cry and sob. I remember Willie Barrow saying to us in the most gruff voice, dry up your tears, it's no time to cry now. We've got to continue to work.

And I think that that was part of Jesse's understanding as well. But I think it was also, because Tibby, his grandmother's right, Jesse always senses the moment. And it was an epochical moment. And he was there. And he responded, some would say used it, but I would say he responded to the moment so that it wasn't time for a whole lot of grief. There was still work to be done, there was still explanations to be made, there were still arrangements to be done, etc. and so forth.

For me, Jesse was an instrument of the movement for change. And I loved him and love him now. As I certainly loved and admired Dr. King although I did not know him very well. But the movement and the person for me are different.

One of the reasons I left, and I've never said this before, one of the reasons I left Chicago was my sense that for some people and in Jesse's own mind, the movement and his person became one. And I don't believe that. I don't believe that.

The Media

We were talking about media. We were talking about TV. Now, understanding that television helped the civil rights movement because it projected images around the world of horrible things being done to Black people by these mean white people. Dr. King was certainly aware of media.

So I can remember discussions of national news and what snippet got on Cronkite, what snippet got on Huntley/Brinkley. Etc. and so forth. But the discussion in the basement of Liberty Church took that a step further. And really said that we had to develop ways of responding to the media, ways of compelling the media to hear us. And what we were doing. And that that needed to become a central part of who we were.

I argued unsuccessfully that while that was true, we really needed to be aware of programs because it would be the programs that would have the content for the media. And not vice versa. I didn't win. And I suspect that I didn't win because I shouldn't have won because media is not like that. But the decision was made to move in ways that would be responsive to and cause media to respond to us. And I think that was a fateful decision but it certainly has proven in a projection of images and all the rest, it has been very successful.

The meeting specifically talked about the role that Jesse would have to play in that kind of media understanding. He would have to be not only the spokesperson but would need to be in those situations where media attention could be received.

Jesse would, I've been in situations with him riding different places where Jesse would have 8, 10 morning newspapers. [The New York] Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times and he would rifle through the papers to see if he was in. And what was said in terms of whatever the issue was, etc. and so forth.

We would look at the evening news to see what got on and all the rest. I was a very poor pupil because if someone asked me a question if you could tell by this interview, I'd go on and on and on. And Jesse said look, you can't do that. You have what you want to say, no matter what they ask you, you say it in 15 or 30 seconds because that's all they're going to take. Calvin, you talk too long and you go on and it gets boring, etc. and so forth.

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