The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson

Interview with Roger Wilkins

photo of Roger Wilkins The first time I ever saw Jesse Jackson was in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Just as the march from Selma to Montgomery was gearing up. It was in the week between the beatings of the marchers on the Edmond Prettis bridge when the first march had first kicked off. I had heard about Jackson. I was in the Justice Department at the time. And he was already becoming a name in the movement. So I wanted to see him. Curious about him.

And, all I really remember was a large human being, and a large presence with enormous energy. Kind of exhorting and moving around and drawing a lot of attention. I was there only briefly. But the impression is very strong. And I don't believe I saw him again until after Dr. King was killed.

1965 was a time of great energy in this country. People believed that they could change the country for the better and they saw all kind of movement. And there were young people who were just absolutely full of energy. And most of these people were 8 or 10 years younger than I am. I think Jesse is 10 years younger than I am.

And a lot of them, battled-tested. They had tested themselves against their own fears. And they had defeated their fears and had experienced success in pushing back injustice so they were kind of full of themselves and full of a sense of the righteousness of their cause. And the invincibility. And like any veterans who had been through things together, they were very close to each other and had a distrust of outsiders.

They were changing the world that they knew. And they were making it better because the old order had been so awful. And they could see the changes before their very eyes. They were doing things that their elders had been trying to do for generations or had been too timid to do it. And here they were wiping it all aside.

But the wonderful thing--the moment was so pregnant and so hopeful. Because we seemed to have a responsive country. There were white people all over the country who understood the injustice that Black people were suffering and who said this is our injustice and we must address it. So that when these young people spoke, they were heard by other people and the response was a decent, broad, moral response.

The Poor People's Campaign and Jesse...

The Poor People's Campaign was Martin King's last campaign. And I had seen him a few weeks before his death to talk to him about the campaign because I was the federal official in charge, I guess I was the host. And so I had to know something about what he intended in order to be able to plan for receiving the group. Well, Martin's plans were pretty vague. He knew it was an economic base. He knew it was going to be multi-racial. He intended to bring people from all over the country, probably by mule train. And that's about as far as we got as I recall at our conversation. And I don't think they had gotten much farther in their planning when Martin was killed.

After that death SCLC was an organization with a gaping hole in its soul. They were in deep grief. Now, even when Martin was alive, the SCLC was not noted as a paragon of organizational efficiency. But now with these people in grief, it was, it was an organization that was kind of walking around in circles, bumping into itself. And that was understandable. I mean it was a horrible thing that had happened. And what was going on with the SCLC then was not very different what went on with the U.S. government after John Kennedy had been murdered.

So the Poor People's Campaign finally go to Washington and it was almost leaderless. Ralph Abernathy was the nominal leader but Ralph and Martin were so close that Ralph was really not able to lead effectively and most of his lieutenants weren't. Andy Young was almost sleepwalking. And then came Jesse. Full of energy, full of drive.

I mean, this is not to suggest that Jesse didn't grieve the way, as much as anybody else. It's just to say that Jesse is almost a force of nature. There is almost no way to kind of bleed the energy out of him. So he came to town with all this energy, saw the vacuum and so even though he was the youngest of the SCLC major leaders, he tried to kind of take over and give it the Poor People's Campaign in the absence of anything else some shape, form.

He had all these people down here on the mall. It was raining and it was muddy. So you had to have something for these people to do. Jesse conceived the idea of taking these people because they were poor and therefore hungry to government cafeterias every day and demanding that they be fed by the government and it was a great stratagem. It worked. He had, even then, the kind of genius to hit the organizational idea that can be carried out and that people can see and understand was there.

Others of the leaders were functional to a degree. Some were 40 percent functional, some were 60% functional. Jesse's out there 95%. Jesse clearly had more energy and more drive and more direction and he was the one whose activities really sparked the response which we tried to give, we in the government. Which was to get legislation that would have provided free stamps for Americans whose incomes was less than a dollar a day. That is if your income was less than $30 a month you would be eligible for free food stamps.

The food stamp program was a tiny, experimental program. The main feeding program that the government had was excess food. Excess from the commodity programs. And there was a lot of hunger in the United States. So this was a big innovation. We had ferocious arguments inside the government. There were some people in our liberal government who sounded just like the Reagan people. Well if you give them free food stamps, they'll just go out and trade it in for whiskey...

And the overclass often makes these arguments and somehow there's no moral failure on their part, ever. But they have to be the minders of the morals of the poor. And so we had that argument in the federal government and our leader in this was Ramsey Clark, the attorney general, who was my boss. And I was his lieutenant and we won. We got it all the way to the President. The President thought it was a great idea.

And then he took it up to the Hill. Dr. Wilbur Mills who was then the chair of the Ways and Means Committee and Mills said, 'Mr. President I just got you a 10% income tax surcharge to pay for your poor. And that's all I can get through my Committee now. So forget this free food stamp stuff.' And that's as far as we got.

But, the reason we got that far was this impetus that Jesse had given us for this ingenious feeding idea.

Then the people left. 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 worked. 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, [t]hey said Tom, you got no guts, 'He's a white folks nigger.' You know. Stokely and those people who had been in town, there had been a lot of talk about burning and every church they burned down, we're going to burn down one of theirs. There had been a lot of incendiary rhetoric.

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.

And there are an awful lot of people who present themselves as people who did major things in the movement, took risks and things. But there aren't that many people who took that kind of risk. It was a bold, remarkable risk with a fella using all of his skills of intellect and leadership, put it all on the line and he succeeded.

Explaining Jesse's Drive...

Well, you know, every time Jesse runs for President, there's a cottage industry of people psychoanalyzing him. And I hear people who go back to his roots in South Carolina and say, well the fact that he was born out of wedlock, that the kids said Jesse ain't got no daddy. That his father lived next door. That these half brothers were the legitimate brothers. All couldn't explain that drive. I mean, how do you explain George Washington? His two older brothers were sent to England for first-class educations. Then their mother died and he was the third-born child but he was not the child of their mother but of a different mother. And instead of being sent off to England, he learned as an apprentice to be a surveyor. And he didn't go to college. And so, maybe that explains his drive and what made... who knows these things?

What I do know about Jackson is that in my lifetime, I've seen only one other human being with the same kind of drive. And that's Lyndon Johnson. And these two men are so much alike it is eerie. The only thing I'm glad about is that since I had the fortune and the misfortune of working for Johnson and having to say yes sir to whatever he felt, I'm glad I'm older than Jesse and can ignore him when I feel like it.

Both big. Both very smart. Both very shrewd and both with over-powering personalities. You know, just this inability to stop where other people put up their defenses. Normally, we take cues from other people, you know. When you're getting too close and you've gotten too intimate and you see the other person becoming uncomfortable, most of us stop. Not those guys. They come right through that as if it's a line made up of sixth graders and their just on you and they overpower you because they are convinced that their project is such a worthy one and that you ought to be delighted to be on board.

Explaining, analyzing the public resistance to him....

Because he's an uppity nigger who doesn't know his place. There are a lot of things at the core of the American culture to believe in. Egalitarianism. Individualism. Materialism. Racism. They're all there. They're all in this little cluster that makes people Americans.

And one of the constants about American racism is a need to suppress assertive Black men. The way to do that is to, in old racial etiquette, was to require Black men to be deferential at all times. And to accede to white people's whims and desires and orders at all times. Take your hat off. Shuffle. Say yes sir. Never look a white man in the eye. All of that stuff. And any Black man who stood up and asserted himself was called uppity or crazy.

It was a wonderful way of disarming Black people because people say America is a land of opportunity. For whom? Not for meek people. America is a land of opportunity for the Ted Turners and the Rupert Murdochs and the Donald Trumps of this world. The aggressive people who will take the big chance and leap and grab for the Bill Clintons, the Franklin Roosevelts, the people who are just bowling the people over to get to the prize. Black people, a Black man who was a go-getter in that sense, in the 19th century, would be hung. They'd say that's a crazy nigger. Hang him.

Well Jesse never bent to that etiquette. A Black man deciding that he's going to run for President. He doesn't know his place. He's uppity. And so they think it's egotistical. Now, all kinds of white idiots can run for President. And you've seen lots and lots of white and people don't say, well gosh, look at his ego. They say, well he doesn't have any chance. He'll get wiped out in the primaries. He won't last past New Hampshire. But they don't say, he's got this wild, out of control ego.

Jackson understands this country and he understands that if you don't push the limits, the limits will push back at you. There's no kind of stable fence. So that if Black people are pushing the limits, then society will push the limits back on us and squeeze us down and make us small again. And Jackson wants to push it out so that we can have just as much room to grow and earn and raise our kids as anybody else.

And, the most terrific way to do that and to assert our fullness as American citizens at least the most effective way back in the '80s and perhaps even the '90s was for him to run for President.

Well, it just outraged all kinds of white people. George Will was absolutely rude and stupid on television on the Brinkley show, trying to trip Jesse up, 'Well now when the G-7 meets and' -- just to throw at him something that he wouldn't understand to show that he's unqualified to be President. It was a rudeness that he would not have pulled on anybody else. But it was because he thinks of Jesse as uppity.

Not an awful lot of people who still believe that on the whole, with maybe one or two exceptions, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell, that Black people are basically across the board less than able than white people. And less qualified for whatever is than white people are qualified for.

So, you know, the idea is essentially that there is probably no Black person in the country qualified to be President with the possible exception of Colin Powell. Now, I've seen lots of Presidents in my lifetime. And I want to tell you something. Not only are there Black people qualified to be President, but there are lot of Black people who are helluva lot more qualified than some of the white people who have been in the job.

But when people see Jackson who has not had a traditional political career, they say, well, he's not qualified. Of course if you force a Black person into a traditional political career, then that person is going to get virtually no shot at the presidency. Even the two people who have been elected statewide in modern times, Bill Wilder flamed out and I think Braun will have one turn and that will be that.

Dealing with Adversity

Jesse gets a pounding that is unlike any pounding I've ever seen anybody get. But he shakes it off better than anybody I've ever seen. He's got friends. He talks to his friends. And he draws comfort and support--he's got a wide group of friends and supporters around the country. And he knows how to use us for comfort and support. He knows who to call when there's this particular and when there's a different kind of pain, he calls somebody else.

But, in the end I think, he's stronger and more resilient than most people. You know, human beings come in different packages and they have different capacities. There are professional football players who can play with more pain than other players can. And there are people who can absorb more psychic shocks than other people can. Jesse can absorb more psychic shocks than almost anybody I know.

And, sometimes it seems to me that he almost draws strength from them. But at times he does get hurt. I mean, he's not impervious to hurt. I think the Sister Soulja thing really hurt because it was such a stab in the back. It was such a dirty thing for Clinton and Stefanopolus to do. They blind-sided him. It was rude and dirty and pretty awful and did hurt his feelings. Clinton disgraced himself. Stefanopolus disgraced himself. They should forever be ashamed of themselves for what they did. You know, Jesse may not be their favorite politician. But I'll tell you something, all the politicians I have seen in this country --and don't get me wrong -- I don't think Jesse's perfect and he sometimes makes me very angry. And he sometimes disappoints me. I mean, he's a human being and I'm [a] human being. And I don't think I've ever seen a perfect person.

But I look at the whole range of American politicians whom I've known. I'm 63 years old. I've lived in this city now for over 30 years. I haven't seen anybody who works as hard, as consistently, over a long period of time, to achieve good things for the society. I've seen nobody who matches this guy.

I mean Bill Clinton runs around, yelling about personal responsibility. Black people have to have personal responsibility. When Bill Clinton was nobody--when he was off at Yale Law School--Jesse Jackson, through PUSH/Excel, was exhorting Black parents to pay attention to their kids and go to school with their kids and sign their kids' report cards and discuss homework with their kids and limit their kids' access to television and he was getting beat up for it by Blacks and by liberals. This is in '72.

Nobody in private life in this country has worked harder on the issue of drugs. Nobody in private life in this country has worked harder to put cross, race, political coalitions together. To bring Americans together around issues of their common interests.

Today, the Clintons are running around talking about triangulation and putting up straw men and equating the left of our party with the right of the other party. That's already a slander on the left of our party. 'Cause I haven't seen anybody in the Democratic Party as disgraceful as those rightwingers like Dornan and Pat Buchanan in the Republican Party.

And, I heard Mrs. Clinton recently arguing that the left of her party wants to absolve people of personal responsibility and think that government should do it all. Well I don't know who the left of our party is if it isn't Jesse Jackson. Every Thursday over at the Shiloh Baptist Church, Jackson is gathering lawyers, judges, clergy people, business people, around getting them to mentor Black kids, bringing them up, keeping them out of jail.

I don't see Bill Clinton doing that. I don't know that Bill Clinton ever did that. So the notion that somehow this extraordinary human being is (a) extreme, (b) sickly self-serving, (c) utterly egotistical, (d) a total parasite off of government programs. That's all slander. This is an enormously creative, tenacious and very constructive public servant who's been at it for more than 30 years.

His Views of the Country

I don't think we ever discussed what we think about this country. The interesting thing about the Black movement and Black people generally is that we have had to believe in America's best promises. If you are born in segregation as Jesse and I and virtually all the Blacks of our generation who I've known in the movement have been. And you see your people slandered and used by politicians, by business people, by everybody, you have to believe that things can get better.

And the only way things can be made to be better is to believe that the country really does aspire to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, to the preamble of the Constitution, the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments, the Gettysburg Address, that that really is who we aspire to.

And so we work at it. We work to make the country live up to those ideals. And Marshall was clearly an American patriot. And so is Jackson. He believes, I think, deep in his soul that there is true good in human beings that if you work hard enough at it, you can reach it.

He's even, I think, a more fervent believer than Marshall was. Somebody said--Thurgood believes that there's nothing wrong with the United States that the Constitution can't fix.

But that's a lawyer's way of looking at it. Jesse really is a minister. Jesse really does believe in redemption. And Jesse believes that people, if you reach deeply enough into people's souls, you can touch the good in them. And that the good in Americans is the capacity to aspire to those ideals.

I don't think that he could work as hard, push as hard, be as constructive a force as he's been for so many years without that deep patriotic belief in the possibilities of this country. And -- it's amazing--in the essential goodness of white people. Now that's a belief I don't fully share. I think you have to do it. I think you have to keep pushing because that's the only alternative to despair. But I've seen too many rotten people and I've seen too many people who think of the United States as simply a get-rich quick place.

To believe as powerfully as Jesse does or seems to, that the country can ultimately be fixed and it can be a place where people are judged on the basis of what they can do and what they put out. I believe then there's, if you struggle there can be some improvement. But I believe there is just an awful lot of selfish people in this society and that the racism and the almost pathological individualism that some people have really thwarts our democratic aspirations.

But Jesse moves right through that stuff and he just keeps on going. He's like a full back, he can't stop.

His Need to be Recognized....

Well Jesse does like to be recognized. He has been a public figure for a long, long time. And he's gotten enormous amounts of praise and respect. But he's been disrespected a lot as well. And he loves to be on television. He loves to be in the newspapers. A lot of us wish that that weren't such a large part of him. But it is. But, you know, an awful lot of times when he's in the newspaper -- I mean Jesse, when I was a journalist I used to just fight him off and said Jesse, you know, I'll write about you when you do something that I think warrants my writing about you. You know I have and you know I will.

But I'm not here to just write about Jesse Jackson and every thought that Jesse Jackson has. I like you. I admire you. But, there's lots of other stuff going around in the world too. And, we all like recognition. So, the search for recognition from one's fellows is not unique to Jackson. But it's true that Jackson has a big hunger for it and sometimes, I think, it gets in the way.

Jackson likes to be in the newspaper, he likes to be at the table. But one of the things that I always say about Jackson is that, I didn't notice that Franklin Roosevelt was a shrinking violet. Or that Dick Nixon or Lyndon Johnson. I mean if you are a public figure and you want to get stuff done, personal ambition is all mixed with this drive for accomplishment.

So, yeah, Jesse wants to be at the table. And I want him to be at the table. I mean, right now, Jackson is the most formidable Black political figure in the country. He understands the poor kids three blocks from here, my neighbors who stand, you can go around there today, this minute, and purchase some cocaine from them. Jackson understands those people better than any other politicians in the country and understands why they're there, the circumstances that put them there, and the things that could get them out of that hole better than any other politician in the country.

Do you think that if it wasn't for the threat of Jackson, now everybody says, well oh boy, Jackson just wants to draw attention to himself by saying well I may run for President. As a matter of act when he announced that he might, that he was thinking about it last spring, I was pretty annoyed at him myself. I said what is he doing that for.

But it was out there and out there. Do you think but for the threat of Jackson running as an independent that Clinton would have made as ringing endorsement on affirmative action? No way. Do I want Jackson to have leverage? Absolutely. Does he want to have leverage? Absolutely. I mean you don't just run around and spend all this energy just to get your name in the paper. You want to accomplish something. He wants recognition, he wants to be at the table, he wants to be a player.

One of the reasons is he sees more two-bit characters in this town running around who have tracks and are at the table having done far less for this country. Jackson has seen all kinds of people whose intellect and whose contributions over the years have been far inferior to his, playing far larger roles than he is able to play and in large measure his role is limited because he is a Black guy. That's my point.

Jackson's Impact

I think that when the story of the 20th century in the United States is written that Jackson will have to be one of the ten or fifteen most important contributors to the development of America in this century. Because his two runs for the presidency were, if he had done nothing else, the two runs for the presidency were national civics lessons. It enlarged the idea in the heads and spirits of Americans of who could aspire to be President. Of who should aspire to be President. There are all kinds of Black kids and women, young women in this country, who can now think realistically about the possibility of being President who would not have thought that realistically about it before Jackson made his runs.

I still think about white people and how they think so exclusively about the country and I would hear over and over again any child born in America can aspire to be President. Well, that's nuts. Girls couldn't aspire to be President. That knocks out half the people already. Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics couldn't aspire to be President. So when we're talking about any child we're really talking about any white male child can aspire to be President. And you could knock off Appalachian kids and so forth.

But what Jackson did really was to make it possible for me to think for the first time, I couldn't think, certainly couldn't think of myself as having any chance of being President of the United States. And I couldn't think of either of my older children who are now in their 30s as having a chance to be president of the United States.

But in part because Jackson and in part because of the women's movement, my child who is now 12 whose going to be, 50 years from now she'll be 10 [years] younger than Bob Dole is today. Well, 50 years from now, in 2045, maybe my daughter can be thinking seriously if that's who she turns out to be, of running for President. And it is not inconceivable to me that this Black female, now alive, could possibly be President of the United States in the middle of the next century. Now, that is in large part Jackson. And the idea in her head that maybe she could be President comes from what she has seen of the person she calls Uncle Jesse. But there are a lot of kids who never even met Jesse and they'll call him Uncle Jesse who have an idea well, gee, maybe I could be President.

On His Future

I would say that you should listen more carefully to Yogi Berra who said, 'It ain't over till it's over.' Jesse is not stupid. He hasn't lost anything of his brain, he hasn't lost anything from his creativity, he has not lost anything from his energy. And he is endlessly creative. He is continuing to contribute in a significant way.

The people who think Jackson, his time has come and gone--but John Glenn made a couple of abortive runs for the presidency. And never really got off the ground. But people who say, well Glenn's usefulness to the society is over, he's still got a Senate seat and he's still chairman of committees, he's still doing his stuff. And nobody says, well, John Glenn is passe.

If Jesse had a Senate seat or was [a] traditional person and politician, he could have sat around doing nothing since the `88 convention and nobody would say his time was gone. Because nobody would notice if he was doing nothing in the Senate.

The fact is that Jesse's been doing plenty. In the end, I'd have to say that the man has more energy than anybody I've ever known with the exception of Johnson. More desire. If I were a star football team, I'd chose Jackson as my full back. And, you know, I would just run him into the line and run him into the line and run him into the line and I would get lots and lots of touchdowns because the guy is never going to give up, never going to give up not as long as there's breath [in] him. He is a marvel.


When Jackson is hurt, he is dispirited and he talks to a lot of people. The one time that is clearest in my mind was the time after Sister Soulja. He was just stunned and dazed. And he would just keep on going through it and going over it over and over again. And we would sit. And what should he do. And there was kind of--he didn't know where to go. Usually he knows. Driving forward.

I campaigned with Jackson and sometimes being with him is like -- he campaigns the way Magic Johnson plays basketball. It's almost like he gets the ball and it's an open court and he sees things on the court that other people don't see. And he goes and does it.

But when he's hurt, he sits and he just talks and he goes over and over and over it and pretty soon he comes out of it. After Sister Soulja, he was really hurt. It was such a blow and dirty blow. But he came out of it.

And in the end, he trusts himself. After all, this is not a kid anymore. He's approaching his mid-50s. He knows what he's done. He's got an enormous track record. He's got loads of people around the country who love him. There are things that he doesn't do terribly well. He's not an institution builder. But he knows that if he keeps going and keeps going and keeps going after a while some good things are going to happen. And they always do, they always do.

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