The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson

Interview with Andrew Young

photo of Andrew Young Jesse and I have, I think, almost identical commitments but different personalities and different kinds of upbringing. And there's always a potential clash there. Even as we work together and agree on things all the time.

But my feeling is that you don't go looking for troubles. The cross ought to find you. And so I never go out of my way. I figure I only get involved in things that I can't get around. I think Jesse is more driven to get involved. And he's more likely to gravitate toward causes that are likely to be difficult. And I admire that in him. But I'm different.

The Early Days

We were really and truly a very close band of brothers. But like brothers, we often disagreed. And there's tremendous rivalry amongst brothers. But still we didn't let anybody else mess with anybody. And Jesse joined the band; we all joined in different stages.

There was one group that came together in Montgomery and shortly afterwards -- that was Martin Luther King and a group of preachers who were already settled and in their families and pastoring pretty big churches. There was another group that came in with the student movement. And I came along just after that, though I was viewed by many as being younger, I was actually married and had three children by that time. And that was in 1961.

Then, in 1964 and 65, Josea and Jesse joined us. And Jesse actually came on the staff in 1966 in Chicago. But he was present in the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Early Impressions of Jesse

I had done a pamphlet, "The Bible and the Ballot." And I had taken ten scriptural passages that I thought would preach. And we had done, oh maybe 20-30,000 of them in 1964. And he had run across one and remembered it. Well, everybody's impressed when somebody reads something you've written.

But that wasn't the thing that attracted me to him. The thing that attracted me to him was the fact that here was a climate in which we were totally surrounded by police and when I would not have been taking charge if it hadn't been my responsibility, and he moved to the fore and was ready to take charge. Well, in that kind of situation, taking charge meant being thrown in jail, it meant getting beaten up. It was less than a week since the Reverend James Reeb had been beaten to death about three blocks from where we were standing. So is this guy for real? Is he really courageous? Or does he just not know any better.

And I decided that here was a natural-born leader. And he just couldn't stand in line with everybody else.

In this particular instance, we were surrounded by the police at the church. And we needed to keep some people who could control a crowd between the people and the police because that's a dangerous interaction. And we were staying there around the clock. And he immediately agreed to take a turn to give the rest of us who had been in Selma for three months. We were pretty well dragging. And so we were glad for anybody to come in and be willing to take a responsible leadership role. And he brought with him a large delegation. In fact it was almost a plane-load from Chicago. The Catholic Inter-racial Council. And they made a difference.

That was the first time that nuns had come into the movement in their religious dress. And that was very significant. Because up to that time, people were trying to write us off as communists. And for us to have the support of the Catholic church, the white church, was a significant blessing. And Jesse was the leader of that delegation with Dr. Al Pitcher from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

His Presence

Well, he's big physically. Almost all the rest of us were shorter. He had a articulate kind of self-confidence intellectually. And there was a zeal. There was a determination to make the world a better place. And I mean, he was willing to commit himself to the struggle with few if any reservations.

The people that surrounded Martin Luther King almost all came out of movements and they came out of both political struggles and personal struggles. Fred Shuttlesworth was the leader of the Birmingham movement. Fred was not the pastor of the largest church in Birmingham but he was clearly the most influential pastor in Birmingham because he was willing to risk his life to confront segregation. Others might be willing to preach about it, but he was willing to go out there and confront the Klan and he was willing to challenge the law of the land.

And the same was true of Ralph Abernathy from the Montgomery Improvement Association and the bus boycott.

Joe Lowery was chairman of the board. And was a Methodist minister.

These were men who had lived in the south all of their lives. James Bevel on the other hand came out of the student movement. And James and Diane Bevel -- well Diane reminded me of a southern Joan of Arc. She had a kind of crusaders gleam in her eye. And she was just not afraid of anything or anybody. And Bevel was a borderline eccentric in the sense that Bevel just did not believe in compromise with anything that he thought to be evil. He'd been discharged from the military because of some segregation incident and he just walked away and sat down on the back of the ship because his commanding officer mistreated him and he just started reading. And finally they just discharged him to get rid of him. And he brought that same kind of uncompromising vision and dedication to the movement.

Josea Williams. Josea was a World War II veteran who was in a foxhole with a small squad. A bomb hit the foxhole directly. Everybody in the foxhole was killed but him. And he laid there with these dead bodies for two days until they realized that he was still alive. And then as the ambulance took him to the hospital, the ambulance was hit by the bomb. And the drivers were killed. And he laid there for another day or so until they found out that he was still alive in the back. So here was a guy who spent -- and he was 13 months in a hospital in England, 40% disabled veteran who comes back to Georgia feeling like God had saved him for a purpose. Only to be roughed up down in Bainbridge, Georgia for drinking from a water fountain, a segregated water fountain. And coming back from the war, a 40% disabled veteran still in uniform with a cane, on a hot day decided that he could give his life for his country, he could drink water anywhere. And so he drank water from what was supposed to be a segregated fountain and people roughed him up and he decided that God saved fight segregation.

So everybody had some sort of calling.

C.T. Vivian is just one of those passionate and articulate people I know. And always has been. I'd say C.T. preaches like a freight train running down hill without brakes. He's only got one gear and that's top, you know, high speed. He starts out hard and he keeps going until he's almost exhausted, you know.

These were the talented leaders that gathered around Martin Luther King. All of them strong egos. All of them with his own story. All of them in some way, maybe sub-consciously wishing that he was Martin Luther King.

Jessse wasn't any different than any of the rest of us except that all the others had been there first and maybe they felt he should have waited his turn.

But Martin always said, look, normal people don't challenge the law of the land. He said you got to be strong enough to be creatively maladjusted. And sometimes he said, Andy, you're too well-adjusted. You can adjust to segregation and you can teach other people to accept it. And rise above it personally. But we need people around who can't be adjusted. People who have to upset things. He said then after it's upset, you can go in and help settle it. But you would never upset anything.

And so there was this nice mixture of people. He'd normally put me and Walter Faunteroy in the category of people who were say rational and logical about things. And he said I'm not trying to play you down or dis..., he said you have a role too. But we need people to disturb the troubled waters. And you're not going to trouble the waters. And that's true.

Reflections on Mayor Daley and Chicago

We went to Chicago and for us Daley was not the enemy. Daley was the leader of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party with Daley had elected John Kennedy [for] President. That was responsible for much of our civil rights success. We knew that there were problems with the Daley machine but the biggest and best and most successful fundraiser we had in '63 was put on by Mayor Daley and Mahalia Jackson. We got more money directly into the movement from Daley and Mahalia Jackson than we got say from Philadelphia or Los Angeles probably did better. Daley was a person that we disagreed with, but not an enemy. Say somebody that we could work with. In fact Martin said specifically, that if I was Mayor of Chicago it would take me at least 10 years to get Chicago straightened out.

So we didn't have any illusions that getting rid of Daley would solve our problem. In fact, all of our training told us that it was bad to personalize the struggle. And so we were resistant to the Chicago tendency which was mostly a white liberal tendency around Hyde Park to demonize the Democratic Party and Daley. Now that doesn't mean we agreed. But we had a very realistic view of what was going on in Chicago.

Which Jesse shared to a certain extent. I mean one of the problems that Jesse's had around Chicago is his Southern view of Daley versus his Northern liberal view of Daley. And he shifts back and forth and you know if you can develop a consensus around Harold Washington and pull it together, you can make Chicago work. He was able then to be positively for somebody rather than against the machine.

In fact, we rather successful coopted the machine in the Black community in Harold Washington's election. And Jesse's largely responsible for that. But it's been an on again off again -- well, I think Jesse and Chicago can't figure out how to relate to each other.

We knew when we went to Chicago that we were testing non-violence to see how it would work in the north. But at the same time we were moving into Chicago, we were still registering voters across the south. And I always felt that we were the Southern Christian Leadership Organization. And I frankly resented Robert Kennedy challenging Martin to extend his leadership north because I always viewed the problem of America as a southern problem brought on by the seniority of southern politicians that dominated the Congress of the United States and made appointments of judges and everything else difficult for north and south.

But we knew that we had to do something about the north because the south represented social and political challenges primarily. The north represented an economic challenge. And Martin used to say that it doesn't cost anything to integrate a lunch counter. In fact, it makes money for the owner of the lunch counter. But to create jobs seemingly will cost the nation something. We will have to give up on defense spending and there's some hard choices that will have to be made if we are going to deal with the economic realities of northern cities.

The Movement in the North

Well, the Poor People's Campaign actually came out of a combination of our frustrations in the northern cities. Frustrations not because non-violence wouldn't work. But frustrations because you had more Black people in Chicago than you had in the whole state of Alabama. And at the time we only had about 100 people on our staff. And our total national budget was just about $600,000 dollars a year. Martin Luther King in his lifetime never had a million dollars a year to work with. And yet, here was Robert Kennedy the attorney general, saying that we ought to do something about northern cities. That wasn't our problem. But we tried.

And the theory behind Chicago and the theory behind the Poor People's Campaign was related to the Bonus Marches in the Depression where we knew that we wouldn't solve the problem. But we thought that we could dramatize the problem and call attention to it. And as a result of our dramatization of the problems in Chicago and in the south and in the Poor People's Campaign, we would create a mandate for the next President whom we thought would be Robert Kennedy, [t]o do something about the problems of the cities. But Martin was assassinated and then Robert Kennedy was assassinated. And we floundered leaderless for a while. And even with all of that assassination and confusion, that was the period in which the Black Panthers and Angela Davis and all of the distortions of the reality.

Our success was that we could focus the country on a specific moral agenda. We could focus on a lunch counter. We could focus on the right to vote. We could focus on public education. We could focus on jobs. But with the Panthers -- what was the issue -- violence or Blackness? Or you'd have us out in California where the issue was a cultural renaissance. And you'd have Peace and Freedom Party saying we ought to end all war. And the movement got so fragmented without Martin Luther King's clear voice that Richard Nixon won. He still, with all of that confusion, he still won by less than 1 percentage point of the vote. And that set us back a good 20 years. That plus the assassinations.

The Media

Well the media was very important. But I don't think the media consciously distorts. I think the media tends to go to the most--quote-- 'newsworthy item.' And if somebody says he's going to blow up the Statue of Liberty, that's more newsworthy than somebody saying I'm going to feed the hungry. Just it's more realistic to feed the hungry. It's more morally sound. It's a more credible vision. But the media doesn't care about that.

And yet there was also at the time of Chicago the FBI's Cointelpro that deliberately sought to distort what we were trying to do. Most of the people who were difficult for us to deal with in Memphis, in Resurrection City and in Chicago during the Democratic Convention were agents, provocateurs paid by the FBI to disrupt things.

The Poor People's Campaign

Well, in the beginning none of us were particularly excited about the Poor People's Campaign. It was an idea that came to Martin from Marian Edelman in Mississippi along with four unemployed men who just asked Dr. King to take them to Washington because they hadn't had jobs for 20, 25 years. And they didn't have jobs because it was government policy to pay people not to grow food or fiber.

And so Martin felt compelled by that. Bevel wanted to take on the war in Vietnam. Jesse wanted to keep Chicago going. Josea wanted to build a political base in the south. Everybody had a different agenda and Martin said-- also, everybody knew that we could not succeed in getting any response from the Congress in the length of time leading up to the election. Martin felt that it was important to go and fail. And even if we were run out of Washington like the bonus marches did, or if we were put in prison and he talked seriously of mounting the kind of campaign [that] would possibly lead to our being in prison for a year or two. And he was consciously escalating the struggle. Now, we were going along but nobody was excited about a one-to-four-year federal prison term. And we knew that that's the sort of thing that he was leading us into. But then we didn't realize the extent to which that panicked Lyndon Johnson in the White House and Senator Byrd and the FBI. And I think they were determined to stop us from getting to Washington.

Some of us saw the strike in Memphis as a diversion. Not that we didn't agree that garbage workers had the right to organize. We felt as though you couldn't just take on everything. And so we had agreed to put Chicago on hold. We agreed to slow down on the voter registration. We had agreed to suspend the protests on the war in Vietnam and concentrate on poverty. And everybody was pretty much united to go to Washington in this poor people's campaign. And then in the middle of it, you get this call from garbage workers in Memphis that want us to come there. Well, some of us felt that that was an attempt to distract us and that if we ever went into Memphis, we'd be bogged down in Memphis and we would never get to Washington.

Martin felt as though he couldn't turn his back on garbage workers. And so he said, you all go ahead and keep on doing what you're doing. I'm just going down there and it was a Monday morning and lead a march to give them some encouragement. And he was supposed to meet, he left Washington, I mean he left New York at 5 o'clock in the morning, flew down to Memphis. I was going on to Washington and he was going to do this speech, catch an afternoon plane and be in Washington for a meeting that night.

So he thought that this was just, you know, a half-day stop. We were told by a young man that they had been coerced and paid to disrupt the march. And they didn't. They were angry with the preachers and they were angry with the labor union. Because they felt as though they weren't getting enough attention. And somebody, we think the FBI, played on their frustration, encouraged them to disrupt the march. That was exactly what we feared.

It was disrupted by tagging along at the end of a peaceful demonstration and here is Martin Luther King and the garbage workers and a couple of hundred preachers leading a march. And then at the tail end of the march, people at the back of the march start breaking out windows and looting stores. It gave the police an excuse to beat up the people in the front of the march. The people who were doing the breaking windows never got arrested, never got stopped. But it disrupted the march and Martin became pretty crushed and disillusioned.

Dr. Martin Luther King's Reaction

Well, he got very, very quiet, depressed. He would say nothing. And it lasted for almost a week. I mean he was just shattered because he had miscalculated. And he felt as though he was responsible so the burden of guilt weighed on him. The realization that this was not accidental but that this was deliberate on the part of the government to which he paid taxes. And I guess he really felt -- and here was a guy who wasn't 40 years old -- and felt that the weight of the whole world was on his shoulders. I mean he felt that he should be able to convince Johnson to withdraw from Vietnam. He felt as though he should be able to get voters registered. That he should be able to wipe out poverty. He should be able to stop violence.

I think that many of us were beginning to get a bit more cynical. And felt as though he had been naive. That some of us had actually tried to tell him leave Memphis alone. And he went against our advice. But then once this happened, we realized that we had to rally around and get everybody together.

He asked everybody to come, I mean he spent almost from Monday to Friday alone. And he saw almost nobody. And then he asked us all to come to Atlanta for that Saturday. And this was a Friday or Saturday morning meeting. In his father's study. And he said a number of things. One, he said that we let him down. And not just on this occasion but that we all constantly left everything to him and that none of us were pulling our own weight. He said I can't take this by myself. I really need you all to pull together and you need to take your share of this load. And he was saying that to all of us. Let this, the press might say that this is a one-man operation, but you know and I know it's never been a one-man operation and if what happened in Memphis proved anything, it should have proved that to you.

And he was very critical of us, of each wanting to follow his own agenda rather than being supportive of him in this effort as we had in other efforts.

Jesse and Martin

Jesse followed him out of the meeting and I was with him. And the thing that happened was that Jesse tried to encourage him and it was sort of a kind of glib thing that we do all the time and you know --'Don't worry, everything's going to be all right.' And he turned and said, 'Everything is not going to be all right. You know. That if things keep going the way they're going now, it's not SCLC but it's the whole country that's in trouble.' And he said, it's not me. I'm not asking support me. I don't need this. He said, I think that this country is in critical condition and SCLC is one of the few organizations that can help them but SCLC can't do it unless all of us are pulling together, unless we have the same agenda. If you're on separate agendas and we're not working together, we're not going to make it.

And then he turned, I mean it was shocking in the sense that he never talked to anybody like that. And though I had seen him mad at me, nobody had ever seen him mad ever before in a situation like that. I mean, he didn't lose his temper. He didn't, he wasn't hostile. But, it wasn't a time for us to be saying peace, peace when there is no peace.

Jesse was stunned. Because one of the things that Jesse wants, wanted and needed more than anything in the world was the support and approval of Martin Luther King and all of the rest of us. Jesse's quite open and honest about this. That growing up as a child, seeing your father in another family, there is almost an irrepressible need for the support from the father that you never got as a child. And I think one of the strains in our relationship and one of the strains in his relationships with others is that that suddenly seeps in. And I say very quickly I want to be your brother. But I can't be the father you never had. Just as you could not be my father.

And Martin had the other problem with his father. I mean Martin's problem was a too-domineering father and so Martin kind of secretly wished that he had not had to put up with a father, I mean he almost envied Jesse's being able to grow up free of that kind of pressure. But whenever people live as closely as we lived, all of the unconscious problems of our development come into play. But they don't determine relationships. They don't influence the way you make decisions. But you have to be conscious, you know, we each have different needs and while we're trying to do something for the world, in order to do something for the world, a certain amount of our needs have to be met just to survive and stay together.

Martin could keep that delicate balance. I mean he could blow up at me but he'd be very supportive for the rest of the month almost. And he would have come back and been very supportive of Jesse had he not been killed the next day. In fact, he was very supportive of Jesse, when we met in Memphis. So there was no permanent break and there was no attack on Jesse Jackson. There was a very profound statement of the state of the nation. And he saw the problems that we were going into not as his problem, not as Jesse's personal problem or my personal problem, but America's problem.

But he felt that the only thing that could save us was us working together to try to really and truly redeem the soul of America. Jesse's never forgotten it.

The Assassination

Well, Martin had been really feeling bad. I mean he became physically ill when, you know, he was that emotionally low. And so he just decided to kind of stay in and he was just beginning to feel better and I had been in court all day. And so I came back to report and by that time he was feeling good. And he was pillow-fighting and clowning and acting like he hadn't acted in months.

And Jesse came up then with Ben Branch. And Martin was on his way up to change his clothes to go out to dinner. And so there was a little exchange with Martin and Ben Branch and Martin asked Ben to Precious Lord. And he went on up and went to get his coat and put on his tie.

The rest of us were in the parking lot standing around clowning and everybody was feeling good. We'd won the court case, we had the right to continue the march. Or we felt that we had. And he was sort of over his funk. And it was getting cooler. And he had a slight fever and so when he came out of the room, I said, you better go back, and get a coat. And the next thing I know, what I thought was a firecracker or car backfiring, and I looked up and didn't see him. And I thought he was clowning. I thought that he'd been, you know, was faking a shot.

Then I ran up the steps and saw that he was laying in a pool of blood. And it was obvious that he was gone. And the bullet entered the tip of his chin and tore half of his neck off. And it was almost like, you know, he was entitled to his rest and reward. And the picture was after the shot rang out, all of the police were running away from where the shot came from to us and we were trying to point to say the shot came from over there -- go see who's over there.

But, people reacted emotionally and that was, you know, that was it. The ambulance wasn't long getting there. But, I mean it was clear that he was dead. There was still a slight pulse but I doubt that he ever heard the shot. I mean, it hit his spinal cord. And then we began to wonder what we were going to do without Martin. And people did strange things.

After they removed his body, Ralph Abernathy got a jar and started scraping up the blood and said, and crying it was Martin's precious blood. This blood was shed for us. It was weird. But people freaked out and did strange things. Jesse put his hands in the blood and wiped it on the front of his shirt. I mean what do you do in a moment like that. And people did things that were thoughtless. They did things that reflected their own insecurities. But, everybody seemed to blame everybody else. But that's what happens in a crisis when your leader's gone. And it took us a while to pull back together.

Reactions to Martin's Death

I mean, it's weird. But I was angry at him as if he had something to do with it. How can you leave us like this? You know, we were barely making it with you. Now, without you, we're done. And there was that kind of frustration. But the thing we were most concerned about was getting on, getting some word out to people that you don't dishonor Martin Luther King's death by violence. See. And we were trying to get the press to talk to us about non-violence. They were talking about the burning, you know. And there was a time there in the beginning that if the announcement of Martin's death had been made by one of us or by Coretta and if the word had immediately gone out in a respectful non-violence way, we might have avoided, you know, the burning of lots of cities. But there was a kind of irresponsibility about the way that particular tragedy was reported.

Jackson's Ambition and Situation

I would say that the things that drive Jesse are a combination of factors produced by his childhood, but also the moral legacy of Martin Luther King and he feels a kind of responsibility to live up to that mantle. And, that's always driving him. Not knowing how to do that and not getting the kind of response that Martin was able to get, I think creates problems for America.

Martin Luther King was fortunate in that the Kennedy administration shared a legacy of underprivilege as Irish immigrants. And a rather liberal educational background that allowed them to understand and relate to everything Martin was talking about. Lyndon Johnson, coming up poor in Texas, he knew about poverty. And he knew that what Martin was suggesting was right. He didn't know how to go about doing it. We forget that Jesse has had to deal with the likes of Reagan and Nixon and Bush.

And also, he's been unable to develop the kind of partnership that might have been more productive with Carter and Clinton because history put him in a competitor role. I think Jesse really wants to be President and I think he thinks he knows what this country needs. And I agree with him. I agree that he knows what this country needs and I agree that his vision of the future is probably better than any that we have been offered.

In fact, our Presidents have been successful insofar as they have been influenced by the moral agenda that Jesse has articulated. But I admit that this is a white country. And that it's not likely to happen. So, I accept that I am working within the limits imposed on me by a racist society.

Jesse ought not be condemned for refusing to accept those limits. I'm probably more to be condemned for accepting racism in higher places. But the fact that he doesn't give up and the fact that he can continue to arouse people to believe is probably very, very good for the country. And in order for Bill Clinton to be a great President, there's got to be more of an interaction with a Jesse Jackson.

Being a Leader for Whites

I think Martin understood that he was not a Black leader. You see, Martin was learning from a Rosa Parks. He didn't have to teach Rosa Parks anything. Martin's responsibility in the movement was to interpret Rosa Parks, to interpret the student sit-ins, to interpret the children in Birmingham to the majority of the world. Blacks are 11 percent of the population. In order to make change, we had to get another 55% because you needed 2/3 vote to overcome the filibuster so the work of Martin Luther King was to interpret the plight and the moral dilemma of America to white America. Black people understood it.

Nobody Black had learned anything from the `Letter from the Birmingham Jail' or from the `I Have a Dream' speech. That was a revelation of white people.

And, Martin's genius was that he could express the hopes and aspirations of Black people to white people and get white people to respond. Jesse has not quite been able to do that on a broad enough basis yet. And part of it is not his failure. But part of it is the determination on the part of the press and on the part of white America that there not be another Martin Luther King. I think people felt that they let Martin Luther King get too big and couldn't control it.

They know Jesse would be uncontrollable. He's uncontrollable where he is now. He'd be even more uncontrollable if he were bigger and more powerful. So our society has a way of cutting down its giants. That's not just race. Jesse tends to think that that's sometimes is race. But I think they cut down Carter that way. I think they're chopping at Clinton. To keep him from growing too tall.

Our country, the world doesn't respond very well to the challenges of moral leadership. And that's the dilemma of Jesse Jackson in America.

The 1984 Democratic Convention Speech

I remember that it was probably the best speech he'd ever done. It was very carefully crafted. It said what needed to be said. And I wrote him that Martin would be very proud of him. And I still believe that. The problem after that though was that enthusiasm and moral credibility that he rallied within the Democratic Party, Mondale was sympathetic too, but he couldn't translate that to the party faithful. And I don't know whose fault it was, but the mistake that the Democratic Party makes is thinking that it can win without a moral vision. And I don't think we can. We cannot ever out-Republican the Republicans. And if you've got a choice between the imitation Republican and a real one, take the real one every time.

I don't think anybody has dared to hold America morally accountable. And yet America is being held morally accountable every day. The kind of filling the prisons that the Republicans are doing is a prescription for the destruction of America. If I wanted to develop a scenario to destroy America, I would do what the Republicans are doing. Take the brightest and best young Black men off the streets, put them in jail, make them meaner than hell for 8 or 10 years and then turn them lose in a society where there are plenty of guns for them to play with.

Right now, Black people are shooting at each other. But pretty soon they're going to figure out why they're in the situation they're in.

Jesse's crying that warning. And their answer is to kick more people out of school and to build more prisons which is a prescription for the destruction of a civilized America.

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