Frady on Jesse Jackson -- an evasive pinnacle

June 16, 1996|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,SUN STAFF

"Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson," by Marshall Frady. Random House. 552 pages. $27.50.

In 1984, when African-American politicians finally felt like they had some clout with the Democratic Party leadership, Jesse Jackson threatened to spoil it all by running for president.

Prominent black Democrats didn't want to support Jackson, but they couldn't afford to offend the oratorical heir to Martin Luther King Jr.

Thus it was that when Jackson brought his campaign to Birmingham, Ala., for a rally, the first black mayor of the city infamous for its segregated past showed up for a bear hug from Jesse even though he had endorsed Walter Mondale.

I will never forget that night. The crowd, already worked up to a fever pitch after having sung songs from the old days of "the movement," screamed when Richard Arrington Jr. unexpectedly walked down the aisle of Boutwell Auditorium. They screamed ** again when he and Jesse embraced.

"Run, Jesse, run! Run, Jesse, run! Run, Jesse, run!" the throng shouted. Both men seemingly won that night. That's politics.

His willingness to play politics may be the one attribute of Jackson's personality that has kept him from achieving the nTC coveted high pinnacle that has always seemed just beyond his grasp. He's a very important man, but he has wanted and his people have wanted him to be much more.

That is the central assessment of respected journalist Marshall Frady in his new book, "Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson." Frady points out that Jackson, whom some see as the only true successor to King, diverged from the path blazed by the slain civil rights leader when he decided not to fight the system but work within it - to run for president.

It's not clear when Jackson made the crossing in his spirit from pure social evangelism to an appetite for politics, says Frady. But the man hasn't been the same since. He floats between two worlds: at times the voice of moral authority, at other times the calculating politician looking for an opportunity to promote himself.

Robert Lucas, one of the Chicago black militants who knew Jackson in the early days of Operation PUSH, says the contradiction of personalities was evident in him even then. Jackson the outsider had an urge to belong, to use the system as a medium, rather than work against it. Lucas said this lack of "courage" to confront the system is the reason Jackson has failed to achieve true greatness.

One's first impression of "Jesse" is that its author may be too enamored of the subject to do a good job of dissecting his character. It's obvious that Frady likes Jackson, having often been with him as a reporter during the past 12 years. But Frady gets past his own feelings to paint a picture based on facts, not conjecture.

While there's little new information, Frady does a good job of detailing the controversies in Jackson's life, including the assassination of King and how Jackson wound up with blood on his shirt, the context of Jackson's "Hymietown" remark and how Mrs. Jackson has responded to rumors about her husband's peccadilloes.

What "Jesse" cannot do is tell us which path Jackson will take next. But the book offers important insight into the possibilities.

Harold Jackson is an editorial writer at The Sun, where he has been a reporter and an editor. In his 21 years as a journalist he has covered civil rights issues extensively.

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