December 01, 1996
It begs no great imagination to say that race today remains the fundamental dilemma confronting contemporary America. We are at many turns reminded by the nation's racial scolds that, in addition to our explicit reckonings with the question in public matters such as affirmative action and immigration, its powerfully emotive penumbra may be felt in other raging political debates from welfare reform and crime to tax policy and foreign policy. Politicians on both sides of the political divide understand its power.
A significant dimension of the nation's racial discourse is the debate over the scope of racial discrimination, and the examination of its impact on the daily life and condition of the average black American today. Marshall Frady, author of Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson (Random House), embraces a clear, if dated, view of the question. In the Foreward of Jesse, Frady sets forth his conviction that no one can "seriously question" that "it is history's lingering legacy of racism . . . that is still acting to lock blacks" into what he describes as "poverty, hunger, crime, drugs, family disintegration, and generational imprisonment in the underclass." With that, Frady embarks upon a breathless accounting of the life, career, and ideology of the Reverend Jesse Jackson--a man for whom the author has obvious affection, and no little share of reverence.
It is in fact the author's full-throated embrace of his subject and the worldview that he represents that ultimately undermines the importance of this well-researched, often insightful portrait. Throughout this book, the reader is left with nagging questions about Jesse Jackson--his character, and the efficacy of his vision. Frady, however, seems eager at every turn to supply the reader with a rationale for what is too often Jackson's naivete, or outright disingenuousness.
A larger than life public figure, Jackson was born illegitimate in the dusky, segregated world of Greenville, South Carolina. Over the subsequent 55 years, Rev. Jackson has embarked upon a manic effort to overcome the circumstances of his youth by creating for himself a titanic public image as a moral figure. Jackson is given to making subtle comparisons of himself to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson's early mentor, and to none other than Jesus Christ himself.
Frady notes that, throughout his life Jackson has existed "in a fueguelike simultaneity of past and present like some Joycean implosion of time." Jackson seems at once haunted and enlivened by his inauspicious beginnings. He craves stature and adulation as an apparent salve for what he refers to as the "scars on [my] soul," inflicted by racial injustice and the cruel taunts of peers too keenly aware of the circumstances of his birth.
As a young acolyte of Dr. King, Jackson was enamored of the moral authority and, one suspects, the celebrity of the man he served. After King's assassination, the 26 year old Jackson aggressively imposed himself as rightful heir to the martyr's legacy; in the process antagonizing some of those who had toiled at King's elbow for years before Jackson had come along.
Much about Jackson's life and career is, to be sure, profoundly admirable. He is clearly a sensitive man, given to tears at the slightest whiff of betrayed loyalties or affections. He too is unquestionably a man who cares passionately about the circumstance of black and impoverished people in America. But Jackson--and Frady--mistake mere sentimentalism and empathy for constructive leadership. Jackson's political and moral vision, unlike King's, is deeply flawed in a way that Frady fails fully to appreciate.
Since his youth, Jackson has been a surprisingly reluctant agent of practical change. As a young man in Greenville, and as a college student in Greensboro, North Carolina, Jackson studiously avoided participation in the civil rights protests of the day. Yet, whenever the apparatus of change was set in motion by others, Jackson was eager to step in to lead. In that role, Jackson has always excelled. He is perhaps the most artful orator of our day (Frady calls him the "High Sultan of Assonance and Alliteration of American political discourse"), able to evoke grand images of humanity, through the force of prose. He has an undeniably keen sense of--and a talent for articulating--just political ends.
But King's genius was that he had the moral and practical foresight to seize upon a public strategy for his times. Americans, in the 1950's and early 1960's, had yet to appreciate the sheer scope and moral dimension of the nation's oppression of its black citizens. King's strategy was to use protest and television to call the nation's attention to African Americans' plight, and moral example to preclude ambivalence among Americans of goodwill.
Jackson lacks King's sense of the practical needs of the moment. Much of the recent criticism of Jackson--leveled by both supporters and critics, of all races--has focused upon the notion that he often seems mired in a political time warp of sorts, employing dated, civil rights-era tactics in an era demanding not public consciousness raising about an unjust political system, but rather real, hardheaded solutions to the economic and spiritual crises in dispossessed pockets of the nation.
Jackson's moral vision is also flawed in a fashion that goes largely unexamined by Frady, perhaps because Frady himself shares Jackson's vision. He, like Jackson, remains convinced that problems confronting many black Americans today are simply the result of lingering racial injustice, largely beyond the efforts or responsibilities of African American people themselves. He seems comfortable with Jackson's instinct to view the circumstances of black people through a prism of racial discrimination, where African Americans are passive victims of bigotry, rather than moral actors capable of making right and wrong choices. Frady and his subject fail to grasp that such a racialist view contradicts King's fundamentally humanist vision.
For example, the author offers no judgment at all on one revealing anecdote related in a section of the book titled "Adrift," which poignantly underscores Jackson's racialism and political atavism. In 1992, while in Texas for a rally on behalf of Democratic candidates, Jackson was confronted with the fact that the local registrar of voters had refused to admit a number of black rally goers seeking to register a few minutes after the registrar's office had routinely closed for the day at five o'clock. Jackson immediately threw himself into the crowd, leading a march to the registrar's office to demand that those left inside open the office to register the latecomers. "We must protest to the Justice Department immediately," shouted Jackson when the office remained closed. "This is a racist act, this is indefensible! This is a throwback in time!" Sadly, neither Jackson nor Frady seems aware that it is Jackson himself, and his view of relevant, effective public leadership that was then, and fundamentally remains, a throwback in time.
Marshall Frady has delivered a thoroughly researched, at times poetically written profile of a legendary public man. The author's unparalleled access to his subject and affinity for his cause, however, has yielded a sympathetic deference that leaves unconfronted by this voluble book the true measure of Jackson's public legacy.
Brian W. Jones, a lawyer, is president of the Center for New Black Leadership, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy institute. He also serves as vice chairman of the Federalist Society's Civil Rights Practice Group, in which capacity he edits the Group's Newsletter. This review is reprinted with permission of The Washington Times.