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Jesse Jackson: The Prophet in Memphis

Jesse Jackson was in Memphis this past weekend, rekindling memories of a mission -- political as much as religious -- still in need of fulfillment.

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Jesse Jackson was in Memphis over the weekend, appearing at a number of venues. On Saturday, he was on a panel at the National Civil Rights Museum, where he condemned the ongoing events in Charlottesville, blaming them on an "incitement to violence [that] is very apparently coming from the White House," and asserting that "the ignorance and hate and fear and violence in Virginia is being fed from the top down."

On Sunday, there were appearances at churches and a press conference at Mt. Pisgah C.M.E. Church, where he repeated such sentiments and deplored the idea of "neutrality in a time of crisis." On Monday, Jackson met at City Hall with members of Mayor Jim Strickland's administration, where he made the case for more minority contracting and pronounced himself satisfied with "signs of progress" on the city's part.

At all these places, he maintained — almost dutifully, it seemed at times — the bearing of an icon. He has, after all, been one for most of the nearly 50 years since he first made his presence known in Memphis, as a young associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as the disciple who made the claim, questioned by numerous observers on the spot but converted into a kind of metaphorical truth by Jackson's subsequent career, that he had cradled the bloody head of the martyr on that cruel April day in 1968 when King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.

In 1991, when former Memphis schools superintendent Willie Herenton was in the stretch drive of his historic race for mayor, it was Jackson who appeared on his behalf at the rostrum of a climactic rally, and it was Jackson, too, who, in the aftermath of Herenton's victory, would come to Clayborn Temple for a celebration, giving that edifice its last great moment before its collapse into a delapitude that is just now being answered by a faithful restoration (See Viewpoint, p. 11).

Jackson is heavier now, the face rounder, the hair shorter, but still well-barbered and, one way or another, still dark, unstreaked with gray. His voice, at its low register, is softer and somewhat harder to grasp, but when he tunes up the decibels for a rhetorical flight or a show of passion, he is still the Jesse Jackson of old, the first African American to make a serious run at the presidency, the indispensable presence at every point of urban crisis, the oracle of civil rights who bridged the gap between the late Martin Luther King Jr. and ...

And whom? That Al Sharpton is the closest thing to an answer is merely a way of saying that Jackson has still not been entirely replaced as a spokesman for his people or as a conscience of their cause.

Theirs and ours, for 20 years before Barack Obama turned up to intone, "Now is our time!" and "Yes, we can!" — words that exalted  the historical struggle of black Americans for equality but somehow transcended the predicament of a single people to excite the hope for change of an entire generation — there was Jesse Jackson on the first of April in 1988, having just won the Michigan, presidential caucuses over seven or eight other Democrats, standing alongside those beaten competitors on a stage of a Jefferson-Jackson Day affair in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, telling an electrified crowd the simple truth: "If my competitors had my budget, they would surrender. If I had their budget, they could not compete."

Instead of the  stereotypical address on civil rights that political observers might have expected, Jackson went on to deliver a blistering attack on the economic order of the time — already, that early, able to see the price high/pay low strategy of a name-checked Apple Computer for what it was, offering the kind of brass-tacks economic analysis of international commerce that could stir a lay crowd, that might have stirred those Trumpian voters in America's rust-belt states if stated there by a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016:

"There is no free trade anywhere, and no free lunch. ... Slave labor will always undercut organized labor. ... Capital follows property, not conscience. ... Cheap labor there, high prices here. ... Taiwan is not taking jobs from us, GE is taking jobs to them. GE made billions, got a $100 million tax rebate and paid no taxes, while Americans on unemployment had to pay taxes. Reverse Robin Hood, it takes from the poor and gives to those who do not need it."

Jackson was just then at his zenith politically. In the end, however, he did not have the aforementioned "budget" nor the connections in high places that were already beginning to put the erstwhile populist Democratic Party in the same kind of dependency on corporate generosity as the rival Republicans. In that Milwaukee speech, he said, "In America, it's not about money, it's about authenticity." A worthy sentiment, but not quite ... on the money. He would lose Wisconsin, albeit narrowly, to Michael Dukakis, and end up finishing second in the primary season overall to the Massachusetts governor, who in turn would lose in November to the GOP's George Herbert Walker Bush.

There have been many ups and downs since then for Jackson. He never lost standing with his African-American base, but he would never again loom as the bridge-building presence that he came near to being in 1988, when he graced a Time magazine cover over the simple phrase "Jesse?" A generation later, Obama, a cooler property of an inspiring but less incendiary and ideological nature, would win the prize that Jackson had sought.

Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson was relegated in the media and in most people's minds to the role of civil rights veteran, an ombudsman of sorts for that cause, a testifier certifying to this or that transgression against the rights of black folks. And, indeed, he can and does speak to that need, as when he said, preaching to the congregation at Mt. Pisgah, that Willie Herenton or Bishop William H. Graves of the CME Church might have been governor of Tennessee but for the habits of racial prejudice.

He does so when he says that the monuments to confederate luminaries should go because "if you lose the war, you lose the statue," and "They fought for secession and slavery and sedition and segregation. They should be in a museum. At best."

But there is still room in Jackson's preaching for the social gospel of a distinctly universal kind. Invited to deliver a sermon at Mt. Pisgah on Sunday, he began with a reading from Ephesians, that the "armor of God" is there that "you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for we wrestle, not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness in this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

There was room in his message for "the Appalachian coal miners who work two miles down in the dark, who provide the energy for our country ... the poor whites who lack health care," and who had been led to "fight against their own interests" by opposing what was branded as Obamacare. "Obamacare is a name; they tried to poison the book by poisoning the cover," he said of the opponents of the Affordable Care Act.

"The rich," he said, "were going to take away 25 million people's health care and give the money to the wealthy." But that was foiled by John McCain, whom Jackson characterized as a rich man, too, "a millionaire with cancer who saved 25 million by turning his thumb down." Proof, he said, that "there is nothing too hard for God."  

Jackson disposed of Trump's latest ploy to limit legal immigration by noting that Jesus was a "refugee" who spoke no English, and "had no job after 30," and thus could not qualify under the new immigration plan. "You banish a refugee, you are trying to fight Jesus!" he thundered, and the congregation, delighted, recited the thought along with him.

There was more, all of it relevant to the ongoing political dialogue, all of it a reproach to the more tempered and timid voices of the moment, all of it a reminder that Jesse Jackson, with or without honor in his own country, is still a prophet to his time.

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