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In walks Jackson, a lion in winter

Updated: June 29, 2014 6:29AM

The lion in winter walks into the room. His sideburns and mustache have gone gray. There is a little excess baggage beneath his chin. But Jesse Jackson’s stride is still firm, and his handshake firmer.

His voice is quieter now, but the rhythms are the same, the hint of his South Carolina birthplace still an undertone in his speech.

He is 72. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at 39; Robert Kennedy at 42; John F. Kennedy at 46.

I ask Jackson whether he expected to live this long.

“I did not,” he says. “We had the most death threats of any (presidential) candidate ever.”

When he ran for president in 1988, New York City resembled a war zone. Memories that are distant now were fresh then: the Howard Beach incident, the Bernhard Goetz incident, the Tawana Brawley incident.

Ed Koch, the voluble mayor of the city, was relentless in his attacks on Jackson. One day during the New York primary campaign, I see Jackson wearing an ill-fitting raincoat lined with body armor. I ask him why he is wearing it.

“Because this is the only place in the country where a major political leader, the mayor, has created a climate of violence,” Jackson says.

But Jackson does not cut down his public appearances. If anything, he seems to increase them. He leads marches of people over the bridges and through the streets of New York. He is always at the forefront, always at the point.

The Secret Service has begun urging reporters to group around him closely, especially those reporters tall enough to block a sniper’s view. It has become, to say the least, a unique campaign.

Today, Jackson looks back on it with something like resignation. He says he has no death wish, no desire to be a martyr.

“A coward dies a thousand times before his death,” he says. “Courage is acquired.”

In the main lobby of the Chicago office of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, which he founded, there is a disconcerting display. It is a life-size re-creation — a diorama — of the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where King was shot to death April 4, 1968.

On the balcony are life-size cutouts of four men. From left to right, they are Hosea Williams, one of King’s chief lieutenants, Jackson, King and Ralph Abernathy, whom King called his best friend in the world. It is the day before King is assassinated on almost exactly the spot he stands in the diorama.

The diorama is placed so that every visitor must see it. Even though the real Lorraine Motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, I find the diorama disturbing. Why re-create an assassination site in the entrance to your office?

Others, however, find it an appropriate honor not just to King but to his disciples. Many come to the office and pose for pictures in front of the diorama, sometimes with Jackson himself. Jackson was only 26 at the time King was killed. But Jackson was already a veteran, having led his first sit-in at the segregated library of his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, when he was 18.

It was a peaceful and ultimately successful sit-in — the library was desegregated — though Jackson and seven others were arrested, handcuffed and jailed. Some published accounts are murky as to how long the “Greenville 8” spent in jail, with one saying it was for 45 minutes.

So I ask Jackson how long he was jailed. “Forever,” he responds dryly.

The civil rights movement would split between those who insisted that nonviolence was the only realistic and moral solution in the struggle against white racism and those who thought violence a proper response to the violence being done to them.

I ask Jackson whether he ever considered taking the violent path, especially after King’s assassination and the nationwide riots that followed.

“As a practical matter, no,” Jackson replies. “The violent ones were the segregationists, and they hurt all in the line of fire. We expressed our anger differently. We chose not armed struggle but to get the attention of the oppressor.

“Malcolm (X) said, ‘Liberation by any means.’ But the only means available to us was mass demonstration, economic leverage and our votes. The white people of the South got freed by black people and the civil rights marches.”

I ask Jackson about the future.

“Leadership at some point must be bold,” he says. “Vanity asks: ‘Is it popular?’ Politics asks: ‘Will it work?’ But there is another question: ‘Is it right?’”

What about the current cynicism toward government and politics?

“I have seen enough progress to not have my spirit broken,” he says. “I have come too far in my lifetime to despair now.”

The lion’s roar is somewhat muted; the tenor and tone are softer. But it endures.


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