I've been cynical about Jesse Jackson for years, but a new biography about him - investigative reporter Kenneth Timmerman's Shakedown - left me totally shocked.
Shakedown savages the first and most important Jesse legend: the claim that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died in Jackson's arms. Statements by the late Reverend Ralph Abernathy (King's top lieutenant and chosen successor), former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young and King aide Hosea Williams indicate Jackson wasn't on the Lorraine Motel balcony on April 4, 1968. Abernathy, in fact, held King until the ambulance came.
In the days after King's death, Jackson called himself a minister in interviews. At the time, however, he was only a seminary student. He wasn't ordained until that June. The 26-year-old also claimed he was an important assistant and close friend to King. Timmerman reports that, in the week before his death, King was highly annoyed with the brash young man from Chicago, and publicly rebuked his overstepping of authority.
Timmerman similarly dispels other Jackson myths. For instance,
Jackson speaks of his poverty-stricken childhood in Greenville,
South Carolina. In a speech in South Africa, he said he grew up
in a shack and stole to survive. Statements by Jackson relatives
conversely describe a modest but fairly comfortable childhood.
His mother was a beautician and his stepfather - Charles Jackson
- was a postal worker, one of the best and highest-paying jobs
a black man could get in those days. Timmerman's description of
Jackson's college years, his eventual break with King's Southern
Christian Leadership Conference and his own People United to Serve
Humanity (PUSH) activities are decidedly less romantic than Jackson
Timmerman discusses Jackson's relationship with gang leader Jeff Fort of Chicago's El Rukn street gang. Noah Robinson, Jackson's half-brother, was deeply involved in El Rukns and used two gang "soldiers" to kill a man. Robinson is currently serving a life sentence for this crime. Jesse says he has long tried to redeem Fort - even baptizing him.
But it was whispered that messing with Jesse risked Fort's displeasure. Two black reporters, Angela Parker and Barbara A. Reynolds, crossed Jesse and paid such a price. Parker questioned Jackson's finances in print and Reynolds wrote Jesse Jackson: America's David - a largely sympathetic biography that boldly contradicted Jackson's childhood stories and his account of the death of Dr. King. Both left Chicago because of threats of violence from the El Rukns and shunning within the black community.
While a photo of a young Jackson sitting at the feet of a Black Pantheresque Jeff Fort made me shake my head in wonder, the real meat of the book involves Jesse's later years as a national figure. Timmerman says the Black Expo, Operation Breadbasket, PUSH, the Rainbow Coalition, the presidential runs, being the Clinton Administration's special envoy to Africa and the Wall Street Project have all been about Jesse Jackson amassing power and making money.
Shakedown also reports on Jackson's adventures as an American diplomat for Africa. These activities have previously gone unreported. Jackson's diplomatic stint earned Jackson praise from blacks here, but many Africans think differently. Africans interviewed by Timmerman see Jackson as an opportunist who embraced dictators like Charles Taylor of Liberia, Sani Abacha of Nigeria and Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone for personal profit. These African stories are very disturbing.
If you think you already know Jesse Jackson, Kenneth Timmerman's Shakedown will upset you. I found myself putting it aside several times to digest what I had just read.
With each new chapter, my mind returned to Jackson's speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. My family was gathered around the TV and, as Jackson spoke, I felt something very important was happening. My mother, who hadn't shed tears in public since my father's funeral, was crying and whispering "Amen." When Jackson finished speaking, I stood on our back porch and took in the sounds of stomping feet, cheers and clapping coming from our neighbors' homes. This was our moment and it was golden.
The gold has since tarnished. Jackson is now personally wealthy, but has lost ground in the court of national opinion. Black public figures who wouldn't dare criticize him before don't fear him now. Al Sharpton is seeking to replace him as the premier black American leader.
As for me, I've grown disappointed with Jesse Jackson since
1984, but I always assumed it was because he was no longer the
dedicated young man at Dr. King's side. According to Kenneth Timmerman's
Shakedown, that young man never really existed. If that's true,
then this solid and heavily-researched biography can rightfully
be called the story of an American tragedy.
(Kimberley Jane Wilson is a member of the African-American
leadership network Project 21's National Advisory Board and a
conservative writer living in Virginia. She can be reached at
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.