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Playboy Interview: Jesse Jackson
  • October 13, 2011 : 20:10
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This interview was originally published in the November 1969 issue of Playboy magazine.

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"A providential way of seeing our slavery is that we are missionaries sent from Africa by God to save the human race. We are the only group in the world with the power to redirect the destiny of America."

"Whether we are called Operation Breadbasket or Panthers or niggers, we know who the enemy is. We'll gain freedom by being more willing to die for it than the slavemaster is to die to keep us enslaved.

"False racial pride has divided the lower class. We should define ourselves by our economic position and shift the fight from a confrontation of poor black vs. poor white to one of have and have not."

In the 19 months since the murder of Martin Luther King, only one man has emerged as a likely heir to the slain leader's pre-eminent position in the civil rights movement: Jesse Louis Jackson, the 27-year-old economic director of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Reverend Jackson's first national exposure, in fact, came as a result of his closeness to Dr. King. He was talking to King on the porch of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when the fatal shot was fired and cradled the dying man in his arms.The very next day, at a Chicago City Council meeting, Mayor Richard Daley read a eulogy that pledged a "commitment to the goals for which Dr. King stood." The Reverend Jackson had flown in from Memphis without sleep to attend the ceremony; he stood up in a sweater stained with Dr. King's blood and shouted to the assembled Chicago political establishment, "His blood is on the hands of you who would not have welcomed him here yesterday."

That gesture demonstrated both the militant indignation and the dramatic flair that mark Jackson's charismatic style. The New York Times has written that he "sounds a little like the late Reverend Martin Luther King and a little like a Black Panther." It added that "almost everyone who has seen Mr. Jackson in operation acknowledges that he is probably the most persuasive black leader on the national scene."

Jackson's personality is possibly even more in tune with the present black mood than Dr. King's was, because, as Richard Levine pointed out in Harper's, "Dr. King was middle-class Atlanta, but Jesse Jackson was born in poverty in Greenville, South Carolina." Jackson calls himself a "country preacher," but he combines his down-home style with a sharp intellect. He attended the University of Illinois for one year but dropped out in 1960 to attend the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro, where the first black sit-in had taken place earlier that year. He was an honor student, quarterbacked the football team and organized civil rights demonstrations. After graduation, Jackson went north to study at the Chicago Theological Seminary, where he devoted most of his extracurricular time to local civil rights work.

It was Dr. King himself who originally spotted Jackson's leadership potential during a massive civil rights drive in Chicago in the summer of 1966 and appointed him to head all of SCLC's economic projects in the North. In the three years since that appointment, Jackson has concentrated most of his efforts on the Chicago-based project called Operation Breadbasket and made that pilot program the most impressive demonstration of black economic and political power in the United States. Breadbasket's organizational methods are now being applied under Jackson's guidance in 15 cities ranging from Los Angeles to Brooklyn.

The project's primary goals are to create jobs for blacks and to encourage them to own and operate businesses. Boycotting, or the threat of it, is Breadbasket's most potent weapon. The effectiveness of this technique was most evident in a breakthrough victory over the huge Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, which operates 40 stores in Chicago's black ghetto. To avoid the financial loss that a boycott would have caused, the A & P signed a pact guaranteeing jobs for blacks and the distribution of black products on A & P shelves. As Business Week reported in a story about Operation Breadbasket, "Nationally, the organization's efforts have resulted in about 5000 jobs and $40 million in annual salaries to Negroes. But the Chicago campaign (against A & P) represents Breadbasket's most significant victory, for it is the biggest settlement with a chain in a single city, and set a precedent for other food-chain negotiations across the country."

The A & P pact was especially significant because -- in addition to a guarantee of over 700 jobs for blacks and marketing more black businessmen's products -- the company also agreed to use black-owned janitorial and exterminating companies in its ghetto stores, to bank in black-owned banks, to advertise in black media and to have black construction firms build its ghetto stores. Monthly meetings between representatives of A & P and Breadbasket are designed to assure that the company is not shirking. On the personal level, sensitivity seminars attended by A & P executives attempt to awaken management to the existence and effects of prejudice. Similar agreements have been signed with more than half of all the major food distributors in the ghetto.

The Reverend Jackson created an even more far-reaching program last spring, when he initiated the Illinois Hunger Campaign. Believing that hunger is the one issue that could unite the black and white poor, Jackson led a caravan to all of the poverty areas of Illinois, ending with demonstrations at the state capitol in Springfield. The pressure this exerted on the Illinois legislature was so great that a planned cut of $125 million in welfare funds was restored at a time when New York and California were making sizable cuts in their welfare payments. An impassioned appeal by Jackson, from the steps of the capitol building, inspired a bill to provide school lunches for all of the needy children in the state. Jackson also extracted a promise from the state legislature to prevail on Washington for special surplus-food allotments for the poor. The Illinois Hunger Campaign was conceived by Jackson as an extension of the Poor Peoples' Campaign begun by Dr. King, and there are plans for similar efforts in other states next year.

No matter what his other commitments may be, Jackson always attends the Saturday-morning meeting of Operation Breadbasket. The location has been changed three times this year, because the congregation continually outgrows its premises, and Breadbasket presently resides in a 6000-seat movie theater on Chicago's South Side. The lobby of the theater is filled with tables displaying black merchandise, and the auditorium itself is hung with signs that exhort the gathering to Buy Black Products and Use Black Services. The first hour of the meeting is devoted to gospel music by the Operation Breadbasket orchestra and choir, interspersed with the business for the week -- either boycotts or special "buy-ins." Playboy's Associate Articles Editor, Arthur Kretchmer, who conducted this interview with Jackson, describes the remainder of a recent meeting.

"After Breadbasket's projects were out of the way, a frail old lady, whose face was ravaged by time and much else, was given the stage. In a quiet voice, and with great dignity, she briefly described the humiliation she had suffered during an interview with a welfare worker the previous week. Then she said she had come to the meeting to gain the strength that would enable her to block her door in the future. 'They can starve me', she said, 'but I'll die before they come back with their damn forms and their damn questions.' With that, she slowly raised her fist in the black-power salute and the audience gave her the most sympathetic ovation I've ever heard.

"Then Jackson was introduced -- and greeted by 10 minutes of standing, clapping, stamping love. He is a big man with an imperial manner. The head is leonine and the facial expression at once fierce and sullen. He was dressed, like a Mod black emperor, in a brilliantly colored dashiki, bell-bottom jeans and high-top country shoes. Biologist Desmond Morris has written that a leader never scrabbles, twitches, fidgets or falters, and Jackson qualifies. For over an hour, he delivered a passionate sermon that described the black man's plight in white society. It was filled with street talk, down-home slang and quotations from the Bible -- but its effect was Greek tragedy with soul.

"The sermon was punctuated by piano and organ riffs similar to a rhythm section's backing of a good jazz soloist. Halfway into an eloquent plea that blacks not waste their energy fighting among themselves, he called on one of the choir members, Sister Theresa, to sing I Can See the Promised Land, because 'I need it,' he said. At one point in the sermon, he paused, clearly exhausted, and turned to the audience to say, 'Yes, I'm tired.' An old woman's voice called out, 'Take care of him, Lord. We need him too bad for You to let him die.'

"Everyone around Jackson is acutely aware of his poor health. He has suffered this year from traces of sickle-cell anemia and assorted viruses brought on by lowered resistance. He's been hospitalized a half-dozen times but never missed a Saturday at Breadbasket. It is common for a parishioner to greet him with, 'Hello, Reverend Jesse. Are you taking your medicine?'

'After Jackson finished the service, the Operation Breadbasket orchestra played a dozen choruses of a syncopated, soulful We Shall Overcome, while all 6000 people in the audience -- a number of whom were white -- stood holding hands and swaying back and forth in one of the oldest, most moving rituals of the civil rights struggle. The effect of the morning was catharsis and rejuvenation. I don't think anyone who entered the theater that morning could have left without shedding some of the despair that seems to be afflicting the black liberation movement.

"A few moments later, I had a completely different, but indelible, impression of Jackson's impact. I was waiting to see him in a small dressing room. He was resting in an armchair, talking to a very pretty, shy black girl of about 20 who was standing near him. She said to him, with some embarrassment, 'Reverend, I just want to tell you how much you mean to all of us.' He slowly raised his head and said, 'Hell, that's just a lot of talk. If I was really important to you, you'd take pity on my old tired body and invite me home, so your momma could fix a fine meal for me.' She was immediately flustered and said, 'Oh, Reverend. You're just having fun with me. You don't mean it. You wouldn't come to my house.' He looked at her with a stern expression that he couldn't quite prevent from turning to a smile and said, 'You tell your momma I'm coming over Thursday night. Tell her to do some fixin'.' She looked at him, trying to tell if he were serious, and her eyes widened, her hands began to fuss and her jaw dropped open. Finally, she said, 'Would you really? Would you really come? If you do, I'll charge my friends admission at the door. A half a dollar to see you and a dollar to touch you!' Jackson looked at the girl and then at me, laughing his appreciation. Actually, on those rare occasions when he's in the city, Jackson is well taken care of by his beautiful 25-year-old wife, Jacqueline -- and harassed by his three energetic children."

Because of Jackson's heavy schedule, Kretchmer couldn't get enough time with him until both took refuge in a rural retreat where the "country preacher" was free to explore at length the militant new mood of the black struggle and his own role in it. Since Dr. King's death had seemed for many to signal the end of the nonviolent phase of the civil rights movement -- a philosophy Jackson continues to champion -- the interview began with that topic.

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