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A Clash Within : The Mixed Blessings of Rev. Jackson

December 16, 1987|GAYLORD SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Jesse L. Jackson glanced out the tinted windows and saw the future overtaking the past.

It was a gray Saturday afternoon in November and he was bound for Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, in a chauffeured limousine as big and luxurious as the President's.

He settled his 6-foot-3 frame into the plush wine-red rear seat, stretched his legs across to the jump seat and talked quietly of another time, another trip into Montgomery escorted by fear and a pursuing car full of angry white men.

Twenty-two years earlier he had come down this same highway with other young disciples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one anxious eye on the rear-view mirror and another watching for road signs to Selma. They were rushing through the Dixie night to join demonstrations demanding equal rights for blacks. The car behind them was a menacing reminder of how far they still had to go.

'Long, Dark Night'

"We had been driving all night and they had been following us all the way to Montgomery," Jackson said, his gaze drifting out to the blur of the passing landscape. "All night. A long, dark night. The fear made it darker."

But in 1987 Jackson was returning to Montgomery as a candidate for President, leading five white candidates in many national polls for the Democratic nomination. His limousine rolled toward Montgomery and a waiting Civic Center audience half black and half white.

The limousine sped past a golf course with green fairways stretching through trees ablaze with the oranges of autumn. Suddenly, Jackson sat forward, pointing:

"Look there--you see that? See that black guy and white lady out there playing golf together?" He sat back, silent for a moment.

"We've come a long way . . . and now politics is catching up."

It was clear on this gray afternoon on the road to Montgomery that few in modern America have come further faster than Jesse Louis Jackson.

A Powerful Force

From the back roads of a South Carolina mill town, he has emerged as a powerful political force, America's preeminent black leader.

But for Jesse Jackson, politics probably isn't catching up fast enough. He may be the front-runner now, but few people--even few of his supporters--realistically believe he has a chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

His supporters say latent racism is the problem. To a degree, that may be reflected in Jackson's high negative rating in opinion polls. In a Los Angeles Times poll this fall, 68% said they would not consider voting for him.

But there is something more: This 46-year-old minister makes people uncomfortable.

A four-month study of Jackson, including dozens of interviews with friends and foes and travels with him through a dozen states and five foreign countries, yields a bundle of contradictions.

"There is a good Jesse, and a bad Jesse," said one friend who has known Jackson since his college days. "The two sides of him are often in conflict."

The good Jesse is the brilliant and courageous man willing to take personal and political risks in pursuit of lofty goals, a man of boundless energy and broad intellect whose political instincts are matched by awe-inspiring oratory, a man who remembers his roots even as he projects a bold vision for a better America.

The bad Jesse is the schemer, the man always looking for the angle to win personal or political advantage, the man who has invented stories or shaded the truth to meet his immediate needs, the man whose actions sometimes seem to say: "Your rules don't apply to me."

For all his strengths, for all his successes, Jackson's future is clouded by the clash within.

For most politicians, such lack of abundant trust by the public would spell their ruination. That is what makes Jackson so remarkable. By most accounts, he is at the height of his powers, broadening his appeal, likely to march to the Democratic National Convention with enough delegates to be a major player in deciding the future of his party and its candidate for President.

Sometimes, Jackson talks about his campaign as if attaining the presidency is secondary to a life mission of peace, prosperity and justice for all. But at the same time, he dismisses talk that he can't realistically expect to win the office.

"They say, 'Well you're leading but you can't win.' That's irrational."

With a flicker of annoyance in his eyes, he sighs: "You learn to live with being under-counted, under-estimated, under-respected. But you don't let it break your spirit. Just because it rains you don't have to drown."

Jesse Jackson, said Dr. Alvin F. Poissaint, a Harvard psychiatrist and long-time friend, is "fascinated by his own success and by the possibilities of accomplishing more and more, to prove that he can go to the mountaintop, as Dr. King used to say.

"It's more than 'I am somebody,' " Poissaint said, quoting a phrase that became a familiar litany in Jackson's speeches through the past decade.

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