JESSE JACKSON CAME TO THE END of his prepared speech at the Democratic convention in Chicago last week and decided to keep on talking. Veering from the text, Jackson launched without warning into an account of his father's brushes with racism during the Second World War. In Jackson's telling, Charles Jackson was forced to depart a troop ship from a blacks-only ladder in New York harbor and to sit behind "Nazi war criminals because they were white" on a train trip through the Jim Crow South. Perhaps most poignantly, Jackson told the crowd, upon his return to Greenville, S.C., from the war in Europe, his father found that his next-door neighbor was of all things a German, complete with a heavy accent. "We fought to help free that country," Charles Jackson told his son, his eyes filling with tears, "and now he can go downtown and work and can vote and I can't."
It was without question the most moving part of Jackson's speech. It was also the most baffling, not least because Jackson never explained how his South Carolina neighborhood suddenly had become racially integrated during the few years his father was away at war. Perhaps Jackson will work out that detail in future speeches. The German-next-door story is, after all, a relatively new addition to the Jesse Jackson creation myth. Conspicuously absent from Marshall Frady's recent, definitive biography of Jackson, as well as from all available newspaper and magazine accounts of his life, the story has not yet lost its rough, inconvenient edges. But give it time. Jesse Jackson's past is nothing if not a work in progress.
Jackson's political platform has never been easily distinguishable from his autobiography. One of the experiences Jackson has recounted most often concerns his time at the University of Illinois, which he attended on an athletic scholarship beginning in 1960. As Jackson has repeatedly told it, he left the school at the end of his freshman year when he was informed that blacks were not allowed to be quarterbacks on the football team. It is the perfect Jackson morality tale -- at the same time infuriating and hopeful, a measure both of America's racism and of Jackson's personal strength -- and it has ended up in a number of biographies and news stories. As recently as this spring, the New York Times reported that Jackson departed Illinois "after finding a cold welcome at that mostly white institution."
It's not unlikely that Jackson experienced racism in college, but it probably didn't have anything to do with football. The very year Jackson played for Illinois, the team's quarterback was Mel Meyers, a black man.
Instead, Jackson may have left the university for other reasons. Already on academic probation, Jackson departed under a swirl of rumors of his involvement in a plagiarism scandal. Years later, a former acquaintance recalled that at Jackson's request she had retyped an article from Time magazine, which he then handed in as his own work.
However Jackson's career at the University of Illinois ended, it's a miracle he ended up there at all, since by his own account he grew up poor -- desperately poor. So poor he turned to crime. "I used to run bootleg liquor and buy hot clothes," Jackson told one audience. "I had to steal to survive."
Not quite. Actually, Jackson's parents were solidly middle-class people with good jobs, among the privileged few in black Greenville at the time who could afford indoor plumbing. Jackson's mother was a beautician, his father a postal worker -- not, as he has often claimed and as most accounts still report, a maid and a janitor. As for Jackson's comically theatrical claim that he "had to steal to survive" (strangely similar in its hyperbole to Jackson's description of himself on his resume as a "highly respected world leader"), Charles Jackson remembered it differently. "We were never poor," he explained to Barbara Reynolds, the author of a biography of Jackson. "We've never been on welfare. My family never went hungry a day in their lives."
Jackson is not given to apology, and with few exceptions never expresses regret over the things he says. One of those exceptions took place in New Hampshire during his first race for president, when Jackson apologized to a group of Jewish leaders for anti-Semitic statements he was caught -- and for weeks denied -- making. (In addition to his infamous "Hymietown" slur, Jackson described aid to Israel as "a glorified form of bribery" and decried the power of "the Jewish element" within the Democratic party.)
The other, less famed exception occurred in 1987. Jackson had long bragged to black audiences that, as a waiter at the Jack Tar Poinsett Hotel in Greenville, he spat in white people's food, presumably as a show of solidarity with oppressed peoples. The story should have disqualified Jackson as a presidential candidate on sanitary grounds alone, but in a conversation with a reporter, he tried to redeem himself. The tale was a lie, he protested. "I never did that, really. And I never should have said it." For once it was hard to know which version of the story to believe.
by Tucker Carlson