Originally created 04/29/01

Despite hardships, Jackson rolls on



It is Wednesday afternoon, somewhere between Statesboro and Soperton, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson is sitting in the front of the bus - in the captain's chair, as his aides call it - his eyes closed, his body almost lifeless.

He is resting, meditating, praying.

Jacqueline Jackson, who has been staring out the window, watching the farmland flow past her eyes, gets up and makes her way over to her husband.

"Are you OK, honey?" she asks, slowly pressing her forehead to his and hugging him.

The caravan of buses and police cruisers rolls on through the countryside of rural Georgia, far from the bright lights and tall buildings of Atlanta.

Behind the Rev. Jackson, John Mitchell, the scheduler for the Georgia Rainbow/PUSH Coalition's statewide New South Tour for Hope, Healing and Shared Economic Security, has a cell phone in each hand, intermittently speaking into and listening to both.

A television above his head is buzzing.

Joe Leonard, the Washington-based public policy director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and Janice Mathis, the organization's Atlanta bureau chief, are further back in the bus, also talking on cell phones.

Joe Beasley, the southern regional director for Rainbow/PUSH, and state Rep. Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta are engaged in conversation about civil rights battles won and lives lost. They talk of Selma, Birmingham and Sandersville and of Hosea Williams, Medgar Evers and the Rev. Leon Sullivan.

A few hours earlier, the Rev. Jackson learned of the death of the Rev. Sullivan, a renowned civil rights activist of Philadelphia and a man the Rev. Jackson described as a close mentor and friend, a man he had spoken to via telephone three times in the past week.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson

Born: Oct. 18, 1941, in Greenville, S.C.

Education: Graduated 10th in his high school class; attended college

Civic organizations: In the 1960s, he became involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He later formed People United to Save Humanity and the Rainbow Coalition.

Family: He is married to Jacqueline Jackson. They have five children, including a son, Jesse Jackson Jr., who is an Illinois congressman. In January, he admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock with former Rainbow/PUSH staff member Dr. Karin Stanford.

"I'll be OK," the Rev. Jackson answers his wife. "I'll be all right."

An aide leans over and whispers to an observer: "It's getting tougher for him. He's lost a lot of close friends, people he admires. A lot of people who were with him for the movement are gone. But he keeps going."

He keeps going with tours such as this one, a tour for the New South, as he calls it. It's a push for bridging the gap between the haves and the have nots, securing rights such as health insurance and livable wages for the working poor.

The seven-day, 25-city campaign is a grueling one, and it is made harder when the Rev. Jackson learns of the death of a confidant or an act of racial violence that has taken place in east Texas or southern Mississippi.

His only sanctuary is the brief time he has between stops, time spent on the bus when he can close his eyes and shut down his weary body for a few moments or clutch his wife's hand.

Jacqueline Jackson, or as she likes to say "Mrs. Jesse Jackson," deals with the stress of the road differently. She likes to laugh and joke and converse with everyone on the bus, keeping the mood light and easygoing.

At Georgia Southern University, she is given a loud standing ovation, perhaps a tribute to her strength and commitment to her husband despite his extramarital affair, a public embarrassment for both when the Rev. Jackson admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock.

"I don't let myself get caught up in it," Mrs. Jackson said during a private moment on the bus in Statesboro. "They don't know us, and so I try not to react to it because I can't."

A day later in Milledgeville, at a stop at Georgia College and State University, Mrs. Jackson moves through the crowd largely unrecognized.

"Is it nice not to be noticed?" she is asked.

"Oh, I enjoy this," she answers. "I enjoy being around people and meeting people. I have fun with it. It's my life. But I have my own style."

In Keysville, a man steps in front of the bus and holds up a sign ridiculing the Rev. Jackson and his extramarital affair.

"My, how creative they are," Mrs. Jackson says of the sign that reads "New stroller: $90, moving expenses, $40,000. Hypocrisy of `counseling' President Clinton with your own pregnant mistress? ... Priceless."

"This is how they spend their time, making these nice signs."

She laughs and snaps off a few photos of men waving the old Georgia state flag at her as the bus pulls away.

Sandersville

Sometime Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, a veiled threat about the Rev. Jackson's trip through rural Georgia is received.

It could be a prank, or it could be the aftereffects of Wednesday's march through Soperton, a small city suffering from heightened racial tension over the dismissal of a popular black principal last year.

Adding to the tension in Soperton is the fact the superintendent of schools and the chairman of the Treutlen County Board of Education declined the Rev. Jackson's request to use the Augustus McArthur Gym.

"It's never happened before. It's an embarrassment for us," school board member Freddie Mills says as the Rev. Jackson and others devise alternative plans for the youth rally.

Later in the day at Soperton, the Rev. Jackson, Mr. Beasley and others meet with the school superintendent to discuss the gym situation.

"I almost felt sorry for him," Mr. Beasley says later of the superintendent. "The more he said, the more trouble he got himself in."

Residents - black and white - talk candidly of the long-running racial problems of the city of 2,200 people. The mayor sees things differently, though.

"We don't have any racial problems that I'm aware of," Soperton Mayor Greg Higgs says shortly after introducing and welcoming the Rev. Jackson to the "million pine city" and shortly before disappearing from the event as it was set to start.

On Thursday, the Rev. Jackson has left Soperton behind, but the threat remains with him. So he is not taking chances.

His arrival at St. Paul's Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Sandersville on Thursday, Confederate Memorial Day, is greeted with extra security.

A dozen police officers secure the area and block off a road leading to the church. Someone mentions that police swept the church for a bomb. The rumor cannot be verified.

Sandersville has a history with bombs, Mr. Brooks explains.

"A package of dynamite was found during the civil rights movement in '69 meant for Hosea Williams. Richard Turner had invited Hosea to come in and help them deal with discrimination and police brutality," says Mr. Brooks, the president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials.

"The Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups wanted to blow up the house because they knew Hosea was in the house. It was Richard Turner's house. A little boy on a bicycle saw these men leaving a package on the steps, and he was suspicious of it.

"Something told this little boy to get that package and throw it into the woods. He did, and a few minutes later it exploded."

No one was hurt, and Mr. Turner's house is still standing. It sits a few hundred yards from the church.

The Rev. Jackson steps out of the bus, seemingly unfazed by the hint of danger, and makes his way inside St. Paul's Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Across the street is the Resthaven Cemetery, where the graves of Civil War soldiers are decorated with Confederate flags.

"That's how the reverend is," PUSH Deputy Director Axel Adams says. "His life is always in danger, and he doesn't let that stop him or us."

Inside, the Rev. Jackson asks the congregation to let Rabbi Steven Lebow of Marietta address them. Their show of support is overwhelming.

Rabbi Lebow's story has made national headlines: Students at Walton High School asked him to deliver the baccalaureate at their graduation. The graduation ceremony was to be held at Bethel United Methodist Church until the Rev. Randy Mickler refused to allow a Jew to speak from his pulpit.


Rainbow/PUSH Coalition

The Rainbow/PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) Coalition is a multiracial, multi-issue, international membership organization founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The goal of the organization, according to the Rev. Jackson's Web site, is to move the nation and the world toward social, racial and economic justice.

Based in Chicago, the organization strives to unite people of diverse ethnic, religious, economic and political backgrounds to make America's promise of "liberty and justice for all" a reality.

More information about the organization is available at www.rainbowpush.org.

"What he told me in the letter he wrote me is more racist, more bigoted, than anything you've ever heard," Rabbi Lebow told Mr. Brooks earlier in the day.

Now at the pulpit of this tiny Baptist church, Rabbi Lebow gives the sermon of a lifetime.

"There are people who will get their power from dividing Jews and Christians," Rabbi Lebow tells the audience. "When people like Jesse get up and speak to people and they say that the American dream is not yet fulfilled, that the American dream is not yet completed ... There are people who will say when Jesse talks, that's a black thing. That is not a black thing. It's not a Jewish thing. It's not a white thing. It's the right thing!"

He is showered with applause and cheers.

The Rev. Jackson follows with one of his more passionate stump speeches of the past few days.

Afterward, he meets with a church singer, Patricia Fluker Bryant. Ms. Bryant's mother worked as a maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and left work moments before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968.

"I was in eighth grade," Ms. Bryant says. "Life's circle has come all the way around."

On the Road

At each stop along the tour, there is food. Lots of food. Chicken, rice, green beans, sweet potato pie, banana pudding, sweet tea, ham, corn, okra and more.

On the bus, there is fruit, doughnuts, more pie, crackers, water, soda.

At one point in between events, the Rev. Jackson gets hungry and the buses stop at an Arby's outside Statesboro.

The manager and owner of the store is awestruck when he learns the Rev. Jackson wants a sandwich. Inside, the Rev. Jackson leads a prayer for employees and customers.

Two people ask for a photograph.

"It comes with the territory," the Rev. Jackson says.

At a Hampton Inn Hotel in Milledgeville, the clerk at the front desk is even more awestruck.

"Oh my goodness, that's ... that's Jesse Jackson," he stammers.

Some people in the lobby stop and stare; others go about their business as if the former presidential candidate is invisible.

Another day of campaigning and traveling and the Rev. Jackson is visibly tired.

He flops into his captain's chair, and the bus rolls on toward Augusta. The Chicago Tribune is on the phone, an aide tells him. A friend is on another line. Someone from the Arizona Republic wants a quote, another aide tells him. An Augusta radio show wants an interview, he is told by another aide.

He takes some of the phone calls and lets his staff handle others.

His scheduler gives him a preliminary itinerary of the next four days: Friday night in Chicago; Saturday in Biloxi, Miss.; Sunday in Houston; Monday in Phoenix.

What keeps him going at this hectic pace?

"I've made a commitment to the Lord to help the poor, to make the crooked straight, to help those who cannot help themselves, and I find fulfillment in that. Also, when I'm able to set the captives free - whether it's Nigeria, Cuba, Syria, Iraq - it's extremely gratifying to me.

"It's tough work. It's awful tough work. It's controversial work, and there are risks."

But he perseveres, he says, because he is sensitive to how others live, how they suffer and how they long for dignity.

"It hurts, but you must overcome the hurt with healing. If you are capable of inspiring people by conveying hope, that is the ultimate gratification, to see people come alive and believe in themselves," the Rev. Jackson says.

"This rabbi, he comes to a black church and gets this tremendous welcome," he says, referring to the Sandersville stop. "And now he's ready to take wings and fly. That's the joy. That's why I do it."

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.