The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Nation Time
– or Jesse Jackson’s Own Opportunity Time?

Oct 31, 1982

Today few leaders remain from the period of the civil rights movement. Jesse Jackson, of Chicago, if one of the exceptions. Jackson has maintained his image for a section of the black community as a militant spokesman.

Even today, when there is no organized movement and little activity, black people feel their special oppression, their exclusion from the mainstream of society, their victimization at the hands of racist injustice. That is to say that they feel themselves as a separate community with its own special interests, different from the whole of the American population. They feel the need to have their own special representatives, different from the politicians and leaders who present themselves as representing the interests of society as a whole.

This has given an opening for a certain number of black politicians to put themselves forward. If they can appeal to this black consciousness, they may appear militant and radical. Jesse Jackson is such a man. We can see in the way Jackson functioned in the recent boycott of the Chicagofest, a clear example of how he is able to appeal to the black consciousness today.

This past summer on a radio talk show, Jackson called on Chicago’s black community to boycott Chicagofest, a 10-day entertainment program sponsored by the city. The boycott was a protest of Mayor Byrne’s appointment of a white majority to the CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) Board. This board governs public housing where over 90 per cent of the tenants are black. The CHA appointments were just the latest in a series of affronts to the black community by Byrne, despite the fact that it was the black vote in the 1979 primary that was key to her election victory.

Jackson and his organization, Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) set up picket lines at the entrance to Chicagofest daily. Jackson also used his influence with Stevie Wonder and other black entertainers and vendors to persuade them to cancel their participation. Jackson knows how to poke fun at the city administration. When it rained on a Saturday night of the Chicagofest, Jackson told the press that they should not be surprised, because as a preacher he had known God even longer than he had known Stevie Wonder.

Black attendance at Chicagofest was down from 17 per cent to 1 per cent. In a period where people were angry and insulted by Byrne but not ready to do much, the boycott was a way for people to assert their dignity in the fact of Byrne’s affront. Although the boycott changes nothing about the CHA Board, for black people it probably reinforced their respect for Jackson for standing up for them to the city administration.

Jackson’s Past: A Civil Rights Stepping Stone

If Jackson can appear militant today it is not only because of what he does not but it’s also in part because of his past. Jackson claims roots in the Southern civil rights movement, and links to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jackson went to school in North Carolina where students at the Agricultural and Technical College had launched the sit-in movement at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. He joined the movement and went with a group of students to Selma in 1965 where he met King. Later when King came to Chicago, he hired Jackson, who was then a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, on the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) staff.

King and SCLC were out of their element in Chicago which, some of them said, they found more difficult than Mississippi. Unlike black people in the South who used the civil rights movement to break into the political system, black Chicago found itself already locked into the Democratic Party machine. The civil rights movement had been able to depend on the black church for its main base of support, and black youth for its troops. But in Chicago the most important black ministers’ organization was tied to the Democratic Party and opposed to King; and much of the black youth was in the gangs that maintained a reign of terror in the poor black Chicago ghettoes.

All of these factors had helped to prevent a real civil rights movement from developing in Chicago, but it didn’t prevent black anger from exploding there as it had in many other cities in this period. In August 1965, there was a small riot on the west side after a fire truck driven by a white crew hit and killed a black woman.

King arrived after this. He tried first to organize around the issue of slum housing, but he was outmaneuvered by Daley. He then switched to open housing and ended up in the hospital. Again in the summer of 1966 when the fire department sealed off the fire hydrants in the middle of a 100-degree heat wave, a new riot broke out. This time it was more widespread: 2 people were killed, dozens were injured and several square miles were looted. The National Guard was called in.

After the riot King organized open housing marches in Cicero, a white suburb of Chicago. There were pitched battles between the cops, the white mob, and the black demonstrators. Daley wanted to put a stop to this so he called a summit meeting of community leaders with King. They signed an agreement which both hailed as a victory, but which in fact was just a vague statement of aims with no promise of implementation. Shortly afterwards, King left to go back to the South. Daley won the next Mayoral election in 1967 by a 5-to-1 margin in the black wards. Jackson stayed and used his connection with King and SCLC’s resources to get set up in Chicago.

If he used his association with King while King was alive, above all he presented himself as the heir of King after King was dead. It was Jackson who talked to the press right after King was shot in Memphis. He claimed that he had been the last one to see King alive, that he had been with King on the motel balcony, although King’s aides say that it was Abernathy and not Jackson that was with King. Later Jackson wore a shirt he said was stained with King’s blood, to eulogize King in the Chicago City Council. It was wearing the mantle of King that he faced Chicago on his own.

Jackson and Chicago

In 1970 Chicago was a rigidly segregated city. Ninety per cent of the black labor force

lived in the center city. Despite the fact that the black population of over one million was one third of the city, the second largest black concentration outside NYC, they did not count in the eyes of the city government.

The median black family income was $7, 885, $3, 276 less than that of whites. Thirty-five per cent of the black families were known to live below the government’s poverty line. Unemployment for black people was almost double that of whites. Manufacturing, services and retail trade accounted for 71 per cent of black employment.

A 1973 study found Chicago to have the most segregated school system of 81 Northern cities studied. Health care reflected the same institutionalized racism. In one of the black wards in 1969, 45 out of 1, 000 babies died before their second week of life. In another there were only 4 doctors, all over the age of 70 to provide health care for over 100, 000 people. In a third, the tuberculosis rate was 220 cases per 100, 000 people, one of the highest in the country.

In 1969 - 1970 a black person was 6 times as likely to die at the hands of the police as a white person.

It was in these circumstances that Jackson organized and made his reputation, essentially on the basis of an appeal to a general black consciousness. Jackson talked less of integration and more about black pride. He talked about black unity. His slogan, “Nation Time,” symbolized the need for black people to come together and stand up for themselves.

Jackson used his own meetings at his headquarters and a weekly radio show, listened to by tens of thousands to build his reputation and attack his enemies. He took advantage of the media, frequently appearing on TV and radio and often in the press to promote his causes and himself.

In some ways he continued organizing activities in the civil rights tradition. In 1969 Jackson led a march, protesting the fact that black workers represented only 3 per cent of construction employment and demanding more jobs for black people. In the same period, Jackson organized marches to draw attention to the problem of hunger. In the mid-1970s he joined with black trade union leaders around the issue of jobs and equality.

He was involved in school integration fights. In 1973 when black youth at Gage Park High School were attacked by white mobs, Jackson organized a defense guard of black men to protect them.

Through these activities Jackson showed that a militant stance was possible even at a time when there was no organized movement.

Jackson’s Economic Program: A Few Dollars for the Black Petty Bourgeoisie

Jackson claims that he is an apostle for black capitalism. In fact it is not possible today for black people to build up their own economy. To do this, black people would first of all need a real accumulation of capital and, second, a market for their goods. But they do not have this today, and without it, black people have no possibility to create a modern industry, that is black-owned steel mills or auto companies or banks with a real force in the economy. Black people and even the black petty-bourgeoisie which does exist are too weak to compete with the big white corporations and banks. They are in the same situation as the underdeveloped countries trying to compete with imperialist powers along the same lines.

Thus, black people have no chance to create their own economy. But even if they did, who in fact would pay the cost of creating such a black capitalism? It would be the black people themselves who would be forced to produce new black capital. But why should the majority of the black people agree to be exploited even more by a small minority, even if it is black?

It is the black people themselves, farmers, workers, and even before them the slaves, that have made the U.S. ruling class rich. The problem for black people is to demand their share of the wealth they have already created. But in fact what Jackson proposes is something quite different. It means asking the black workers and poor to sacrifice still more, to help the black petty-bourgeoisie. Jackson proposes, for example, to black workers and the poor to buy black products and patronize black businesses. But often these products are harder to find, and more expensive, for the simple reason that a small business cannot be as efficient as the large corporations.

Jackson asked black workers and the poor to be his foot soldiers in the consumer boycotts and direct action campaigns organized by Operation Breadbasket and then by PUSH. These campaigns had the goal of persuading the corporations to carry black products, hire more black distributors, and hire more black workers. They began with dairies and then continued with the big food chain stores, and then later with other companies. Jackson’s slogan for the time was “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud, and I drink Joe Louis Milk.” (Joe Louis Milk was a black-owned dairy.) Whatever other black business he was pushing could be substituted.

These campaigns may have helped a few small businesses like Joe Louis Milk to double their profits. And they may have put some money in a few black banks. But that is not black capitalism. That is simply the creation of a black petty-bourgeoisie. Which petty-bourgeoisie, by the way, has provided him with political and financial support.

His campaigns resulted in covenants signed by the companies. The ruling class was willing to accept this. No problem to hire a few black workers, add a few black distributors, or carry some black products on their shelves. The few black jobs Jackson won contributed to his militant image; so did the fact that he talked big and bad to the corporations and appeared to force them to give in. But all of this changed very little for the mass of the poor black people.

Jackson’s economic program in fact led him to oppose the interests of the poor black masses. In an interview with The New York Times in 1976, Jackson made this clear:

“I know of black contractors who have gone out of business because

their black workers were not prompt or had negative attitudes. I

know young black workers who talk with pride about going to work

any hour they feel like it, taking a day off when they feel like it,

wearing Apple Caps on the job, playing loud portable radios on the

assembly line. They’re rebelling against the system, they say; they’re

exhibiting their independence. (There are many white workers, it

should be added, who do the same.) What they’re really exhibiting

is ignorance of a tradition of work in the black community that is

one of our proudest legacies.”

Is it any wonder that Jackson is referred to as the Booker T. Washington in blue jeans?

In fact, it’s not just the interests of black businesses he defends, but all of small business. For example, in commenting on the minimum wage for black teenagers in 1978, Jackson argued that if black teenagers get the minimum wage it would mean that marginal businesses could not afford to hire them, and they would not find jobs. Thus, his wish to create a black capitalism leads him to defend a super-exploitation of black people. It’s the exact same argument Reagan was to make a few years later.

Jackson’s Political Program

Jackson proposes that black people can and should solve their problems by using their vote wisely. In fact, what this means concretely is a call to vote for the candidates of the two major bourgeois parties.

Jackson has never been able to penetrate the Democratic Party machine, nor has he been able to break it or even successfully challenge it. So sometimes he was decided to play ball with it, and sometimes he has opposed it. He supported the national Democratic Party ticket, but locally he has tended to give a more indirect support as he did in the 1970 election, by refusing to support the independent black opposition. And as part of his call for black unity he has talked about the need for links between black independents and the black machine.

In general he has allied himself with independent Democrats, like Mrs. Peggy Smith Martin, a black woman he helped elect to the state legislature, or Bill Singer, a liberal white alderman with whom he joined forces to unseat the Daley delegation at the Democratic National Convention.

In the 1972 election when Hanrahan, who had been the State’s Attorney when the Panther leaders were murdered, was running for office, and there was strong opposition in the black community, Jackson called for a vote for the Republican candidate. This is a tactic that he has used on other occasions.

But if his tactics vary, they all represent the same policy: the only prospect he offers black people is an electoral one, to try to calculate which bourgeois politicians to support. This is exactly the conclusion that the ruling class wants them to have.

One thing that shows that the goals of Jackson are not to change the conditions of black people in Chicago is his attitude toward and relationship with the black gangs. The black gangs of Chicago in fact impose a certain kind of order on the ghettoes. They have murdered thousands of young black people over the last decades. They terrorize any young black person who refuses to join them or pay them protection money. They help run drugs and other rackets in the ghetto. They have acted to contain social struggles.

Jackson has never really challenged the role of the gangs. Actually he has given them a certain respectability by associating himself and the movement with them. They were part of the marches, and they have spoken at the PUSH office. When Jackson ran a drive against the Red Rooster food chain in 1969, it was the Black Stone Nation that benefitted, getting 22 pay checks for their members. Today gang members are seen “escorting” black people to the polls to register to vote as part of a drive that Jackson has sponsored.

In 1968, after King’s murder, black Chicago went on a rampage of anger which counterposed them to the National Guard and the cops. In this circumstance Jackson and the gangs both took to the streets to tell black people to stop fighting and go home.

Jackson in the Future: An Obstacle to Be Put aside

Today, Jesse Jackson has been able to maintain his militant face and credibility to some extent in the black community, and at the same time not really worry the bourgeoisie. In speaking about him, The New York Times said:

“Jackson is militant but nonviolent, good copy but safe copy;

radical in style, not in action. The Jesse Jackson of today is not a

threat to established institutions.”

He is more than that; he is a defender and enforcer of the established order for them. This is the role that he plays today when there is no movement. But if there is a movement, Jackson has the possibility to pose a real threat to any struggle.

He is an opportunist who could go in whatever direction seems best able to him to guarantee his position. We could see him, for example, lead the gangs against black workers or poor black people who tried to enter into a militant struggle against the system. We could see him attack a black workers’ movement on a nationalist basis, trying to say that black workers who fight are traitors to the “Nation.” But we could also see him try to put himself at the head of any movement that evolved. If, for example, there could be a real defection from the Democratic Party, someone like Jackson would try to put himself at the head. And when we see his past, we can be sure that Jackson would act to keep any such movement within the framework of bourgeois society.

If black people want to fight tomorrow for their real interests, they will have to go beyond nationalist perspectives. They will have to break out of the dead end of electoral politics. They will have to challenge the rule of the Democratic Party and the gangs, and impose their own organization in the ghetto. In other words, they will have to go against all of the things that Jesse Jackson has defended so far to them.

In doing this, they will bypass leaders who trade on black misery to open up possibilities for themselves. They will understand that a militant face can simply be a mask to hide one more obstacle that the system has put in their way. Black people will have to set their own goals and learn that to win them they can only depend on themselves and their own struggles.