(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Just who is Jesse Jackson? Preacher, politician, civil rights leader, unabashed opportunist and publicity-seeker—he has been characterized as all of these things and more. One thing is certain, however, when one is finished reading this remarkable biography: Jesse Jackson is an American phenomenon.

Jackson was born poor and illegitimate in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1941. Even as a youth, people seemed to notice something special about him—most notably his confident bearing in public and sharp intellect. He was also a gifted athlete, becoming a star player for Greenville High School, winning a football scholarship to the University of Illinois.

Racial discrimination was a fact of life in Greenville, and upon entering college, Jackson soon realized that racism was endemic in the rest of the nation as well. Only a few months into his freshman year, his feelings of disillusionment and isolation caused his grades to slip, and he decided to drop out and return home. Subsequently enrolling at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, he quickly became an honor student and star quarterback. He also fell in love, meeting his future wife, Jackie, there. They married in 1962, and in the midst of his whirlwind life they raised five children.

As the rising moral tide of the Civil Rights movement began to spread throughout the South, Jackson decided, with some reluctance at first, to join in the great crusade. He soon became involved in the early demonstrations in Greensboro, and proved to be a courageous, passionate, and inspirational leader in the campaign to integrate the city. Upon his graduation from college, he cast about for a stage upon which he could play out the script of his life. He thought about possibly following in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall and pursuing a career in law, but his close friends convinced him that the seminary, and from there the pulpit, was the place from which he could best work for social change. He decided to return to Chicago, this time at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Only six months after his arrival at the seminary, however, he saw the civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, on television and decided to pack his bags and travel there to work alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jackson joined King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and later returned to Chicago to continue his theological studies. At age twenty-four, he was the youngest of King’s aides. He was assigned to develop “Operation Breadbasket” in Chicago, an economic campaign which used boycott threats and intense negotiation to achieve integration among local businesses. Jackson’s spectacular successes in Chicago eventually gained him national attention.

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the late 1960’s, Martin Luther King became a national figure. Jackson saw himself as King’s protégé, destined to assume a national role as well. Soon, however, these two mammoth personalities began to clash. In the last years of his life, especially after his controversial opposition to the Vietnam War, King was becoming more subdued and cautious, even doubting the effectiveness of his nonviolent social philosophy. Jackson, meanwhile, was becoming more bold and ambitious; he seemed to thrive on the media attention. Many compared the relationship between King and Jackson to that of an aging father grooming and counseling his ambitious and energetic son.

All of this would change with the crack of a rifle shot on the evening of April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. King died that night, and the chaos that followed the assassination resulted in one of the most controversial chapters of Jesse Jackson’s life. Many who were there that night later claimed that Jackson used the incident for his own self-aggrandizement by playing to the cameras, and were especially offended when Jackson appeared on television the next morning still wearing his blood-spattered shirt. In spite of the controversy, the media was already describing Jackson as King’s heir apparent on the national civil rights scene. He continued to work for SCLC and to preach at a Chicago church, but it became clear that neither the structure of the SCLC nor a local pulpit could contain his enormous ego; he was convinced, by 1968, that the entire world must be his parish. Many within the SCLC, including the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, King’s hand-picked successor, were convinced that Jackson should move on.

In spite of the animosity...

(The entire section is 1833 words.)