The Twilight of the Gods?

by Dax-Devlon Ross

 Jesse Jackson’s rise, Sharpe James’s fall and the end of the black folk hero

According to biographer Marshall Frady, Jesse Jackson’s rise to preeminence following the assassination of Dr. King didn’t just happen. It was set into motion even before King’s death when Jackson attached himself to King and the SCLC while he was still a divinity student. King saw something powerful and troubling in Jackson. He was brilliantly gifted with something magical, some creative magnetism – a vision and the audacity to evoke it – that drew people in. But once he had someone, King and others noted, he sucked them dry with his compulsive need for attention and adulation-patronage. Frady traces Jesse’s obsessive roots to his childhood, repeatedly referring to him as having grown up an “illegitimate child” living under “another man’s roof.” In turn, he attributes Jesse’s clinging to Dr. King, his hanging off his every word, to his search for affirmation from a father figure. In fact, Frady’s biography is very nearly a psychoanalytic study; it certainly isn’t an intimate portrait. At best it’s a story of a man (perhaps not even that) whose ego was so unrelenting in its pursuit of the affirmation it did not receive early on in life that it pushed beyond the boundaries of conventionality, taboo and appropriateness, and in doing so eclipsed the fear and self-doubt that stands in the way of so many of our aspirations. Hence, the duality. Jesse is both folk hero and false prophet; both man of the people and poverty pimp.

But the taste of worldly power is perhaps the worst kind of recompense for the wounded ego, for it avenges the outsider’s bruised psyche by affirming that he is, in fact, ‘special’ or ‘chosen.’ Power is  the most tempting of all drugs, and those addicted to it the most dangerous type of human beings. Junkies, alcoholics, pill-poppers and the like look harmless next the power-hungry egoist. The junkie just wants to get high, to escape. He becomes addicted to the substance because it feeds a physiological and, after a while, physical need. Over time he needs greater and greater quantities to satiate himself. It’s no different for the egoist. He requires more and more power (symbolic or substantive depending on his particular composition) to keep his insecurities at bay. What separates the power junkie and pill popper (who, by the way, aren’t always mutually exclusive) is society’s perception. We don’t see the quest for power and the drive to maintain it as being problematic and in need of treatment (we exalt it and reward it) even though the power junkie is in all likelihood doing more damage to more people than any single hard drug abuser ever did. So the real question is what does this say about us? As individuals? As a society? As a species?


Jesse’s rise in Chicago politics and eventually national and international affairs  isn’t just the story of an individual whose creative spirit ascended of its own volition. Jesse came along at the right moment. He was young and brash and he bore enough rough edges to bear a passable resemblance to the militants without betraying his SCLC discipleship. This was a really important factor. Had he been older or less outwardly militant, he would not have been authentic. As it was, he became the bridge between two moments, two worlds. The people, underclass and middle class alike, accepted his authenticity as a leader. But so too did the media and the black and liberal white elite, his primary financers. Jesse was basically a bullhorn for black enterprise among the black elite and a bulwark against black insurrection for the media. And in turn they each paid their share of patronage to Jesse in a kind of quid-pro-quo. He provided an appropriately rancorous but ultimately toothless soundbyte for the media and they consistently sought him out for comments, wrote articles about him, promoted him-kept him within range of an otherwise ever-shifting spotlight. By the same token, he (via Operation PUSH) kept the pressure on white-owned businesses to carry black products and hire black employees and the black elite in turn paid his children’s tuition, paid his mortgage, paid his life insurance, kept him dapperly attired, kept him ensconced in chauffeured vehicles, etc.


Even more remarkable than the patronage Jesse received was his willingness to accept it without compunction, his sense of entitlement to these things as payment for his service to humanity. Malcolm X biographer Louis Lomax once wrote something similar of Brother Malcolm. After leaving the Nation Malcolm depended heavily on friends and family to support him. It simply never dawned on Malcolm, Lomax wrote, to get a regular job. Malcolm being Malcolm just like Jesse being Jesse was his job. Jesse believed it was the people’s will that he live comfortably, and in a large respect this is true, always has been true not just about black folks either. The folk hero plays a crucial role in the collective psyche of historically oppressed people throughout history. His success is their success. His achievements belong collectively to the people he represents. His acts of defiance are maintained and passed down for future generations to gain strength from. Without the folk hero, one might argue, the spirit of resistance in the face of overwhelming odds dies, and with it the people themselves.


The trouble comes when,  after a period of prominence, the folk hero starts conflating his interests with the interests of the people; when he begins believing he knows what the people need better than they know themselves; when he becomes a benevolent dictator. He may and probably will continue to invoke the populist language in order to retain the love and support of the people because he desperately needs that and fears losing it; however, his behind-the-scenes machinations will manifest an enhanced hunger for personal power that is independent of the forces (media and industry leaders) that created him. He will work to snuff out potential rivals and sure up the walls of his authority and he will do so in the name of the people’s best interests. 


The same day former Newark Mayor Sharpe James was released from jail after being formally indicted on 33 counts of corruption he was on Newark buses glad-handing with his former constituents. In what can only be described as the gross exploitation of the rampant strain of distrust and paranoia running through the black community, the former five-term mayor and state senator (he held both jobs simultaneously for numerous years) received bus passengers in much the same way an emperor receives patrons in his court. Bus riders came up to him and expressed their gratitude for his years of service while James, still wearing the clothes he was wearing when was arrested (Frady points out how after King’s assassination Jesse wore a blood-stained turtleneck for the next two days, appearing at rallies and on television alike to show the world he’d been, in some sense, baptized by King’s blood) told whoever would listen about his ‘harrowing’ experience in jail. What James and Jesse and Al (both of whom campaigned for Sharpe in 2002) have in common is their ability to imbed their personal vanity, their need to be adored by the people, within their populist, ‘for the people by the people,’ rhetoric. Sharpe James did not board that bus just to assure the common folk of his innocence or to create another media moment for himself; he did it, as well, because their emotional support is vital to his sense of himself and to gathering the strength to fight the battle he must wage in these, the twilight years of his life. To lose the love and support of the people, to be stripped of his folk hero stature, would ultimately destroy him in a way a conviction never could. A conviction did not stand in the way of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry’s re-election in the late ‘90s. (Even to this day he sits on the city council.) The clear message in Barry’s situation was that so long as ‘the people’ had faith in him then everyone else could go to hell. In James’s case, it seems as though as long as he can persuade ‘the people’ to believe that the shady land deals he made were for the long-term health of the city and that he’s the victim of a conspiracy, he can preserve his folk hero status. The same can be said of his extravagant out of town expenditures: if he can convince ‘the people’ that he had to travel in comfort, to represent them in style, for their sake, then even if he loses in a court of law, he wins in the court of public opinion.


So what are we to make of personalities like Jesse and Sharpe? King often said that normal people don’t challenge the laws of the land, that only “creatively maladjusted” people get involved in social activism. Within King’s observations lies a certain truth that contextualizes and complicates the perspective from which we look at a Sharpe James or a Jesse Jackson. These people played important roles in predominately black cities in the post-civil rights era. They spoke up for others who couldn’t speak for themselves. They played vital roles in the psychological reorganization of their black constituents. For many die-hard Jesse acolytes, he will always be remembered for having made them feel like somebodies. In Dreams From My Father Barack Obama wrote about coming to grips with former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s legacy , how important his victory was for black Chicagoans. One man compared it to the day Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling and then suggested it was the “most beautiful day of his life.” There is something to that, and to James’s comments in the New York Times regarding his indictment coming down on the 40-year anniversary of the Newark riots. Just as Reaganomics ushered in an era of extreme conservatism that ultimately opened the door for Clinton to dismantle the welfare state and springboard the prison industrial complex all while symbolically supporting “civil rights,” the marginalization and symbolic destruction of  civil rights era leaders like James is setting the stage for new black and brown leaders who pathologically distance themselves from race and civil rights and who openly shrink from being referred to as “black” politicians for fear of limiting their horizons. 


As the prosecution prepares its case against Sharpe James it should be careful not to overlook the psychological impact he had on  Newark. His legacy is a complicated one and if it’s not handled carefully (i.e. portrayed in a solely negative light) a panel of jurors — several of whom could be Newark residents — could very well side with the defense out of spite, distrust or a flat-out unwillingness to be told what to think about one of their own. Already, the prosecution is characterizing James as  a greedy mayor who preyed upon the poor citizens of a veritable third-world city. But while the moral approach (Sharpe is a bad man) may go over well in the press, it may crash and burn in a court room if it comes off as self-righteous or paternalistic. Again, consider what happened in Washington, D.C. The nation was aghast when the residents voted Marion Barry back in office after he served a federal prison sentence. What outsiders couldn’t grasp was that if there is one thing urban black folks from the old school will not tolerate it’s being told by outsiders who to place their trust in.


My own feelings are that cities like Newark need to institute term limits. Twenty years in office is a long time, too long for the taste of power not to become an addiction as crippling as any physical dependency. Frankly, it’s not surprising that James started treating city funds as his own, if in fact he did. The line separating his personal and professional life probably became blurrier with each recitation of “Mr. Mayor” or “Your Honor” until even he likely lost sight of the distinction. It certainly didn’t help matters that he was lionized as the personification of a city’s aspirations, and showered with the kind adulation that can corrupt any human being over time.  This doesn’t excuse his behavior or lessen the penalty he should receive if convicted. If he’s guilty, then he’s guilty. But to portray him as a sinister charlatan, incompetent administrator or traitor to his people treads on the tricky terrain of race and calls into question the motivating forces behind the indictment itself. It lends credence to James’s insistence that this is a personal vendetta. It gives ammunition to the defense in court and has the potential to turn him into an apocryphal martyr. If he manages to fashion himself the victim of an overzealous prosecutor looking to make her name at his expense, of a racist justice system that changes its own rules whenever blacks attain power, then he wins even if he loses. It gives the power-hungry egoist yet another moral triumph and further cements his credibility in the eyes of the people. One has to wonder, in fact, if the best course would have been to simply ignore Sharpe James, just allow him to wither away in the shadows of his own conflicting legacy. After all, if there’s one thing the insatiable ego longs for it’s attention, and it’s willing to take it however it can get it.