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Shakedown: A shocker

By Kimberley Lindsay Wilson
web posted March 25, 2002

I've been a little cynical about Jesse Jackson for years now but I have to admit that reading Shakedown, the new expose on him left me totally shocked. The author, investigative reporter, Kenneth R. Timmerman discusses things that apparently have been well known in Jackson's hometown of Chicago but have rarely or never been mentioned elsewhere.

ShakedownThe book starts out savaging the first and most important part of the Jesse legend: His claim that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died in his arms. According to statements made by the late Reverend Ralph Abernathy King's top lieutenant and chosen successor, former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, and deceased King aide, Hosea Williams Jackson was not present on the Lorraine Motel balcony on April 4, 1968, and it was Abernathy, not Jackson who held Dr. King in his arms until the ambulance came.

In the days after King's death Jackson made several appearances on TV and gave interviews calling himself a minister (He wasn't. At the time of the assassination he was still only a seminary student and wouldn't be ordained until June that year) and that the 26 year old was an important assistant and close friend to Dr. King. Timmerman says this wasn't true either. In the week before his death Dr. King was highly annoyed with the brash young man from Chicago and had publicly rebuked him for overstepping his authority.

Timmerman then goes after other parts of the Jesse myth. For years Jackson told moving stories about his poverty stricken childhood in Greenville, South Carolina. In a speech in South Africa he spoke about growing up in a shack and has talked of having to steal just to survive. Timmerman refutes this (he has quotes from Jackson family members to back him up) and points out that Jesse Jackson had a modest but fairly comfortable childhood. His mother was a beautician and his stepfather Charles Jackson was a postal worker--one the best and most well paid jobs a black man could get in those days. The picture Timmerman presents of Jackson's college years and his later break with Dr. King's organization SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and his activities with his own organization PUSH are decidedly less romantic that the one Jackson has painted all these years.

If you live in Chicago you may remember the vicious El Rukn gang. Jesse Jackson's relationship with Jeff Fort, the head of the gang is discussed in several of the book's chapters. Noah Robinson, Jackson's half brother is also given a lot of ink. Robinson was deeply involved in El Rukn and used two of the gang's "soldiers" to kill a man. Brother Noah is currently serving a life sentence due to that crime. Jesse has long said that he tried to redeem Fort and even baptized him. In Chicago it was whispered that if you messed with Jesse you were risking the displeasure of Jeff Fort. Two black women reporters, Angela Parker and Barbara A. Reynolds crossed Jesse in those early Chicago days and paid a price. Parker wrote a news story questioning Jackson's' finances and Reynolds wrote Jesse Jackson:America's David, a largely sympathetic biography that boldly contradicted Jackson's account of his childhood and the death of Dr. King. Both women eventually had to leave Chicago because of frightening l threats of violence from the gang and shunning from the black community.

As fascinating as the stories about Jesse's Chicago years are---the picture of a baby faced young Jackson sitting at the feet of a Black Pantheresque Jeff Fort made me shake my head in wonderment---the real meat of the book is about Jesse's later years as a national figure. According to Timmerman, Jackson's activities with the Black Expo, Operation Breadbasket, PUSH (People United to Serve Hummanity), and the Rainbow Coalition as well as his presidential runs, his stint as the Special Envoy to Africa and the Wall Street Project were all about amassing power and putting money in his pocket.

To put it in simple terms companies like Viacom, CBS, and Coors Beer all had to pay up to Jackson's charities or face boycotts. Some companies like Anheuser-Busch and Nike either fought back or made the boycott talk go away by hiring Jackson buddies or family members.

Next Timmerman moves on to a part of Jackson's life that to my knowledge has never been reported on. Jackson's Africa adventures gained him enormous praise from the black community at home but there are many Africans who view it differently. The African sources that Timmerman spoke to see Jackson as an opportunist who embraced dictators like Charles Taylor of Liberia and Sani Abacha in Nigeria and Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone for personal profit. The African chapters are the most disturbing in the whole book.

If you think you already know who Jesse Jackson is then Timmerman's book will upset you. I found myself having to put it aside several times so I could digest what I had just read. With each new chapter my mind kept returning to Jackson's speech at the July 17 Democratic National Convention in 1984. My family was gathered around the TV and as Jackson spoke I felt that something very important was happening. My mother who hadn't shed tears in public since my fathers funeral was crying and whispering "Amen." When Jesse Jackson finished speaking I stood on our back porch and took in the sounds of stomping feet, cheers and clapping coming from the homes of our neighbors. This was our moment and it was golden.

The gold has tarnished. Jackson is a wealthy man personally but has lost ground in the court of national opinion. Black public figures who wouldn't have dared criticize him in the open 20 years ago don't fear to do now and Al Sharpton is actively trying to replace him as the premier black leader in America.

As for me, I've been disappointed with Jesse Jackson in the years since then but I always assumed that this was because he changed from the dedicated young man who stood by Dr. King's side so many years ago. According to Timmerman that young man never really existed. If this is true then this solid and heavily researched biography can rightfully be called an American tragedy.

Kimberley Lindsay Wilson is the author of Work It! The Black Woman's Guide to Success at Work (Iuniverse, ISBN 059500122X, $8.95) & Eleven Things Mama Should Have Told You About Men (African American Images, September 2000, ISBN: 0913543691, $12.95)

Buy Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson by Kenneth R. Timmerman at Amazon.com for only $17.97 (40% off)

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