Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Martin Luther King and Jesse

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Martin Luther King Jr., came to Chicago in 1966 to march against the city’s racial segregation. Forty-six years later, we haven’t made much progress. According to the last census, Chicago is still the third most segregated metropolitan area in America. Most Chicagoans live in neighborhoods that are no more diverse than Ireland, Mexico or Nigeria.

    While King couldn’t solve Chicago’s segregation, he did make his mark on our politics. His most lasting legacy in Chicago may have been the establishment of our leading black political dynasty, the Jacksons.

    Jesse Jackson first came to Chicago in 1964, after graduating from North Carolina A&T University, to study at the Chicago Theological Seminary. The next year, he went to Selma, Ala., to participate in the civil rights marches, and to ask for a job in King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council. Although wary of Jackson’s personal ambition, King recognized his leadership skills. The SCLC was planning a major housing campaign in Chicago, and needed an organizer there. King appointed Jackson to head the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket, which used boycotts to win jobs for blacks in local business.

    According to the site “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Struggle”:

    King called it SCLC’s ‘‘most spectacularly successful program’’ in Chicago…Breadbasket targeted five businesses in the dairy industry. While three companies negotiated to add black jobs immediately, two complied only after boycotts. Chicago Breadbasket went on to target Pepsi and Coca-Cola bottlers, and then supermarket chains, winning 2,000 new jobs worth $15 million a year in new income to the black community in the first 15 months of its operation.

    (Jackson had previously asked Mayor Richard J. Daley for a job. Although Jackson came bearing a letter of recommendation from North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, the boss offered him a position as a toll taker. Jackson turned it down.)

    Jackson used his position to build a personal following, preaching at the Saturday morning workshops, which were broadcast on the radio.

    After King’s death, Jackson didn't get along with the new president of the SCLC, Rev. Ralph Abernathy. In 1971, Abernathy suspended Jackson from the leadership of Operation Breadbasket. Jackson quit to form his own activist organization, Operation PUSH.

    Unlike King, Jackson became a politician. He decided to run for president in 1984 partly because Harold Washington’s election as mayor knocked him off his perch as Chicago’s most prominent black leader. (There’s a famous picture from Election Night 1983 in Chicago. Jackson is trying to lift Washington’s arm, like a boxing referee declaring the winner. Washington is trying just as hard to keep his arm down.) Although Barack Obama was inspired by seeing Jackson onstage with all those white guys in a presidential debate, it was Washington who drew him to Chicago.

    Although he came here to oppose Daley’s policy of segregation, Jackson took one lesson from the Old Man: “If a man can’t put his arms around his sons, what kind of world are we living in?”

    He has been accused of using a boycott of Anheuser Busch to win a Budweiser distributorship for his sons, Jonathan and Yusef. When Jesse Jackson Jr. ran for Congress in 1995, the 30-year-old was able to tap into his father’s national network of donors, including Bill Cosby, Johnnie Cochran and Don King. And, of course, Jesse Jr. helped get his wife Sandi elected to the City Council. That’s a political family as impressive as any Irish patriarch has been able to put together. 

    Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!