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What Does Junior Want?

From our May 2005 issue: After Jesse Jackson Jr. spoke out against corruption in the Daley administration, speculation erupted that he was running for mayor. But while city hall may be in his sights, the son of the famous Reverend seems to have other things on his mind

(page 3 of 5)

 

 

“I hope you make that mayoral race,” a customer tells Jackson within minutes of our arrival at breakfast-first stop on the tour-at the L&G Family Restaurant, 75th and Exchange. “You look just like your father,” another says. It is the day before Jackson’s PUSH speech, which he is carrying in the pocket of his coat. “I should be working the tables,” he says, eyeing all those potential voters almost wistfully. But his wrenched back has the best of him. He settles delicately into a booth and orders grits, which he barely touches.

“So this is the Rand McNally Chicago EasyFinder map,” Jackson says, unfolding a laminated map that is one of his favorite props. “[This is] the map that’s available at most tourist locations around the city of Chicago. When you open it up, you see the northwest suburbs in it, most of the city of Chicago, many of the southwest suburbs, but the map itself stops at 55th Street, at the Museum of Science and Industry, the University of Chicago. In other words, the service-based economy doesn’t venture beyond 55th Street. We simply cannot be players in the regional economy until the service economy ventures south of the Museum of Science and Industry.”

Jackson wants to put the South Side and its suburbs on that EasyFinder map, and he thinks the airport is the best way to do it. (Jackson’s own Second Congressional District stretches south from about 50th Street, following the lakefront to the city limits, before expanding toward the southwest to include a number of suburbs, including Evergreen Park, Riverdale, Dolton, Harvey, Chicago Heights, Matteson, and Park Forest.) In fact, Jackson says, the city’s airport capacity crisis presents a unique opportunity to address the region’s economic imbalance. By Jackson’s accounting, building an airport in the south suburbs could be a silver bullet, spurring development, lowering property taxes, increasing property values, and providing more school funding-thereby reviving impoverished city neighborhoods and down-and-out suburbs. And Jackson’s plan would be privately funded to boot. It’s a bold position, one that has set him in opposition to establishment Democrats, most notably Richard M. Daley.

Why is Daley so opposed? It’s tough to tell, given that his position on Peotone-or any new airport-has changed so many times over the years. Like some members of the local business community, the mayor likely is worried about any negative economic impact on the city resulting from an even slightly diminished O’Hare. But a new airport also represents a potential threat to his own power and political strength-which is Jackson’s take on Daley’s recalcitrance. “Under the old Democratic model of graft, jobs, contracts, friends, the city [would have] no jurisdiction,” Jackson says. “Can’t have that now.”

* * *

Jesse Jr. was almost named Selma, after the Alabama town where his father was demonstrating when he learned that his son had been born. Instead, the rambunctious Junior became known as “Fella.” “That was kind of short for ‘the meanest and the orneriest fellow you ever met,’” says Frank Watkins. Tests showed that Jesse Jr. was smart, but hyperactive, so his parents sent him and his brother Jonathan to the LeMans Military Academy, a school near South Bend, Indiana, that was run by the Brothers of Holy Cross. “The idea of wearing a uniform, getting promoted, and being in charge of something was a big thrill,” Jesse Jr. wrote in A More Perfect Union, his 2001 book that is part memoir, part manifesto. “But ‘Fella’ kept showing up. I received numerous demerits and became a regular visitor to the principal’s office-often to be paddled for conduct unbecoming a cadet.” Today, Jesse Jr. credits LeMans, no longer in existence, with instilling discipline in him.

As Jesse Sr. increasingly spent more time in Washington, D.C., his wife, Jacqueline, wanted her boys to spend more time with their father. She decided to send Jesse Jr. and Jonathan to St. Albans, the exclusive private Episcopalian boys’ school in Washington, D.C., where many sons of the political elite go to high school (Al Gore and John Kerry both attended St. Albans). Jonathan preferred to stay home and attend Whitney Young, the top-ranked Chicago magnet high school, but Jesse Jr. jumped at the chance to go to St. Albans-though he later acknowledged that, academically, he did just enough to get by. “My real education at the school came from being around people who knew more and had been exposed to more than I had,” he wrote in A More Perfect Union. “Of course, my impulse to be ‘Fella’ could not be denied just because this was St. Albans. My brother Yusef, who later attended the school, recently told me that virtually all of the rules in the dorm . . . had been rewritten. And the dorm master asked Yusef, ‘Do you want to know why? Because of your brother Jesse.’”

Reverend Jackson, in the midst of his 1984 presidential campaign, gave the commencement address at Jesse Jr.’s graduation. Jesse Jr. was designated by his classmates to carry on a St. Albans tradition and give something “silly” to the headmaster upon receiving his diploma. Junior pressed an egg into the headmaster’s hand.

But Junior was not without smarts. “He is a political animal of the first order,” an assistant headmaster told The Washington Post, which covered the address. “[He is] a solid student with a deep interest in history. He writes well, but he speaks superbly.”

Today, Jesse Jr. says he would like his son to attend St. Albans, even as he acknowledges that he performed better there athletically than academically. A fleet-footed running back (at 5 feet 11, 177 pounds), Jesse Jr. rushed for 889 yards and scored 15 touchdowns in nine games during his senior year.

Following St. Albans, Jackson chose (or, by one Washington Post account, was ordered by his parents) to attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, where his father had played quarterback, earned a sociology degree, won the student body presidency, and met his future wife. The university is a predominantly black college, and seeing African Americans in leadership positions made an impression on Jesse Jr. “[We] didn’t have to fight the power; we were the power,” he wrote in A More Perfect Union.

Jesse Jr. helped organize a campus protest group, Students United for a Free South Africa, and he got involved in voter registration efforts. He also buckled down academically, graduating magna cum laude with a business management degree in three years. “‘Fella’ was gone,” as Junior put it in A More Perfect Union.

Again, Reverend Jackson veered off the presidential campaign trail, this time in 1988, to give the commencement speech to his son’s graduating class. And then Jesse Jr. joined his father’s campaign.

* * *

The Jackson kids, of course, grew up with celebrities traipsing through their house, including Jackie Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Muhammad Ali, and Bill Cosby. “My mother let Michael Jackson write on the wall,” Jesse Jr. says. (He wrote: “To the Jackson family, with much love and respect, Michael Joe Jackson.")

Sometimes the kids accompanied their father on his ventures-including hostage rescue missions to Syria, Cuba, and Yugoslavia-but they were largely kept out of the spotlight until the 1988 Democratic National Convention, in Atlanta. There, in front of a national television audience, all five of the Jackson children joined their father on the stage. Jesse Jr.’s poised and eloquent introduction of his father was so well received (Time called him a “compelling presence") that requests for him to speak on college campuses and elsewhere poured in.

Jackson, though, was still unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. “[My father] told me about the idea of a seminary education, to give me an opportunity to kind of find myself,” says Jackson. “So I said, ‘OK; I’ll give it a shot.’ I went over and met with Dr. Kenneth Smith [then president of the Chicago Theological Seminary], and I expressed my case for wanting to be in the ministry.” Jackson ended up enrolling at the Hyde Park–based seminary. “I was really being challenged to think critically, and to raise questions,” he says. “In my own mind’s eye, God became a God of the oppressed, and not a God of the status quo, at the seminary. For that matter, he became a person of color.”

Though Jackson earned his master’s degree in theology in two years rather than the usual three, he chose not to be ordained. “I’m still pursuing some [spiritual] questions that I want answered,” he says. “I did not want to put myself out there as a reverend, knowing that I had my own personal shortcomings to deal with.” Still, Jackson is now on the seminary’s board of trustees.

Likewise, Jackson attended law school with no intention of becoming a lawyer. His future wife, Sandi Stevens (whom he married in 1991), was in law school at Georgetown when he persuaded her to transfer to the University of Illinois and get her law degree there with him. Jackson finished his coursework half a year early, but he never took the bar exam. He was still preparing for whatever public service role lay ahead. “[If] I didn’t have certain accomplishments at age 30, the press and so many others would be saying, ‘The kid’s unqualified; what the hell’s he been doing?’” Jesse Jr. told Chicago in 1996. “I saw in ‘84 and ‘88 what people did to my father by saying he was unqualified. So I said if I ever ran for public office, they would never hold that over my head.”

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