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The natty emcee, E. Duke McNeil, sauntered to center stage and took the microphone as the choir delivered its jubilant arrangement of “We Shall Overcome.” The guest of honor, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., sat stone-faced stage left. Television cameras moved into position, the expectant crowd settled into the pews, and another Saturday morning forum at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters on the South Side was under way, live and on the air worldwide via radio, cable TV, and satellite.
“Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters!” exhorted McNeil, in the beguiling baritone that serves him so well as a criminal defense lawyer. “Don’t touch that dial! The PUSH is on! The PUSH is on! The PUSH is on!”
The appearance of Jesse Jr.-known in these parts simply as “Junior"-certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary. He practically grew up at PUSH headquarters, his father being the founder and all. Now that Junior is a 40-year-old congressman, one of the oft-recalled memories is of the time he gave a speech there as a five-year-old standing on a milk crate. But his planned address on this morning carried with it a heightened sense of anticipation: ever since his recent reproach of Mayor Richard M. Daley in the wake of seemingly endless revelations of corruption in the city’s contracting program for women and minorities, speculation had intensified that Jesse Jr. was positioning himself to run for mayor.
It wasn’t the first time Jesse Jr.’s name had been floated as a candidate for the city’s top job. He has always maintained that he simply isn’t interested, but this time his careful denials preserved future options. And why not? His line of attack on Daley and the city council was getting a nice ride. And his PUSH appearance did come with some noticeable trappings of a campaign event. The program was titled “A Call to Action.” The speech-as selected members of the media who had received an early copy already knew-not only criticized Daley but laid out the principles upon which Jesse Jr. thought any mayor should govern. And, well, a guy on the corner was handing out blue “Draft Jesse Jr. for Mayor” buttons.
Even Junior’s father had turned up the volume. Before today’s program, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. had promised a group of African American businesspeople that his son would deliver a “major address.” Now Jackson the elder was sitting next to Jesse the younger as the choir bounced through the old gospel tune “Sign Me Up.” After the singers finished, Reverend Jackson took to the lectern and introduced his namesake and oldest son. Jesse Jr. smiled his big, bright smile for the first time onstage that morning, gave his father a bear hug, and kissed him on the cheek.
After welcoming a few dignitaries, Jesse Jr. looked out at the crowd and said, “I got set up today!” His deep, hearty laugh-a guffaw, if you will-was joined by cheers and giggles from the crowd. “Reverend Jackson asked me to come and speak during Black History Month on the legacy of Harold Washington, and I got all excited about it, came here, and saw people passing out ‘Draft Junior’ buttons!”
“Do it!” rose a shout from the crowd.
As he turned to his text-entitled “What Does a Shining City on a Hill Look Like? The Legacy of Mayor Harold Washington"-the congressman’s visage and voice became serious and purposeful. An artful speaker, Jesse Jr. started low and slow, taking only five minutes to arrive at his chief cause: the proposed Abraham Lincoln National Airport in the town of Peotone, 50 miles southwest of Chicago. “‘Congressman Jackson, all you want to do is talk about airports!’” he mimicked in the growly voice of a skeptic. “Friends, I have studied Chicago. I know what makes Chicago work!”
“Break it down, brother!” a woman in the second row called out.
Jesse Jr. then moved through a quick history lesson of Chicago’s inequities before paying tribute to Harold Washington as mayor, noting, “He did not believe or practice an ethic that ‘my side of town gets all of the contracts!’”
“Doin’ good!” came a voice from the assenting crowd.
“Preach it!” said another.
Jesse Jr. then teasingly recalled the conditions that Congressman Harold Washington laid down to his supporters before he would agree to run for mayor, including a $250,000 campaign bankroll and 50,000 newly registered voters. “That was 1983,” Jesse Jr. noted coyly. “Have to adjust all that for inflation!”
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Photograph by Matthew Gilson