HOW TO BE A BLACK PRESIDENT
“I Can’t Sound Like Martin”
The Sunday morning of the March weekend of events celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, was the time in Selma for some serious preaching. The focus, of course, was on Bloody Sunday, the fateful pilgrimage that dramatized the violent struggle for the black franchise and helped push the Voting Rights Act into law less than six months later. The radiant Sunday was made even brighter by the presence of so many stars from the black civil rights establishment who had marched fifty years before. They mingled with present-day luminaries in the Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point for the marches and one of the architectural touchstones in the electrifying film Selma. The fact that President Barack Obama was to deliver what was expected to be a rousing speech on race had been the draw bringing thousands upon thousands of people to this sleepy southern city still mired in poverty and largely frozen in time.
A few of us sat in the minister’s office exulting in the camaraderie and lighthearted banter that black preachers share before the Word is delivered.
“What’s up, Doc,” the Reverend Al Sharpton, the morning’s featured preacher, greeted me.
“What’s up, Reverend? Looking forward to your sermon this morning.”
I had walked into the church office with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose coattails I had much earlier followed into my own ministry and, during his historic run for the presidency, into serious political engagement. I had heard Jackson preach in person for the first time in 1984 on Easter Sunday at Knoxville College in Tennessee. The tall, charismatic leader had cut a dashing figure as he delivered a thrilling sermon-as-campaign-speech in which he criticized President Reagan’s military budget, with its priority on missiles and weapons, saying the document represented “a protracted crucifixion” of the poor.
“We need a real war on poverty for the hungry and the hurt and the destitute,” Jackson proclaimed. “The poor must have a way out. We must end extended crucifixion, allow the poor to realize a resurrection as well.”
Jackson argued that President Reagan had to “bear a heavy share of the responsibility for the worsening” plight of the poor. “It’s time to stop weeping and go to the polls and roll the stone away.” Jackson also blasted cuts in food stamps, school lunches, and other social programs.
“People want honest and fair leadership,” he said. “The poor don’t mind suffering,” but, the presidential candidate declared, “there must be a sharing of the pain.” Jackson clinched the powerful parallel between Christ’s crucifixion and the predicament of the poor, especially the twelve thousand folk who had been cut off from assistance, when he cried out that the “nails never stop coming, the hammers never stop beating.”
It is easy to forget, in the Age of Obama, just how dominant Jackson had been after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, how central he had been to black freedom struggles and the amplifying of the voices of the poor. It was in Selma, during the marches in 1965, that a young Jackson was introduced to King by Ralph Abernathy and began to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He had only later been shoved to the political periphery by the rush of time and the force of events, and viewed as a relic—or worse, as a caustic old man—after he was caught on tape wishing to do away with Obama’s private parts. Jackson’s weeping visage later flashed on-screen at the celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park of Obama’s first presidential election. Some viewed Jackson’s sobbing as the crocodile tears of an envious forebear. In truth, Jackson was overcome with emotion at a triumph for which he had paved the way. Sharpton was now the nation’s most prominent civil rights leader; relations between him and Jackson alternated between frosty and friendly.
Jackson had been Sharpton’s mentor as well as mine, and the two embraced in a genial half hug before Sharpton squeezed onto the couch between Jackson and Andrew Young, the former UN ambassador, Atlanta mayor, trusted lieutenant to King—and a father figure of sorts to Jackson. The reunion of Jackson and Young, with Sharpton at the center, was a bit of movement theater. The occasion in Selma had brought together three generations of the bruising patriarchy that black leadership had so often been, with its homegrown authority and blurred lines of succession. I could not let the opportunity pass to quiz Young about his thoughts on Obama and race in the company of his younger compatriots. The elder statesman pitched his views about the president to the home base he knew best: Dr. King and the arm of the movement he had helmed.
“Well, you know, Martin always depended on me to be the conservative voice on our team,” Young said, smiling and with a twinkle in his eyes less than a week before his eighty-third birthday. I knew this story, but it was delightful to hear Young regale us with his witty retelling.
“I remember one day Hosea Williams [an aide whom King dubbed his “Castro”] and James Bevel [an aide and radical visionary] were off on their left-wing thing,” Young recalled, glancing across at their sometime collaborator Jesse Jackson, “who, despite his seventy-three years, had a boyishly mischievous grin etched on his face. “And I was tired of fighting them, so I agreed with what they were proposing.” Young gathered himself on the couch, lurched forward slightly, and delivered the punch line with the confidence of a man who had told this story a few thousand times before.
“Martin got really mad at me. He pulled me aside and said, ‘Andy, I don’t need you agreeing with them. What I need you to do is stake out the conservative position so I can come right down the middle.’” King found it useful to be more moderate than his wild-eyed staff, yet more radical than Young, the designated “Tom” of the group. It might be plausibly argued that Obama’s own hunt for a middle ground between Democrats and Republicans was a later echo of some of King’s ideological inclinations, a balancing tendency that led historian August Meier to dub the civil rights leader “The Conservative Militant.”
I did not quite know what to expect from Young on the topic of Obama; in 2007, when he was a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s in the 2008 election, he had pointed to Obama’s inexperience and poked fun at his racial authenticity, which he said lagged behind Bill Clinton’s blackness. But I suspected the ambassador had come around. It seemed that Young, taking a page from King’s book, might travel between Jackson, whose criticism of Obama had been largely subterranean, given his chastened status, and Sharpton, who made a decision never to publicly criticize Obama about a black agenda as a matter of strategy. But Young’s brief answer still surprised me for its empathy toward Obama.
“Look, there’s a lot on his plate. And he’s got to deal with these crazy forces against him from...