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Few political figures in America today arouse as much passion as the Reverend Jesse Jackson. A hero to some in the black community, Jackson is credited with helping to break down barriers to political and economic access.
But to other black leaders, Jackson has become a symbol for all that has gone wrong with their community. "Jesse virtually invented black racism," the Reverend Johnny Hunter, a black pastor from Virginia Beach, tells me. The Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, a black conservative, calls Jackson a "gatekeeper of black progress" and a "race hustler"1 who has cashed in on white guilt to fund an opulent lifestyle and a personal power base. "He is really just a David Duke in black skin," Peterson says.
On the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in 2000, Peterson convened the first National Day of Repudiation of Jesse Jackson, which he announced would be "an annual event until Jackson repents or retires." This repudiation of Jackson by black community and church leaders came almost a full year before Jackson's public admission that he had fathered a "love child" with an employee.
As if foreseeing Jackson, Booker T. Washington warned two generations earlier against "problem profiteers" within the black community.
Shakedown is the first investigative portrait of the Reverend Jesse Jackson since black reporter Barbara Reynolds's explosive biography was published in 1975. 4 Based on interviews with Jackson friends and foes, federal prosecutors and other law enforcement officials, and on newly released government documents, Shakedown examines how Jackson has manipulated the truth to build a false portrait of himself from the moment he burst onto the national scene.
Over the years, he has graduated from street hustling, to prematurely adopting the religious title "Reverend," to abusing his privileges as a "special presidential envoy." But through it all he has used the same basic techniques-refining them as he went along-of intimidation, coercion, and protection. In so doing he has enriched his family, steered billions of dollars of business to his friends, and launched a political dynasty.
For all the press Jackson has attracted over the years, there is much about him that has remained a mystery. One of the most troubling questions is how Jackson, often flaunting the law, has managed to escape even the threat of prosecution. During the Carter administration, civil servants at the Department of Education amassed a huge investigative file on Jackson's Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), which they believed was defrauding the government of millions of dollars in federal grants. Reagan officials terminated the grants, but never prosecuted Jackson for fear of a racial backlash. The support Jackson has won from the liberal establishment, the media, and even the criminal justice system defies logic-and ignores the facts of his malfeasance.
For there is a dark side to Jesse Jackson, and it has gone unreported from the very start. It began in Chicago in the late 1960s, when Jackson began consorting with a street gang known as the Black P Stone Rangers, whose leaders one by one were thrown in jail with life sentences for murder, extortion, and racketeering. Among them was Jackson's own half brother and early partner in the shakedown game Noah Robinson Jr.
Also ignored in those early days was the extraordinary influence exerted on Jackson by a known Communist Party organizer. Hunter Pitts O'Dell had been hauled before congressional investigating committees on three separate occasions because of his prominent role in the clandestine apparatus of the pro-Soviet Communist Party in the United States. Later known simply as "Jack," he became Jackson's international affairs advisor. Under Jack O'Dell's watchful eye, Jackson actively endorsed virtually every hard-left Third World leader promoted by Soviet intelligence at the time, from Fidel Castro to Syria's Hafez al Assad. But getting from these beginnings to a position from which he could shake down Wall Street was a giant step that required Jackson's own special genius.
Jackson's stint as "presidential special envoy" to Africa during Bill Clinton's second term is without a doubt the least reported disgrace of the Clinton years. Not only did Jackson broker a disastrous peace agreement for Sierra Leone that brought a serial murderer into government, he helped block an international accord cracking down on the trafficking of "war diamonds" which were fueling the conflict.
But clearly the event that precipitated Jackson's fall from grace was the revelation in January 2001 that he had sired an illegitimate child with a former aide, Karin Stanford, and had been using funds from his tax-exempt empire to pay her personal expenses. For years Jackson's amorous adventures had elicited winks and nods among his supporters and friends. Now, for the first time, a crack in his circle of friends allowed the scandal to leak to the mainstream press.
A sexual scandal is an embarrassment, and the misuse of tax-exempt funds is illegal, but there are far more serious charges to be laid against Jackson-charges which reveal the depth of his fundamental hypocrisy. "Me First Jackson," as some Chicago commentators called him, put him-self before family, before friends, before country, and-as shown by his support for the butchers in Liberia and Sierra Leone who made sport of amputating the hands of errant children-even before humanity.
If Jesse Jackson wants our respect, he deserves our scrutiny. It is my hope that Americans, provided with this new information on a major political figure, can now better evaluate his claims to have advanced the cause of racial healing.
Meet the Author
Kenneth R. Timmerman, an investigative reporter with more than two decades of experience, has written for many magazines and newspapers, including Time, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, and the American Spectator, and has appeared on Nightline, 60 Minutes, and many other television programs. He lives in Maryland with his wife and five children.
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