Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Flashback: Quaker Starts Negotiations with Jesse Jackson’s PUSH.

[Fifty years of politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

Not long after I returned to Quaker Oats in late 1970, indications were rife that one day—indeed as they were current during the 1960s-- the company would be targeted…as would many others in the food and beverage line, particularly… by Reverend Jesse L. Jackson either through Operation Breadbasket, an arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or from his newly-founded organization, Operation PUSH. which stood for what was called grandiosely either “People United to Save Humanity” or “People United to Serve Humanity.” I would go to Breadbasket meetings since 1965 and met Jackson at that time, immediately after his disappointment at not being picked by the New York Giants.

As a young ministry student at the Chicago Theological Union, he had badgered Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King’s deputy, a slow-moving, drawling, indistinct, typical old style southern black minister of good heart and modest mien for a staff job at the SCLC in Chicago. Abernathy assented but had to check it out with Martin Luther King. King strongly opposed hiring Jackson because when King had come to Chicago with Andrew Young, Floyd McKissick and James Farmer, Jackson was constantly insinuating himself into the councils where Abernathy, Reverend C.T. Vivian and Al Raby made decisions. King had a sixth-sense that Jackson was in it for himself solely and insisted on him being kept out. Especially as Jackson seemed to have the role of press secretary cut out for himself.

But Abernathy was dazzled as many later were by Jackson’s charisma and phrase-making ability in dealing with the press (which Abernathy was not good at). Not dazzled was Andrew Young nor Raby. Raby, with whom I was most impressed second only to Young, a former Chicago school teacher, was an organizing genius. Raby faulted Jackson in a brief aside to me because Jackson’s masterly inattention to detail in favor of events that would promote himself, was legendary. But as King became involved in national doings, Abernathy’s weakness as a variant spokesman was clear and Jackson elbowed his way further upfront. He was famous for telling the others not talk to the press, that he would do it. Then he quickly dropped out of the Chicago seminary. Later he was ordained by two ministers in quickie fashion, Reverends C. L. Franklin and Clay Evans. Let’s say he learned his theology on the streets.

To call Jackson a street hustler is entirely correct which is what Hosea Williams called him to face and later to me in confidence when we were standing outside the Democratic National convention. In 1965 when I had just come to Quaker from Minnesota, I had had an abiding respect for the variant of hustler Hubert Humphrey was—especially where he energetically supporting us joining World War II in 1941 and just as energetically strove to keep himself from being drafted. That took some chutzpah but he had it. He was a transplanted South Dakota drug store populist liberal hustler—an endearing sort who could and did laugh about those years. You don’t see Jesse Jackson, Sr. laugh about his early years. Uh-uh. That’s why Humphrey was a hustler at the beginning but not at the end and Jesse was at the beginning, at the middle and up to right now.

Hustler was my impression of Jackson from the first, when I was cursorily introduced to him by Raby in 1965. Young, with a great athletic build, then short-cropped hair and a mouth that never stopped flapping, reminded me then as a caricature of several Amos `n Andy characters—George (Kingfish) Stevens but especially Algonquin J. Calhoun, the purported lawyer who was not actually a lawyer but had adopted the phrases somewhat. Jackson was a ministerial drop-out who could razzle-dazzle but while Abernathy was impressed, he was at bottom, a hustler—similar to the type which would stop you on the street on the black South Side, pull up his overcoat sleeve and display an armload of wrist-watches he said fell out of the back of a truck. Women adored him; many men did as well. He was a media magician and with words could transform a handful of marchers into a verbal army on the way to combat the Pharaoh. The difference between hustler Humphrey and hustler Jackson is that with seniority in the Senate and with his serious role as vice president, Hubert Humphrey matured into a fine public servant. Jesse Jackson never moved beyond charismatic phrasemaker. He had an ideal chance.

After the conviction of Marion Berry, the mayor of Washington, D. C., the city needed someone who could step in—and by stepping in serve two functions: first, install order in a city that had chaotic finances and second, by being mayor of the nation’s capital city become a national spokesman for enlightened public policies. But Jackson had no stomach for work that the mayoralty would entail. Humphrey who was a first-rate mayor would have leapt at the chance; not Jackson who basically does not like administrative heavy lifting nor a government job that interferes with a very prosperous private sector livelihood that begs for investigation. But nevertheless Jackson impressed me then and still does as one with superb communications gifts. Part of that extra turbine of energy may well come from the circumstances of his illegitimate birth.

It has always been my view that those born illegitimate as was Jackson whose birth name was Jesse Louis Burns, often have an extra-set of pituitary glands. A famous scholar, Michael Bechloss, known for his path-breaking work on LBJ, has reflected on very clear evidence that Abraham Lincoln may well have been illegitimate and has published it—but the reverence for Lincoln is so strong the theory has been discouraged in fashionable quarters. Yet not only the mysterious early history but the symptoms of later behavior are very clear with Lincoln: the fact that as his law partner William Herndon has written meaningfully that he was very skittish about his Kentucky past, that he never went to Thomas Lincoln’s funeral although he clearly could have, and that the theory is strong that the woman he calls “my angel mother” was not his birthmother but Sarah Johnston who married Tom Lincoln after Nancy Hanks’ death and gave the family some societal order. Lincoln’s emergence has been a key to the fascination all of world history has had with him—certainly Herndon’s fascination. But there was a fairly prominent figure in Hodgenville, Kentucky with the first name of Abraham whose claim needs to be explored by historians not bedeviled with political correctness. But, I do digress, don’t I?

Jackson’s biographical father, Noah Robinson was married when Jesse was born and was never involved in his life; thus Jesse took the name of his stepfather, Charles Henry Jackson. Around Chicago in the late 1960s there was a Noah Robinson, Jackson’s step-brother, who ran a shakedown enterprise associated with Breadbasket…to Jackson’s discomfiture…but who later ran into serious trouble with the law—but he is forgotten. Jackson built a spectacular Saturday morning following with the meetings held at several locations: Saturday morning was excellent because the television media in the early `60s was dying for news and especially vivid portrayals. True to Raby’s judgment, Jackson was never an organizer. I was there when the number of TV people almost outnumbered the few middle-class attendees including some rapt women intrigued with the fiery preacher’s manly bearing—but the media has loyally kept the secret by not showing the sparse audience and allowing Jackson to trumpet that veritable thousands will be marching later that day on selected business enemies.

It was no surprise that Jackson who was moving on food companies would some day focus on Quaker Oats. I think it could be said that we at Quaker delayed the event some time in the future with social and urban programs—nutrition education to the poor without commercial overtone…a minority enterprise self-training program…expanded philanthropy to black organizations…a well-publicized tutoring program by Quaker employees volunteering their own time in public housing projects…but the day of reckoning was bound to come. When it did, Jackson formally announced that our company was going to be approached along with some others and we were prepared. I was named the head of the negotiating team on Quaker’s side. Helping me was our manager of urban affairs, Charles E. Curry, an African American youth organizer hired from the “detached worker” program of the YMCA where he had served with Danny Davis, a friend of mine, an excellent leader, a Ph.D from Arkansas, a brilliant teacher and speaker who was to become an alderman, Cook county commissioner and U. S. Congressman.

Jackson named a very fine, idealistic clergyman on his staff to begin the negotiations with us, Reverend George Edwin Riddick. Thereupon probably once a week for many months we sat together and sketched out in reasonable fashion how we would arrive at an agreement. I had two mandates from the company (everything else was negotiable). One was that there would be no covenant; an agreement was fine but the spectacle of Jesse Jackson standing like Douglas MacArthur on the deck of the battleship Missouri pointing angrily and autocratically to the covenant that the defeated Japanese diplomats were to sign was not to our taste—and I applauded Bob Stuart’s view on that. The second was that the product Aunt Jemina was a $38 million brand. She was no historical figure but a fictional character much like the white patriarch on the oatmeal box. While there were rumbles from the Jackson side that she would have to go, my orders were no she would not go. Again—very good with me.

So armed with those restrictions, I sat down to meet with Reverend Riddick, a man with whom I developed warm admiration. But there was coming a wild time with confrontation and some denunciation from both black and white sources. All that next time.

1 comment:

  1. I have heard a variant on the story of Lincoln's ancestry. Lincoln's mother, the former Nancy Hanks, was an illegitimate child. Lincoln confided to Herndon that he felt that his intellectual abilities were inherited from a wealthy planter who was his biological grandfather on the maternal side of the family.