Jackson's new gospel for the kids

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NORTH Carolina - Jesse Jackson is back, but he's back with a new message. Jackson's charismatic personality dominated the Democratic presidential campaign in 1988, and did it no good. In the 1992 campaign Bill Clinton marginalised Jackson, implicitly snubbing him, and thereby won back most of the 'Reagan Democrat' blue-collar, white vote (as well as holding most of the black vote).

The low point for Jackson in last year's campaign was the Sister Soulrah episode. Sister Soulrah, a Jackson ally, was reported as having deplored the killing of blacks by blacks. If a black person felt they had to kill someone, she suggested, why not kill a white person?

Clinton, during the campaign, speaking from a platform with Jackson beside him, singled out that utterance for condemnation. Clinton's message was that Democrats must be against all racism, wherever it comes from.

This was a breach with the 'politically correct'. As any of the many American manuals of politically correct usage will tell you, it is not possible for a black person to be a racist. Racism is a white monopoly. But the Democrats, under Clinton, refused to play by those rules any longer, and won.

This week in New York Jackson was discussing Sister Soulrah's primary theme: the wrongness of blacks killing blacks. But he is now approaching this theme from a radically different angle to hers.

He was speaking at the Martin Luther King Jr High School in western Manhattan on Monday. As reported in the New York Times, he told the students: 'We lose more lives annually to the crime of blacks killing blacks than the sum total of lynchings in the entire history of the country.'

Jackson noted that none of the enormous problems that have previously faced blacks in America - not slavery, not lynching, not legal segregation - have been as deadly as today's catastrophic combination of violence, drug abuse and Aids.

'What faces us today is preventable,' he said. 'It is within our power to change our behaviour.'

The change Jackson has in mind is far from that contemplated by Sister Soulrah; he is asking young blacks, like that high school audience he addressed, to turn in those of their peers who are trafficking in drugs and violence.

With that in mind, he put some questions and got some answers. He asked his audience: 'How many of you know someone in your age group who is dead because of drugs?'

About 25 per cent of the more than 600 students present stood up. About the same number rose when asked if they knew of someone who had distributed drugs at school. And about 40 per cent of them stood when asked if they knew of someone who had brought a gun to school.

Then Jackson said: 'If you've told some teacher or someone in authority about somebody who is carrying guns or drugs, please stand.' No one stood.

Jackson then made a point about the Ku Klux Klan. What would the students do if they knew that someone - say, a janitor at a school - had a sheet, a hood and some rope in his locker? The students called out that they would turn the person in.

Jackson commented: 'We are far more threatened by the dope than by the rope.'

Jackson's performance at Martin Luther King Jr High on Monday was not a radically new departure. For months now he has been touring black high schools, with much the same question and answer routine. But by now he aims to project the same message at national level, hoping to generate a bandwagon effect throughout the country. Already, a rally is planned for Detroit, and civil rights-type marches for other cities.

This is a significant development, affecting not only black politics but the all-

pervasive politics of race in all America. Hitherto, Jackson's version of a rainbow coalition has had room for hate-white people, though not, of course, for hate-black people. He has courted people such as Louis Farrakhan and Sister Soulrah, who can deliver significant numbers of black votes.

Now that courtship has to be over. Jackson's new team is incompatible with theirs. Their theme is that white people are responsible for all the miseries of black people: not merely in a broad historical sense but in the here and now in America.

Jackson's present theme is that many of the present troubles of the black community are self-inflicted, and that the most dangerous enemies of that community are not white, but certain black people, who must be taken on by the community and cast out from it. With that message, Jackson is headed for trouble within his own community.

Jesse Jackson is, of course, a politician to his fingertips, and no doubt political calculations are involved in his present line.

By breaking clearly with hate-white, he necessarily becomes more acceptable to more whites, and that may further his national ambition - perhaps (he may be hoping) with the Democratic nomination for the vice- presidential slot in 1996. Yet it would be too cynical to put this all down to political ambition.

Even those Jackson- watchers who are highly sceptical about him accept that he clearly means what he is saying to the high school students, and that his concern for their future is genuine and deep.

In the past, his bid for the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr has seemed spurious; he himself is not much more than a clever showman, playing to a number of ultimately incompatible galleries. But the stand he took in the high school of that name this week puts him in a different class. He is showing high political courage, and physical courage also.

Much depends, for the future of his community, on the degree of support he receives from within it. Cynical responses from some of his high school audience are reported, and that is inevitable. But there must be many of those who are quietly thinking over his message, and such hope as there is for the future is there.

(Photograph omitted)