This article originally appeared in the March 4, 1988 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Hazard, KY—This town of 6000 clings to the side of the lode-rich Appalachian hills that have made coal king in Eastern Kentucky. Those hills remind Jesse Jackson of hills beyond, of the hills of South Africa. “There are the same economic forces at work,” he says. Mainly, it’s the force of poverty, for King Coal rules here with the ruthlessness of absolute monarchy. Just outside of town, the landscape is pockmarked with the ugly scars of stripmining. In town, the scars are of economic blight. Hazard traps you, oppresses you, presses down on you from its terraced rows of dingy dwellings, squat, grimy houses with cinderblock chimneys and roll roofing, or rows of nondescript triple-deckers bleeding paint.
Jesse Jackson has come here to “whiten the face of poverty.” That way, he says, America can no longer dismiss the privation. Inside the dimly lit high-school gymnasium, a capacity crowd of 1000, dotted with only an occasional black face, erupts into cheers as Jackson enters. “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse,” comes the familiar chant. “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse.” Jackson strides to a small restraining wall that separates the basketball court from the bleachers, and the crowd surges forward. Kids vault the wall, and surround him, and soon the grownups, too, are spilling out onto the musty canvas that covers the basketball floor. Jackson moves along the wall, pressing the flesh, hoisting and hugging kids, a presidential pied piper leading a mesmerized line of children. But this crowd is not content to follow; they want to touch. As he moves by, the group behind him splits like a drop of quicksilver and rolls around him to reach out again. “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse.”
“I am always distressed when I see such poverty in a nation so wealthy,” Jackson says quietly, when he has taken the podium. “But because I grew up in poverty, I am not traumatized. I am determined that we, the people, can come together. If we, the people, maintain our self-respect, maintain our dignity, no mountains are too high. We, the people, can have jobs, health care, and justice—right here in these mountains. But we, the people, must lead. We must turn to each other, and we, the people, can win. You have struggled against great odds, and your struggle shall not be in vain…We, the people, are going to outlast Reagan. Just hold on.” The crowd responds with a deafening, overwhelming roll. “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse.”
Jesse Louis Jackson, 46, preacher, populist, politician, a candidate who has never held elective office but who is among the leaders for the Democratic nomination, is on a roll. In a half-hour speech that is part-sermon and part pep rally, part exhortation and part populism, part political jazz and part standard stump speech, part hard fact and part flight of fancy, Jackson uplifts, entertains, cajoles, enthralls, and ultimately captures this crowd, which has come to see the first presidential candidate most can remember venturing to their dreary outback corner of Appalachia.