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Down with Dope, Up with Hope! Turn Off the TV! Study! Jesse Jackson Is Lighting Fires Again

updated 04/09/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/09/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

Me steps to the podium in New Orleans' vast Superdome and, as advertised, the audience of 50,000 is his within seconds. "Say after me, I am somebody," he demands, and they roar it back, following the litany in a thunderous crescendo: "Less than my best is a sin...Down with dope. Up with hope." And finally: "Nobody can save us...from us...for us...but us!"

The vast assemblage—which combined the fervor of est with the excitement of a tent meeting—was the scene of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's latest prod at his black brethren. Called a "Super Education Rally," it was held at the behest of the Louisiana State School Board. An offshoot of Jackson's Chicago-based organization PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), this new program, PUSH-Excel, is a brush-fire crusade to inspire motivation in schoolchildren, as well as in their parents and teachers. The project is rooted in a familiar catechism of self-reliance, self-discipline and self-respect, charged by Jackson's charisma and served up with an old-time religious zeal. There is one extraordinary difference: It seems to work. New Orleans is the ninth city to welcome—and help underwrite—Jackson's campaign since it began three years ago. The $1.1 million he's managed to raise so far includes more than $400,000—unsolicited—from HEW, which hopes to give $3 million by 1982. "He's got an unbeatable message," says U.S. Education Commissioner Ernest L. Boyer. And if it sounds familiar? "It may be gimmickry," says the superintendent of one of Chicago's toughest districts, "but it works with kids."

Jackson's first tactic is deceptively simple. "We ask students to sign pledges that they will study two hours a night—without radio or television," he says. As a corollary, parents are urged to meet—and exchange home phone numbers—with their kids' teachers, to pick up report cards at school and to promise they will turn off the TV sets every school night. "Guess what!" Jackson shouts at parents. "Nobody, but nobody is too poor to turn off the TV two hours a night!"

The deeper purpose of Jackson's six-day weeks on the road is to change the very character of young black America. His sermons come down hard on suggestive pop music, unwed pregnancies, flashy dress, truancy and disorder in the schools. He remembers attending a National Honor Society meeting in Washington at which all but two of the award nominees were girls. "That said something about our definition of manhood," he scowls. "A book under the arm seemed to mean you were effeminate, so I spoke about manhood—that you weren't a man because you could make a baby but because you could protect and provide for one." Such changes of attitude are hard-won, but Jackson seems at least to get a hearing. "This might break a favorite habit of yours," he told one stunned audience at predominantly black Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., "but since the place has a roof on it, and since it's warm in here—why don't you young men just take your hats off?" The girls giggled, the teachers and parents applauded—and the Super Fly hats disappeared one by one.

Jackson would never get away with such square admonishments were he not who he is: an otherwise hip, young (37) veteran of the civil rights movement who paid his dues long ago. Raised by a beautician mother and stepfather (who worked variously as a bootblack, janitor and bellhop) in Greenville, S.C., he attended Chicago Theological Seminary, went to work for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was with him in Memphis when he died. Jackson moved on to form PUSH—a ghetto-based pressure group for black economic self-help—and soon began to feel the civil rights movement had lost its edge. He still remembers driving past a Chicago school one day in 1975—"a school we had fought to build"—and being horrified by what he saw: "Kids were sitting around outside smoking and shooting dice. During school! Five of the girls were pregnant, and I began to realize none of the opportunities we'd fought for would work unless we matched opportunity with effort. If your army is somewhere watching TV or getting high, or otherwise diverted by self-indulgence, you ain't got an army."

Against that backdrop, few would fault his bootstraps rhetoric—or his focus on the victims of racism rather than root causes. "We keep saying Johnny can't read because he's deprived, because he's hungry, because he's discriminated against, because his daddy's not in the home," Jackson says. "Well, Johnny learns to play basketball without Daddy. We do best what we do most—and for many of our children, that is playing ball. Three or four hours a night, without TV, without radio. One of the reasons Johnny doesn't read well," he continues, "is that Johnny doesn't practice reading. You can have soul without effort—but you can't have excellence without effort."

It is a homily that glosses over countless complexities, but if Jackson is right, the time for dwelling on past injustices is over. "Nobody will stop us from killing each other," he says. "Nobody will make us catch up. We have to rely on ourselves to overcome history."

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