A Tale of Three Leaders

An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America

by Andrew Young
HarperCollins, 560 pp., $27.50

Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation

by Arthur J. Magida
BasicBooks, 264 pp., $25.00

In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam

by Mattias Gardell
Duke University Press, 520 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson

by Marshall Frady
Random House, 552 pp., $28.50

Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson; drawing by David Levine

Despite their boyish appearance, Andrew Young and Louis Farrakhan are now in their sixties (sixty-four and sixty-three respectively). Jesse Jackson is younger (fifty-five), but all three are transition figures, brought up before that great divide, the 1960s civil rights movement, and surviving after many of their contemporaries in the black leadership have been killed or gone dissolute or faded from memory. Too young to serve in World War II, all three were exempted by religious ministry from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Their war has been the black struggle for justice.

They seem, at first glance, to represent fundamentally different ways of waging that war. Young has been a tactful assimilationist, earning office as a congressman, ambassador, and mayor. Farrakhan is a separatist divided even from other Black Muslim factions. Jackson has been footloose, his highest office and title nothing but his own proper name. There are many ways of being black in America; but they are all ways of being, inescapably, black—as certain similarities in these careers should remind us.

Though born into the segregated era—in some degree, because born then—the three men’s early memories are of a warm and supporting community. A friend of the young Farrakhan, who grew up with him in Boston, remembers: “It was one big extended family. We used to sit on the steps and name all the families for five blocks around. So how much bad could you do if you even tried to do something wrong?”

Andrew Young, small for his age, knew the network that would protect him:

The key to safe passage in any hostile neighborhood was the existence of a blood relative who lived there and the quick presentation of his or her name and address. Even a distant blood relative, like a second cousin, would do the trick. If the person who was checking you out actually knew your relative, his attitude would abruptly change to one of warm friendship, as if both of you were blood relatives.

Jackson is, as usual, the most eloquent:

Mother, grandmother here—teacher over here—and church over here. Within that love triangle, I was protected, got a sense of security and worth. Even mean ole segregation couldn’t break in on me and steal my soul.

Given today’s plaints over black family life, these memories can sound almost idyllic. But ghettoization often increases communal solidarity. Jewish and Catholic children from the same era have somewhat similar memories. That does not justify the ghettoization of human beings by a society not willing to welcome them as equals.

Besides, these three were comparatively privileged—urban youths with the means to go to college and enter a respected ministry nearly at the top. Young was twenty-five when he was made director of youth activities for the National Conference of Churches (NCC). Farrakhan, who had attended good schools (Boston Latin and English High), was twenty-four when he…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.