When Jesse Jackson entered the Tarboro High School gymnasium, chaos came with him. Until then, the cavernous space had been one sad soggy lump of displaced humanity. But when Jesse and his entourage poured through those double doors, the vanquished throng of flood victims rose up with swelling pride and a new sense of hope. I have recorded many grand entrances in my time behind the lens, but never have I seen anything that comes close to the spell Jesse Jackson cast on the Princeville victims of Hurricane Floyd.
But I wasn’t the only one to witness the strange transformation taking place around the man in black. More cameras, sound crews and reporters than I’ve ever seen in one place swirled around the dimly-lit gym, all jockeying for an unobstructed shot of the Leader and his People. Don‘t get me wrong; I‘ve always considered the man little more than an opportunistic carpetbagger, when I considered him at all. In the hours we media jackals waited for Jackson and company to arrive, the biggest question on our cynical lips was what could he possibly do for these poor misplaced souls? As it turned out, the answer was nothing, and everything.
As the civil rights activist skirted the edges of the great space, the thoroughly defeated denizens of Princeville rose up to welcome The Great Man. Radiating warmth and assurance, Jackson spoke to the crowd in his unusual singsong cadence while shaking the many hands that thrust toward him. A single mother who had been picking soggy clothes out of a donated pile danced in celebration, lifting her palms to the rafters above and repeatedly thanking Jesus for delivering their prophet. An elderly man who’d just brushed his teeth with a dirty rag now swung the tattered remnant above his head like a victory flag. A young woman, who could do little more than weep, pushed her way into Jackson’s arms. Through it all Jesse comforted the masses through his preaching and mere presence. I only wish I could remember his words, but I was too busy fighting off a crush of cameras, microphones and elbows.
“If the media could just step back a little” Jackson said, turning the young woman in his arms a little to the right, to better accommodate the flank of camera flashes.
Our afternoon itinerary was typically grueling: Grab some footage of Jackson visiting with the victims in the gym, board a bus that would follow the V.I.P.’s convoy across the river, get whatever sound we could there, then make it back to the high school parking lot - where our satellite truck sat parked among dozens of others, where we would prepare our story for the early evening newscasts. So it was with great haste that I shot as much footage in the gym as I could afford to, before abandoning the surreal scene for a front row seat on the first bus scheduled to leave. When the unmarked buses did pull out, all three were filled to capacity with photographers, reporters, technicians and writers, all clamoring for an unfettered shot of Jesse in the flood zone. Not everyone would get their wish.
Located across the swollen banks of the Tar River, Princeville was widely known as a town founded by freed slaves. But when Hurricane Floyd dumped an ungodly amount of rain on Eastern Carolina, the village of 1900 became famous for another reason; as ground zero in the Flood of the Century. As the line of Chevy Suburbans and unmarked prison buses lumbered into Princeville city limits, it was easy to tell why. Car tops barely poked above the receding water, bright orange X’s condemned two out of three homes and lawn furniture hung precariously in the tops of trees. The water may have come and gone but the scars from Floyd’s relentless pounding remained. A hush fell over the bus I was on as the driver negotiated the maze of washed-out roadways. My partner on the trip, Neill McNeill scribbled notes onto a notepad as I stuck my lens out of the rectangular window. Before I could capture all the images I needed, the bus stopped and I found myself lunging for the door.
Outside, Jesse and his bodyguards emerged from the Suburban and walked up to the marinated steps of Princeville Town Hall. As the other buses found a place to park, the photogs in my group seized the moment, rushing into the hundred-year-old white wooden building after Jackson and his posse of handlers. Once inside, I managed to squeeze past the other crews, stomping around the condemned space before my eyes adjusted for the lack of light. When they did, I was surprised to see Jackson standing right beside me. Adjusting my shot, I peered through my viewfinder to make sure I was rolling. As if on cue, Jackson bent down and picked up a sopping-wet American flag off the town hall floor, remarking how the American spirit would surely see Princeville through this latest crisis. I worked the focal ring until the flag was crystal-clear in the one-inch screen. Had the ensign not been so incredibly mud-caked and tattered, I’d say one of Jackson’s posse placed it there for him to discover. Instead, I chalked it up to luck and a sharp eye for appropriate props.
“Out, out - Everybody out!”
Uniformed deputies piled through the door, hitching thumbs and looking menacing. Seems the Town Hall was condemned for a reason, and even out of town interlopers and attendant media hounds were not allowed inside. But the gig wasn’t up yet. As Jackson and the crowd made for the door, I stuck with him, unwilling to give up my vantage point as we poured onto the old building’s front steps. It made for a powerful backdrop and Jesse must have sensed it too, for he paused on the small porch to give the media a little Q and A. Still clutching the dirty flag, Jackson took questions from the swarm of lenses he pretended to have no time for. As the microphones and lenses crowded around him, he spoke of hardship and renewal.
Which is about the time Neill snapped this photo. It’s become one of my most treasured newsgathering souvenirs. Not because it’s terribly significant, but because the single frame tells so much about that humid afternoon. Look closely. There I am, just to the left of Jackson - back bent, arms hurting, sweat pouring down one squinted eye. Over to the right, a large orange X stretches four planks wide, telling all those who need to know the building is finished. And hanging from Jackson’s grip, the American flag that seemed to be waiting for him and only him. Of course, it’s hard to ignore the crowd of camera operators and sound techs; they take up the frame and set the image’s snarky tone at the same time. Where exactly I fit into all this is debatable, but it’s an argument I rarely bother with anymore.
But cameramen, American flags and orange X’s aside, the photo is all about Jesse - as was much of that hot September day. Looking at it now, through the filter of lost memories, it’s tempting to reconsider the center of all that attention. Though he left the flood-ravaged families not one red cent richer than before he came, it’s a safe bet they all slept better that night, knowing none other than Jesse Jackson was on the case. Maybe that alone was worth something, maybe there’s more to helping people than cutting a check, maybe there’s something positive to be said about the way Jackson swoops in on tragedy and leaves vague warm feelings for victims to embrace. Maybe, just maybe, Jesse Jackson ISN’T the divisive charlatan so many self-proclaimed experts claim him to be…
Naaaah, I still think the man’s a crook.