With the Tenth Anniversary of Hurricane Floyd drawing nigh, I can't help but think of all that has (and hasn't) happened in the decade since...
When Jesse Jackson entered the Tarboro High School gym, chaos came with him. Until then the place had been relatively quiet; a half dozen news crews muttering shop amid a sea of displaced people. Even the Red Cross volunteers seemed to be moving a little slower, their heroic efforts finally ebbing after days of caring for this sad, soggy lump of humanity. I myself was on visit number three to this gymnasium turned shelter and had long since grown tired of wringing sound from the newly downtrodden. The people of Princeville didn't need another camera in their face. A few miles away their modest homes sat marinating in toxic sludge and not one more local profile was going to dry out all that debris. They needed cash, clothes, groceries and a miracle or two. What they got was Jesse Jackson on auto-pilot.
No sooner had the famed civil rights activist entered the cavernous space, the new denizens of the gym rose to receive him. In return, Jackson radiated warmth - encouraging the crowd in his singsong cadence while shaking just some of the hands thrust before him. A young mother who'd been picking clothes out of a soggy pile dropped them at her feet and raised her upturned palms to the rafters. A leathery old man I'd just watch brush his teeth with a dirty rag now swung the half-bitten remnant above his head like a victory flag. A pregnant teenager, who could do little more than weep, pushed her way into Jesse’s arms. Through it all, he cooed reassurances, offering them everything and nothing at once. I only wish I could remember all he said, but I was too busy fending off lenses to listen very carefully.
“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 catch the flank of blinding camera flashes.
The needy would have kept coming all day, but Jesse was not there to assuage them. He was there to get on television and with the scrum of cameras growing all around him, this master of disaster worked the poor folks of Princeville like a studio full of warm props. I shot as much of it as I could stand. When another TV photographer tried to leap over a cot and almost flipped an old lady out of it, I hung my head and headed for the door. Not because I was especially pious, but because the buses were lining up out front and I was afraid they'd somehow leave without me. When the small convoy did pull out, each bus lumbered past 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 is widely known as a town founded by freed slaves. But in the hours and days following the flood, this village of nineteen hundred gained turn of the century fame as the place where Hurricane Floyd left its ugliest bruise. As the line of buses followed the lead Suburban past the barricade, it was easy to see why. The roofs of cars inched above the slowly receding water, hand-scrawled X’s condemned two out of three homes and lawn furniture lounged in the tree-tops. A hush fell over our bus as the driver negotiated a network of new ruts. I braced my camera against the bouncing window frame as Neill McNeill scribbled notes in a skinny notepad. Then the Suburban ahead of us pulled over and I lunged for the door before the bus driver could warn me otherwise.
Outside, Jesse and his bodyguards emerged from the Suburban and walked toward Princeville's waterlogged Town Hall. With the other buses still parking, the photogs in my group moved in for the kill, trailing after Jackson and his handlers as they marched up the hundred year old steps. Inside, I managed to squeeze past the other crews, stomping around the condemned space before my eyes adjusted to the lack of light. With my vision clearing, I sidled up next to the guest if honor and took in the room through my viewfinder. Almost on cue, Jackson bent down to pick something up. I followed his hand and was surprised when he peeled an American flag from the muck underneath. Twisting the focal ring into submission, I feathered it into sharper view as Jackson chirped a homily about perseverance. I was seconds from volleying a question at him when other voices drowned us both out.
“Out, out - Everybody out!”
Uniformed deputies piled through the door, hitching thumbs and eye-gouging the crowd. Seems the Town Hall was condemned for a reason, and even carpetbaggers and their lapdogs were not permitted inside. But the underwater pony show wasn't over. As Jackson and company made for the door, I stuck with him, unwilling to give up my vantage point as he paused onto the Town Hall's front steps. It made for a powerful backdrop and Jesse must have sensed it too, for he decided to give the media a little Q and A. Still clutching the dirty flag, Jackson took questions from the reporters he pretended not to need. As the microphones and lenses hung on his every word, he spoke of hardship, race and renewal.
Which is about the time Neill snapped the photo. It’s become a treasured souvenir. 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 his rhyming bromides. Looking back now, ten long years later, 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 pundits claim him to be...
Naaaah, dude's a user.