Ten years ago, when I arrived as the new promotion manager at The Charlotte Observer, one of my first assignments was to prepare a proper celebration of the newspaper’s 100th anniversary. I cultivated an idea for a series of speakers and performers who would discuss how their upbringing in the Carolinas had influenced them in life.
The newspaper served both North and South Carolina and had a strong reputation as a thoughtful, reflective paper. So I jumped on the telephone and invited an ambitious list of natives, including newsman Charles Kuralt, musician Doc Watson, then-cabinet member Elizabeth Dole, Rev. Billy Graham and – the invitee who proved most elusive – Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The series proved highly successful, but as the year proceeded, I had received no confirmation from Jesse Jackson. He had agreed to speak, but his office would not settle on a specific date. This became a daily challenge for me. I wrote letters. I sent copies of our promotion ads. I called his office and got on a first-name basis with one of his secretaries. But after months of calling and I still had nothing set.
Then I remembered an old episode of the great newspaper TV show, Lou Grant, about Lou Grant, the city editor of a Minneapolis newspaper. In this episode, Billie, one of Lou’s reporters, couldn’t find the address of someone they were writing about. Lou picked up the phone and called the circulation department of his paper and charmed a manager into looking up the subscriber’s address. So I pikced up the phone and called Jesse Jackson’s hometown Greenville, S.C., newspaper and asked an old co-worker for the unlisted home phone number of one of their subscribers, Jesse’s mother.
I then called Mrs. Jackson and told her of the series and how excited we were to have her son Jesse as a part of it and, since he would be speaking of his childhood, how we would love to have her as our guest for dinner and the speech. She was excited and said she would come.
“What night is it?” she asked.
“Well,” I said. “I’ve got this problem …”
Two days later, Jesse’s secretary called and confirmed a date: September 16, 1986. I met Jesse at the airport that night. He was taller than I’d expected. He stopped for a moment in the concourse and took a deep breath.
“This assignment you have given has caused me to do a lot of soul-searching. It has caused me a lot of painful moments as I reflected upon things I had buried long ago.”
I thanked him for his effort, but I was totally unprepared for what was to come. At dinner at our editor Rich Oppel’s house, he referred to it again and I noticed tears in his eyes. He was visibly shaken by the task.
Five minutes into his speech, I had a horrible realization: I was witnessing the greatest speech I would ever hear and I had made no arrangements to record it. Jesse spoke for nearly two hours. The memories were unbelievably passionate and moving. I was transfixed. I had always been an admirer of his oratory, but he had tapped into a totally different energy source that night.
Soon, I realized his plane was scheduled to leave the airport in 15 minutes and he was nowhere near a conclusion. We called the airport and they held the plane. His assistant dragged him off the stage as the crowd stood and chanted wildly for more.
The next day I sent a postcard to everyone who had ordered tickets by direct mail asking if they had recorded the event. I received five tapes in the mail. With great effort, we transcribed it and sent copies to those who attended. Two years later, I watched with wonder as he gave what most people said was his greatest speech ever at the Democratic Convention in Atlanta. Few there realized that most of the most passionate elements of that speech were forged from that hot September night in Charlotte – from a speech those of us who were there shall never forget.
Photos: Above, a scene from Lou Grant, with the editor, counseling his reporter, Billie. Below, Jesse Jackson giving his speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta. It made the list of American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches.