Jesse Jackson, improbably, struggles to find a place in civil rights movement

[22 August 2008]

By David Greising

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

For most of Jesse Jackson’s life, his trademark declaration - “I am somebody!” - has been self-evident.

But not so much anymore. The rise of Barack Obama and a surge of young leaders in the civil rights movement are raising questions about how big a somebody Jackson really is these days.

It is a perplexing transition not just for Jackson but for the civil rights movement too. For both, the challenge will be to remain central to politics in this country even as Obama’s nomination for president next week prompts many Americans to believe the major goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved.

Jackson will have none of such talk.

“It will be a stunning achievement for America,” Jackson said about Obama’s impending nomination. “But the work of civil rights, broadly, the whole fight for the rights of the individual, will continue.”

Obama’s nomination will cap a period of striking change in leadership of the African-American community. And Jackson must adjust to the change in order to remain relevant in the age of Obama.

In politics, where Jackson once was without peer as an African-American on the national stage, Obama has eclipsed him. The generation he represents has achieved success everywhere from Capitol Hill to city halls to state capitals across the country. In civil rights, Rev. Al Sharpton leads a new wing of the movement that is flanked by radio voices and bloggers who have shown an ability to mobilize mass protests.

“The largest challenge facing Jesse is, in a day when you have a Barack in government and there are players like Sharpton in civil rights, are you still relevant?” Sharpton asked.

“Part of his relevance is that some of the new players out there, people like me, he helped mentor. The question now is, does he play the elder statesman in terms of living through them?”

How Jackson handles not just the presidential campaign but a prospective Obama presidency, too, will do much to define his legacy. It also will say much about what new course the civil rights movement must set.

“Jesse is caught betwixt and between,” said Cornel West, a Princeton University professor and leading voice on African-American politics. “But that is true of Jesse’s cause as well.”

A humiliating public stumble jolted Jackson into this delicate adjustment period. When a Fox News microphone in early July picked up Jackson’s use of a vulgar expression to criticize Obama, the episode seemed to symbolize Jackson’s frustration at feeling left on the sidelines by Obama’s historic ascendancy.

The “open mic” episode, Jackson said, was the most humiliating public moment of his career, worse even than when he briefly withdrew from public life after news surfaced in 2001 that he had fathered a daughter out of wedlock.

To help himself recover from the Obama gaffe, Jackson spent a 10 days fasting and meditating in the Arizona desert, he said, “talking with Dr. King, reading the Bible and talking with myself” in an effort to sort out what had prompted his ill-chosen remarks.

“I wanted to see if there was a gap between my heart and my lip,” he said.

Jackson’s verdict: He felt his heart was true, squarely behind Obama. And even if his lips had run amok - expressing a desire to emasculate the African-American candidate for “talking down to black people” - he stood behind the message.

“It was not meant to publicly embarrass him, because I had shared the message with him before,” Jackson said.

Jackson makes a point of saying he speaks frequently with Obama by telephone. However, Obama has never campaigned alongside Jackson in the 18 months since he declared his candidacy in front of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield.

But then, Jackson can be tough to pin down.

Evoking the nickname “Jetstream Jesse” that former Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko pinned on him decades ago, Jackson still spends more than 200 days a year on the road. In recent months he has visited India and Haiti, and he is trying to arrange a trip to the Darfur region of Sudan.

Just in the last week, Jackson spoke at a United Nations conference on children’s issues, visited a rally of African-American labor organizers in Jacksonville, Fla., returned to host his regular Saturday morning television program and PUSH rally, spoke at comedian Bernie Mac’s memorial service Saturday afternoon, saw his son Yusef marry Saturday night, then dropped down to Memphis to eulogize musician Isaac Hayes.

Sharpton spoke at Hayes’ service, too.

But it was two weeks ago, when Sharpton dropped in at Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH headquarters on Chicago’s South Side just before the Bud Billiken back-to-school parade, that the two met face to face for the first time since Sharpton criticized Jackson for his “hot mic” remarks.

Standing behind the desk in his cluttered office, with a photo of himself with King on one wall and two display-sized candids of him with Bill Clinton on the other, Jackson led Sharpton and a band of supporters in prayer.

As Jackson prayed for Bernie Mac’s soul, and for joy, Sharpton said later, a fleeting thought went through his own mind.

“The unsaid prayer was the prayer for peace between me and Jesse,” Sharpton said.

Indeed, Jackson’s sometimes prickly relationship with Sharpton is emblematic of his changing role in the civil rights movement. Not yet an elder statesman, but no longer the first to hit the streets, Jackson at times seems lost in transition.

The day after visiting Jackson’s office, Sharpton spoke forcefully from the pulpit of New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church in support of a plan to boycott the first day of Chicago Public School in protest against funding inequities. The boycott is the brainchild of Rev. James Meeks, a former Jackson protege and state senator who straddles the worlds of politics and church-based activism just as Jackson once did.

Jackson has mostly steered clear of the boycott, an issue that has divided Chicago’s African American community, with some arguing that the stay-out-of-school message is confusing and unwise.

“I agree with the cause,” Jackson said in an interview, “but I wonder about the tactic.” Jackson does support a lawsuit filed Wednesday claiming the Illinois funding plan is unconstitutional.

Jackson was a late mover, too, in one of the biggest civil rights fights of recent years: The demonstrations against harsh punishment doled out to six African American students from Jena, La., now known as “The Jena 6.” The youth were jailed and charged with attempted murder for beating a white student in the rural Louisiana hamlet. Three months earlier, white students who had hung three nooses from a schoolyard tree were merely suspended from school.

The Jena 6 case went mostly unnoticed until The Chicago Tribune reported it as a national story and bloggers and African-American talk-radio hosts started buzzing about it. Sharpton caught on and ultimately alerted Jackson, who helped lead 20,000 people in a march for justice in Jena last September. But Sharpton and Jackson appeared late to the cause already taken up by a younger generation of civil rights advocates in the blogosphere.

Sharpton pointedly noted in an interview that parents of the Jena 6 called him, not Jackson, when they wanted national attention.

Jackson was cross-cut in another way by Jena. He riled the Obama campaign with remarks criticizing Obama for not using his national platform to raise the profile of the Jena 6.

Nearly a year later, it appears Jackson’s remarks still rankle the Obama camp. The feelings seem to apply even to Obama’s national campaign co-chairman, Jesse Jackson Jr., the congressman from Chicago’s southern precincts.

“The competition to get to the next African-American hot spot, to be in front of the camera when they get there - whether Rev. Jackson or Al Sharpton or the bloggers can get there first - that competition I’ve always felt uncomfortable about,” said Jesse Jackson Jr.

“The struggle for justice will not close,” the younger Jackson added. “But any expectation that the next president of the United States is now the new leader of the march is a radical mistake.”

Jackson and the Obama campaign went through an uneasy minuet during the last two weeks over the issue of whether Jackson would appear at the Democratic National Convention at all. Ultimately Jackson sought clearance from Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett before deciding to appear in Denver.

Jackson had expected to speak at a Democratic National Committee prayer breakfast next Thursday that will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington. Jackson was at that march, near the speaker’s stand, to hear King make his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. However, Jackson said Thursday the DNC has decided to focus attention on the role of the King family and Jackson will not speak. Rev. Sharpton is scheduled to address the breakfast.

Jackson, whose 1984 presidential campaign registered millions of African-American voters and who broke ground in 1988 by becoming the first African-American candidate to win major primaries (in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and the District of Columbia), twice electrified Democratic conventions with his speeches. His 1988 address, which featured the refrain “Keep Hope Alive!,” is a landmark of American oratory.

Jackson maintains he will be perfectly satisfied out of the spotlight next week in Denver while a different Jackson, his son the congressman, makes a prime time speech Monday night and a fellow African-American from Chicago is nominated for the presidency.

“It delights me,” Jackson said. “I have lived long enough to see the fruits of my labors. I’ve been blessed ever since the 1960s. I’ve seen 40 years of struggle from the front lines.”

Jackson expects the campaign will call on him to defend Obama at some point. “When the Republicans come after him - and they will come after him - he will need (volunteers) who can rise to his defense,” Jackson said.

“I’m a low-budget item. He doesn’t have to bargain for my support. I can go wherever I’ve got to go and do media without having to obligate the campaign to my agenda,” he added.

But West, the African-American scholar, pointed out that Obama’s arms-length relationship with Jackson exposes a larger strain in relations between Obama and traditional black leaders. “Barack needs to address the historical significance of Jesse,” said West. “He should have done it earlier. It’s too late now.”

Jackson for his part said he has plenty to keep him busy, in the civil rights arena if not for the campaign.

He plans several voter registration drives before the November election. And much of his civil rights work is focused on inequities in education, the inordinately high impact of the mortgage crisis on African Americans, and finding business opportunities for minority firms.

“We’re still opening doors. We’re still building bridges. We’re still tackling issues that matter,” Jackson said. “There’s so much work to be done.”

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