Is Jesse Jackson still relevant? And can he remain relevant in the age of Obama? For the past decade, it seems, the iconic civil rights leader, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., founder and president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, has been on a quest to remain relevant and engaged in the issues affecting black America.
For example, this week he spoke out on the tragic and sudden death of Rodney King, and reminded the public of the specter of racial profiling and police brutality.
This past weekend, he led an anti-violence march with Rev. Michael Pfleger and a hundred protesters at a suburban Chicago gun shop.
“Each year … about 7,000 African-Americans are murdered, more than 9 times out of 10 by other African-Americans,” Jackson said. The streets of America’s urban centers have become a killing field for black men, and last weekend the civil rights leader called for a nationwide protest on gun shops in 20 cities. But the nationwide march never really got off the ground.
And Jackson recently took Adidas to task for rolling out the ill-advised JS Roundhose Mids basketball sneakers, which have rubber shackles attached to them and have been denounced by some black leaders as “slave shoes.” Taking on the sneaker giant didn’t seem to gain much traction.
In addition, Rev. Jackson alienated himself from Democratic Party circles when he said of President Obama, “See, Barack’s been talking down to black people … I want to cut his nuts off.” Meanwhile, at age 70, he is often perceived as being eclipsed by Rev. Al Sharpton, of the National Action Network and MSNBC, as head honcho and de facto leader of black America. And Sharpton’s access to the Obama White House is comparable to Martin Luther King’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson, except that Obama is the nation’s first black president.
To some degree, Jackson is a victim of his own success, if victim is an appropriate term. After all, as the first African-American to emerge as a viable candidate for president, he paved the way for Obama to seal the deal — as Shirley Chisholm paved the way for Jackson years earlier. Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns were energizing and of historic importance, although the rainbow coalition that voted for him did not transform into an enduring social movement.
Having a black man in the White House has created a challenge for black leadership to redefine itself in some ways, and to reaffirm itself in others. There was no post-racial America following the 2008 election — given the resurgence of racism, white conservative backlash and growth of hate groups — and Obama has not replaced black leaders. To the contrary, black leaders are more important than ever, given the assaults on civil rights and voting rights the nation is enduring.
Further, we have learned that a black president is not necessarily the president of black America. A nation’s commander-in-chief has far too many constituencies, loyalties and obligations for that to happen. As Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus, and others have criticized the president for his occasional reticence on the problems black folk face, Obama needs a left flank to keep him honest and challenge him to do better. Plus, Obama won’t be president forever, in any case.
Just as an older generation had to step aside for him, Jesse Jackson has had to contend with a younger generation of black leaders, and that is not a bad thing. For example, there is a new energy coming out of the NAACP with Ben Jealous at the wheel, on issues ranging from the death penalty and voter ID to Trayvon Martin and stop and frisk. This represents the awakening of a once-rusty dusty ol’ civil rights establishment that sat on its laurels for years, congratulated itself for the hard-fought victories of the 1950s and 1960s, and was far too content with holding chicken dinners, mistaking them for action and calling it a day.
And yet, we should resist the temptation to rely on anyone, whether Rev. Jackson, Rev. Sharpton, or even President Obama, as the singular titular head of black America. One person cannot do it alone, and putting one’s faith in messianic figures does not necessarily serve our best interests. As the martyrdom of Dr. King, Malcolm X and others has demonstrated, depending on one leader can lead to catastrophe if that leader departs from the scene and creates a vacuum with no contingency plan.
Is there a role for Rev. Jackson? Indeed there is, though perhaps not as in the past. Circumstances change, people change, and we must adapt. As a village elder, Jackson has political acumen, wisdom from which the community can learn, and experience that a new generation of leaders can and should emulate. No one has done it the way Jesse has, with his successful negotiating skills leading to the release of American hostages in international conflicts.
Moreover, given Jackson’s work with Dr. King and the civil rights movement, his experience with voting rights activism, coalition building, economic empowerment, selective boycotts and desegregation resonates today. The tactics he employed are relevant in the retro years of the twenty-first century, where the old civil rights battles meet new challenges, with a twist.
Once again, black Americans find themselves with their backs against the wall, along with 99 percent of Americans of all colors. But they are not used to adversity and fighting to overcome it in the way that civil rights workers literally fought for their lives. Nevertheless, they are learning a lesson in the need to develop strategies to fight back. We can blame the old folks for not teaching the younger generation the lessons of the civil rights movement, replacing them instead with an ethos of getting rich and looking out for number one. A new crop of Americans, including African -Americans, is not used to rough times — but they are waking up quickly.
With the erosion of voting rights, labor rights and women’s rights, a cradle-to-prison pipeline, chronic unemployment and increased economic inequality, Jesse Jackson has a role to play.
Not as the only leader or the top black leader, but one of a host of leaders who work together to solve problems, rather than undercut each other and compromise the community for personal gain and media attention. And really, no one should be the sole leader.
We should cultivate leadership on every block and very corner and develop innovative strategies, yet avoid reinventing the wheel by emulating the successes of people such as Rev. Jackson.
Posted: Saturday, 23 June 2012
Republished with the author’s permission.