and Go Forward
by Sam Stellar
I forgive Jesse Jackson.
In doing so, I'm not refusing to acknowledge some of the
tactless grandstanding he's done over the last few years.
Neither do I ignore the way he's pasted every racial dust-up
of late to the extreme intolerance that smothered Selma, Alabama
years ago. Nor am I disregarding his crass decision to brush
off the pledge he made to love, honor and cherish his wife
and impregnate another woman.
I forgive Jesse Jackson not just because it's the Godly thing
to do, but the sensible thing to do. No person carries the
mantle of saint or savior very long without showing (sometimes
in the most embarrassing of ways) how very human they are.
Perhaps, in the post Watergate kingdom of cynicism we've become,
it's harder for a public figure to hide their intimate failures
when there's such a large bounty on them. Alas, I doubt this
question entered into Jesse's head when he hooked up with
Karen Stanford for their fateful roll in the hay.
As bewildering as it seems to even need to speak (or, as
it were in this case, write) in defense of Jackson, it does.
Not with the heated charged of 'now, more than ever', but
the more settled, reflective invocate of 'for once and for
He is a champion of civil rights, rising to prominence at
a time when such rights seemed their most vulnerable. Like
any champion, he's had his highs (his speech at the 1984 Democratic
National Convention), and his lows (his Love Child announcement
early last year). But like too many champions, he's fought
too long against foes far lesser than he. Foes that battered
him more than they had a right too, taking just a little more
luster from him each go round. Leaving him vulnerable to an
attack very much like the one he faced late last year.
Having descended the moral high ground, Jackson's rank in
the country's culture wars may seem undefined at the moment.
The truth is exactly the opposite. His time, as pivotal and
inspiring as it was, has passed. We are all the better for
it. In time we will know how much.
What his admirers should not do is see Jackson's exit from
the public stage as a fall from grace, but rather, that always-unpleasant
nudge time gives things better suited for the past. His career
as a civil rights leader played out its full arc; something
that can't be said for either Malcolm or Martin. It's coda
is somewhat sour, but not to the detriment of all that was
Whatever good comes from Jackson's withdrawal from the spotlight
should include an honest appraisal of the modern civil rights
movement. Specifically, how its leaders might better prepare
themselves to identify, measure and remedy racist acts in
the twenty first century.
For too long now, a seemingly ill equipped movement has viewed
every issue affecting African American's through the prism
of the past. Jackson himself became somewhat infamous for
measuring any racist episode - no matter the degree - to the
horrors of sixties Selma; thereby blunting any possible affection
for his cause and cheapening the sacrifices made by himself
and others in changing the social tenor of that city. He certainly
wasn't alone in this regard, but his high profile status made
him the face of the modern movement, warts and all.
While a burgeoning black middle class flexes its economic
and political muscle, a swelling underclass remains locked
in the demographic shackles of substandard education, inadequate
health care and shrinking economic opportunities. The former
stands without question as testimony to the efforts of Jackson,
his mentor, and likeminded coalitions. The latter however,
seems beyond both his reach now and, to a degree, the reach
of those similar groups.
No sit-in - its stellar track record notwithstanding - will
bridge the digital divide. No boycott, however broad or focused,
will improve public education in our cities. Not every racial
incident reeks with the rot of sixties Selma. Much good has
come from Jackson's accomplishments, some of it historic.
And sometime, it is good to see and herald our accomplishments
rather than rue that everything is still the same.
There is nothing irreverent about assessing a leader. We
do it with CEO's, ministers, teachers and Presidents. We do
it to champions as well. And there is a good deal of difference
between an appreciation and a eulogy.
An honest appreciation of Jesse Jackson seems too much to
ask for at the moment (the O'Reilley's of the world seem to
have the microphone lately). But when that grand assessment
does happen, it should be as it is with any champion.
He made haste in his youth, records in his prime, and was
made slow by age; to the betterment of his charge and to the
glory of God.
We should forgive him his faults and go forward.
We should also be so lucky as to use his efforts as a measure
by which those after him are compared.
That seems, to borrow a phrase of his, a hope to keep alive.