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Forgive, and Go Forward
February 22, 2002
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 all'.

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 done before

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.

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