The Shrinking Jesse Jackson


On January 23, at the Canaan Baptist Church, such luminaries as Carl McCall, Alan Hevesi, and Charles Rangel assured Jesse Jackson that he had not lost their support despite the revelation in the press that he had fathered a child with a woman who was not his wife. (There has since been news of another alleged love child.) Al Sharpton, who had been at odds with Jackson recently, magnanimously organized the blessings. Even schools chancellor Harold Levy was there—to salute a model for the students.

As Jackson basked in the tributes, Charles Rangel sent a dismissive message to the reporters around the country who had covered the story of the reverend’s embarrassment.

“This is what I say to the press,” Rangel trumpeted. “Get over it!”

His message, however, has not gotten through to a number of prominent black columnists.

Jack White, a ceaseless exposer of racism in all its forms, wrote scornfully in the January 29 Time magazine (“The End of the Rainbow”) of Jackson having preached “to the inner-city youngsters about the threats posed by AIDS, drugs, and unwed pregnancy. It’s time to give him another gold Rolex, thank him for his service, and send him out to pasture.”

In Newsday (January 25), Sheryl McCarthy, who is not often given to explosive excoriation, wrote: “I’m disgusted. Only hubris and the belief that he can do anything he likes without being held accountable allows Jackson to behave this way. He’s treating his egregious moral lapse as if it were a three-day cold that can be cured by a few days of bed rest. . . . With all the speeches he’s given to teenagers about being sexually responsible, the reverend himself couldn’t use a condom?”

Syndicated columnist Clarence Page (Newsday, January 23): “If this is not the end of the rainbow for the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition leader, you can at least begin to see it from here. . . . His baby scandal has accelerated a loss of stature that already had begun.”

In the Daily News (January 23), E.R. Shipp: “Except for the [National] Enquirer [which broke the story], he’d have gone on doing the preacherly thing: living a lie and getting away with it. . . . He has no moral authority. He has no basis for beseeching us to lend an ear. And we will suffer all the more for that.”

Michael Meyers—head of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, assistant to Roy Wilkins when he headed the NAACP, and an outspoken New York Civil Liberties Union board member—wrote in the January 23 New York Post:

“All there is is hubris, chutzpah, and largesse—the kind that keeps coming to Jesse Jackson as long as this civil rights dinosaur keeps hope alive for himself. . . . It’s the media that anointed Jackson as the designated spokesman for blacks—and it’s mostly guilt-ridden white people, including the nervous Nellie chieftains of Wall Street, who fund him.”

A non-guilt-ridden white columnist, Marjorie Williams, wrote in the January 24 Washington Post that “a 1998 Conference on African American Fathers at Morehouse College urged civil rights organizations to recognize a crisis in African American fatherhood, and resolved that ‘reversing the trend of father absence must rise to the top of the agenda for African Americans and the nation.’ ”

Williams continued: “And Jackson has spoken to the issue in the past, both as a leader and as the son of an unmarried, 16-year-old mother. ‘Every child,’ Jackson has said, ‘has a vacuum in his soul the shape of the father.’ ”

The Reverend Jackson, however, is hardly bereft of support from certain black scholars. A January 28 online report by Scott Fornek and Curtis Lawrence of the Chicago Sun-Times began:

“The Reverend Jesse L. Jackson may not win any awards as the nation’s most faithful husband, but [he] is still the top black leader in America.”

The Chicago Sun-Times had received responses from 17 “African American academics and intellectuals across the nation” who were asked to name “the nation’s top five black leaders.”

The Reverend Jackson topped the list, followed by NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Minister Louis Farrakhan, and the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Voting for Jackson was Darlene Clark Hine, professor of American history at Michigan State University. “You know he is committed. He has rhetorical style and the ability to mobilize people.”

Said Charles P. Henry, chairman of African American studies at the University of California at Berkeley: “Jesse Jackson is still the best known leader by far. No one has stepped forward to claim the role of president of Black America, as some people like to put it.”

Dissenting from the question itself was William H. Gray III, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund: “I think this is a game played by folk to limit the growth of black leadership, so I’ve always been offended by it. I am against the concept, and I find it offensive at best and racist at worst. It’s an insulting premise that implies blacks can only have one, two, three, or five leaders.”

And the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Illinois state representative Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) “thinks that discussion of black leaders, locally or nationally, puts African Americans on shaky ground, leading to the view that there is only one black voice.”

Ruminating about the Reverend Jackson’s odds for remaining “the president of black America,” The Economist (January 27) speculated: “It is probably time to make room at the podium for a new generation of black leaders. Where are they?”

Next week: some answers to that question.

A footnote: If you believe in free speech, you ought not to support WBAI-FM with your contributions under the present management.