Former Rainbow PUSH Coalition staff Tommy Bennett has quite a story to tell. In a complaint filed with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations last year, Bennett — also known as “Aruba Tommy” — unleashes a torrent of salacious charges against Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. and the organization he founded in 1971.
The truth is Rev. Jackson is nobody’s saint. Sadly, I cannot recall a time when any remotely lucid person anywhere would have been surprised to find Jackson at the center of controversy, especially with allegations of sexual impropriety. Rev. Jackson’s travels and travails with the fairer sex have long been rumored and documented. For me, Rev. Jackson’s sex life is between him, his wife, his pharmacist and whatever God he chooses to serve.
Working with Rainbow PUSH, as I did briefly over a decade ago, is certainly no cakewalk. The work is hard, the hours grueling. Your meager paycheck — when you can cash it — is padded with a feeling of “goodwill” for serving your community.
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For the record, Rev. Jackson never once flirted with me. But, I’ve witnessed him say and do things that were not in keeping with what we should be able to expect of another human being — let alone someone claiming the mantel progressive and black leadership. He can be crass and insensitive, self serving and self absorbed. That much is not in dispute.
Check the entry for “shortcomings” in the dictionary and you’ll almost certainly find Rev. Jackson’s photo.
However, for decades, it had been Rev. Jackson carrying our water to the White House and into corporate boardrooms. We could count on him to lug those buckets across bridges, avenues and dirt roads — if need be — all in an effort to ensure justice was present, especially if there were cameras around.
I first met Rev. Jesse Jackson nearly 30 years ago. Back then I was a skinny schoolgirl, no more than 80 pounds, with bright eyes and big dreams. My older cousin, a 6 foot 5 high school basketball stand out, hoisted me onto his shoulders and together we waded through the sea of students that packed the gym that day. Rev. Jackson spotted us immediately and waved us center stage.
I stood there, shaking in my sandals, as Rev. Jackson lowered the microphone and began asking questions about my schoolwork, my after school study habits and my plans for college. And then there was his next question. “What do you want to be when you grow up young lady?”
“President!” I said, proudly.
It was 1983. A few weeks later, Jackson announced he was running for president of the United States. “He stole my idea!” I told my mother. She grinned and said, “I’m sure Rev. Jackson had that in his head before he stepped foot in East St. Louis. Nobody comes here unless they want something.”
Until today, I had all but forgotten about that story. And many of us, at least in recent years, had forgotten about Jesse. Last week, as the country debated the absence and necessity of a black agenda, I was wrestling with a question of my own.
Where is Jesse?
You see, somewhere along the way, Jackson’s buckets sprang a leak. And many believe Rev. Jackson had just enough water left to enrich himself, his family and closest confidants. That behavior and a string of embarrassing comments about President Obama got him locked out of the White House and out of the national discourse on race, gender and opportunity.
Here’s what I do believe.
Homophobia is one of the most distasteful aspects of African-American life. Our collective inability to embrace our brothers and sisters who happen to be gay, lesbian, transgendered or queer, is not only heartbreaking its harmful. The halls of Rainbow PUSH are no more immune to discriminatory behavior based on sexual orientation than the Catholic Church is immune to pedophilia. The idea that Bennett might have faced a hostile work environment because he is gay and that Rev. Jackson did nothing about it isn’t far-fetched. It isn’t hard to believe that staffers might have refused to include a table and literature about the LGBT community at organization events. Rev. Jackson openly cursing a staffer in a meeting? No surprise there either. Ushering mistresses in and out of hotel rooms? I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked.
In fact, if any of those allegations prove true, they represent another damning indictment on what’s left the Jackson legacy. That’s what this story should be about. Furthermore, the fact that there are no federal laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation is an indictment on us as a country. It’s says bigotry is still alive, well and welcome in America and, if Bennett can be believed, inside what was once of the nation’s most revered civil rights organizations.
Wild accusations of late night sexual propositions only serve to discredit Bennett. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but simply improbable.
No one deserves the kind of treatment Bennett and his lawyers describe in his complaint. And maybe we all deserved something better from Rev. Jackson over the years. The jury is still out on both.