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.