Rev. Jesse Jackson was once the golden child of black American politics, seen by many African-Americans in the 1970s and 80s as the heir to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders of the 1960s, having been appointed by King himself to run the Chicago chapter of Operation Breadbasket for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Jackson survived the whispers that he embellished his story of cradling the bloodied King in his arms on the day of his assassination. He became the second African-American to mount a major campaign for president after Shirley Chisholm.
Jackson’s two runs for the White House inspired millions of black children and adults, who cried “run Jesse, run!” and “win Jesse, win!” as the Rainbow/PUSH founder won an unexpected 450 delegates in 1984, along with 18 percent of the popular Democratic primary vote and a third place finish behind Vice President Walt Mondale and Sen. Gary Hart). He followed that by winning 1200 delegates, doubling his popular vote to 7 million and racking up victories in 11 primaries and caucuses in 1988.
And though Jackson never succeeded in achieving a political office for himself, his son, Jesse Jr., achieved the kind of temporal power that eluded even the King children, getting elected to Congress from Illinois in 1996. When then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama was elected president, Jackson — a national co-chair of Obama’s campaign — was a natural addition to the short list to succeed him.
But through a dramatic turns of events, the Jacksons are at their weakness point politically in decades, and it’s not clear the iconic family will ever recover. Jesse Jr. is resigning from Congress, citing depression but with the potential of a criminal indictment hovering over him. His political career, once expected to include a tenure as mayor of Chicago or perhaps even U.S. senator or president, appears over.
No member of the Jackson clan is likely to run to replace him in Congress. Jesse Sr., once one of the most-sought out figures in Democratic politics, has only a fraction of his former influence. African-Americans look to President Obama for leadership, activists now view the Rev. Al Sharpton as a more important leader, and even in Chicago, Jackson’s presence has waned.
This decline did not come suddenly, as Jackson, Sr. has long faced controversy. During his second presidential run, he refused to sever his support for Louis Farrakhan and came under fire for referring to New York as “Hymietown” (an “off-the-record” comment to a reporter for which he later publicly asked for forgiveness). In the ensuing years, some in the black community questioned whether his anti-corporate activism financially benefited his relatives. And there was the scandal in 2001, in which the reverend admitted fathering a daughter outside his marriage three years earlier.