Jesse Jackson, MLK and Malcolm X: Civil rights dynasties in shambles

Opinion

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In this May 9, 1988 file photo, then Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, center, poses for pictures with sons Jesse Jr., left, and Jonathan, after they graduated from North Carolina A&T, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File)

In this May 9, 1988 file photo, then Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, center, poses for pictures with sons Jesse Jr., left, and Jonathan, after they graduated from North Carolina A&T, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File)

With the imprisonment of former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s historic march on Washington, it seems that the children of civil rights icons are not in the best of shape these days.

In fact they are, well, a hot mess, and appearing more like fodder for a reality show than material worthy of the history books.

The most recent example of civil rights families’ fall from grace is that of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.  The senior Jackson reached the height of his influence and power 25 years ago this summer, when he delivered his stirring “Keep Hope Alive” speech at the Democratic National Convention.

What a difference 25 years makes

That year, Jackson had waged a most successful campaign for president, winning 6.9 million votes, seven primaries and six caucuses, with a multiracial “rainbow coalition” and significant white support.

“All of us – all of us who are here think that we are seated. But we’re really standing on someone’s shoulders.  Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Rosa Parks. The mother of the civil rights movement,” said Jackson at the 1988 convention in Atlanta. “My right and my privilege to stand here before you has been won, won in my lifetime, by the blood and the sweat of the innocent.”

Jackson also reflected on the sacrifices made by the martyrs of the civil rights movement: “Many were lost in the struggle for the right to vote: Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young student, gave his life; Viola Liuzzo, a white mother from Detroit, called ni**er lover, had her brains blown out at point blank range; [Michael] Schwerner, [Andrew] Goodman and [James] Chaney – two Jews and a black – found in a common grave, bodies riddled with bullets in Mississippi; the four darling little girls in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. They died that we might have a right to live.”

But 25 years later, Rev. Jackson’s son, Jesse Jackson Jr.—a former Congressman fallen from grace—and Jesse Jr.’s wife, Sandi, are headed to federal prison for misspending $750,000 in campaign funds on such personal items such as TVs, a $43,000 Rolex watch, fur coats, restaurant dinners, and others.  Jackson Jr. will spend 2.5 years behind bars, with three years of supervised release, and Sandi Jackson will spend a year on lockdown.

King family squabbles take center stage

How the civil rights community went from being arrested for acts of Jim Crow-era civil disobedience to landing in federal prison over a Rolex watch is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, looking at the progeny of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, one can only express a sense of disappointment over the squandered opportunities this family has had to carry the torch from their parents.  Much of that time, in public at least, has been wasted on squabbling.

The family is so divided, apparently, that they are holding separate events to commemorate their father’s March on Washington.

Youngest daughter Bernice King, also head of the King Center, came under criticism recently for saying that her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.”