Why Obama should reconcile with Rev. Jesse Jackson

OPINION - President Obama should embrace the legacy and wisdom of Rev. Jackson--and so should the rest of us...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Say what you want about Rev. Jesse Jackson, but the value of his legacy cannot be denied. Few have made the sacrifices Jackson has made, and few can match his historical significance when it comes to America’s quest for equality and civil rights. Every politician or American citizen who wishes to question the methods by which Jackson achieves his objectives need only compare his record to their own. Most politicians can’t say that they nearly died in order to serve their constituencies, but Jesse Jackson can certainly make such a statement.

What is important to understand about the legacy of Rev. Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and others is that most of what we know about these men has been presented through the lens of an American media construct that is conditioned to project negative imagery of black men. Therefore, when Bill Clinton has an affair, he’s just another philandering politician. When Jesse Jackson has an affair, he is considered unfit to lead. When Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Harry Reid say racially insensitive things about Obama, it becomes water under the bridge. When Rev. Jackson slips and makes a televised error, some have the audacity to argue that he is no longer relevant. The decision by some to toss out black leadership in exchange for a black president becomes mind boggling in light of the fact that our black president has made it abundantly clear that he has almost no interest in pursuing targeted advocacy for the African-American community.

I remember getting a call from Rev. Jackson the day after his fateful slip on Fox News during the 2008 presidential campaign. I don’t need to remind you of what happened, since the mere imagery of his statement is enough to make you wince. Rev. Jackson immediately apologized for his comments and gave an intelligent and thoughtful statement about the conditions of the urban poor and how they should not be ignored by the White House. He also noted that the White House is almost always willing to discuss policy implications for nearly every special interest group in America, but the unique challenges of the African-American community are consistently left off the agenda. Although I didn’t feel that Rev. Jackson owed me an apology, I immediately forgave him and put his mistake into context. I know that Rev. Jackson’s hurtful words toward Barack Obama were no different from the kinds of words being used behind closed doors by political figures every single day.

Do you remember when Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, stated that a proposal made by liberal Democrats was “F—ing retarded,” offending all special needs citizens across America? In spite of Rev. Jackson’s exclusion from the Obama administration’s circle of advisers, he has handled the disrespect with the grace and dignity of a seasoned public figure. In the dozens of times I’ve appeared on Rev. Jackson’s radio show, I have never once heard him say one negative word about President Obama. In fact, Rev. Jackson advocated for Obama long before anyone even knew his name. He supported Obama when he didn’t have to and backed him because it was the right thing to do.

Given that several prominent figures on Capitol Hill have been guilty of embarrassing slips of the tongue, why in the world have we allowed President Obama to symbolically castrate and isolate one of the leading black political figures in American history?

Even the great Ted Kennedy was forgiven for years of Tiger Woods-esque personal misgivings, since Americans were able to disassociate Kennedy’s private life from Kennedy’s legislating. Have we decided that we no longer need Jesse Jackson? Do we allow one stellar 5-year political run and access to the White House to undermine forty years of dedicated service to those who have no voice? None of us, in good conscience, should be able to sign off on such a misguided choice, and President Obama should be made aware of that.

The source of the double standard in Obama’s ability to forgive is the issue of power. Harry Reid, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and others can disrespect the president, embarrass him and attack him in racially-underhanded ways because President Obama has acknowledged the significance of these individuals. Given that many are advocating for a post-racial America, which we now know to be a silly concept, orchestrating the political death of Rev. Jesse Jackson is the most direct way to pursue that objective.

I am not sure how much President Obama rules with his head versus his heart. I am also not certain how important the African-American agenda coincides with Obama’s. Understanding Obama is no longer about judging the man; instead, it’s about grasping the complexity of an office that is tainted with policy-makers and advisors who could care less about civil rights issues. It’s about balancing Obama’s psyche with the constituency to which he has become beholden, as well as the Republicans who are committed to obstructing his progress. Most significantly, it’s about understanding how the president balances his broader political legacy with the legacy of doing what’s right.

If the president wants to do what’s right, he will invite Rev. Jesse Jackson to the White House. If he can have a beer with a cop and a professor over a domestic dispute, then the president can break bread with a man who has put his life on the line to clear the path for him to be in power today. President Obama doesn’t have to be Jackson’s buddy or political ally; he should only give him the respect of an elder statesman who has faithfully served the community that helped get him into the Oval Office. Again, say what you want about Jesse Jackson, since we all know that the man is not perfect. But he is no more imperfect and far more significant, intelligent, capable and brave than any of our leaders in Washington.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit BoyceWatkins.com>