These days, Jackson, Sr.’s legacy is even more clouded. His offensive comments about then presidential candidate Barack Obama resonated across black America. And like anti-Obama commentators Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, Jackson has failed to gain a seat at the White House table, while the man considered to be both his chief heir to the mantle of civil rights leadership and his main rival, Sharpton, has gained both media prominence as a prime-time host on MSNBC and coveted White House access.

Jackson has sometimes seemed to struggle for relevancy, while Sharpton’s National Action Network has been at the forefront of events, like the Trayvon Martin case, that have galvanized black America.

Both men have been constantly denounced by conservatives as masterful exploiters of racial resentment, but it is Sharpton who has turned the corner of public opinion, emerging as a popular mainstream voice, particularly among supporters of President Obama, of all races.

And for Jackson, while there have been successes, there have also been odd moments: like his recent praise of Fox News honcho Roger Ailes, who Jackson called “a tough-minded, caring individual,” who is “preparing leaders for the diverse world in which we live.” Jackson made the remarks at a ceremony marking Ailes’ news apprenticeship program, and Ailes told reporters at the same event that he has “kept up a back-channel” to Jackson for years.

It’s the kind of proximity that could raise eyebrows among black Americans, many of whom view Ailes’ Fox News Network as the home of relentlessly anti-Obama commentary.

Yet, the Jackson-Ailes embrace attracted little attention from the black commentariat, including from Smiley and West, who have been unsparing in their criticism of other prominent black figures, including Sharpton, fellow MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, and Professor Michael Eric Dyson, whom the duo have derided as “sell-outs” for their close proximity to the White House.

Jackson, meanwhile, has nurtured media-political access for decades. He hosted a cable show, Both Sides with Jesse Jackson, on CNN from 1992 to 2000, and in late 1997 accepted a post as President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s “Special Envoy of the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa.”

Now, as his son reportedly is attempting to negotiate a plea deal in a federal investigation into his finances, while battling clinical depression, which the congressman cited as the cause of his months-long absence from Washington before finally resigning his seat this month, Jackson Sr. has become the family’s chief spokesman, fending off questions and rumors — about plans to shift Jesse Jr’s wife into the seat, an extramarital affair, and the probe into alleged misuse of campaign funds.

Jackson Jr.’s name surfaced in the U.S. Senate bribery scandal that brought down former governor Rod Blagojevich, but the current probe is thought to be unrelated, though Jackson Sr. also was forced to fend off allegations that he was an “emissary” in a scheme to trade a million-dollar fundraising bonanza for a U.S. Senate appointment for Jesse Jr. The reverend denied the allegations. And though the Blagojevich scandal eventually began to fade away, with it went any talk of Jackson Jr. earning the coveted title of Chicago mayor, a seat won by Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Under the intensity of the negative spotlight, it’s hard to imagine the Jacksons regaining national prominence in the way a young Jesse did more than 30 years ago, when his rhyming exhortations to young black Americans to be proud of themselves, and to picture someone who looked like them in the White House, were priceless pieces of Dr. King’s dream.

The dream of a black president has been realized, by Obama, and it can sometimes seem unclear where Jackson and other leaders of his era fit in.

Perhaps as he tends to family business, Jackson can find a way to be central the national conversation again, and to restore what has been among the most important black family pedigrees.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport