Over the weekend, as most of us prepared to get the first full week of 2014 started, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. reunited with U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Robert Goodman, whom he helped free thirty years ago in 1984 after he was shot down in Syrian-controlled Lebanon.
At the time, many were skeptical of Jackson traveling to Syria to negotiate Goodman’s freedom. Time titled their January 9, 1984 article “An Act of Dubious Diplomacy: Jesse Jackson Goes to Syria,” after Jackson returned with Goodman on January 4.
Surprising many, Jackson negotiated the release of Goodman, who is also African-American, in the midst of his first historic run for the presidency. While it is not at all uncommon for presidential hopefuls to make international trips to beef up their foreign policy gravitas, few, if any, actually succeed in accomplishing anything. Incredibly, Jackson, who had no discernible direct ties to Syria’s leadership when he embarked on the mission, reportedly prompted by a personal plea from Goodman’s mother, eventually met directly with Syrian president Hafez Assad.
Jackson’s success was so stunning that he, along with Goodman, were invited by President Ronald Reagan to the White House. Reagan, The New York Times reported, praised Jackson. “Reverend Jackson’s mission,” he said, “was a personal mission of mercy and he has earned our gratitude and our admiration.” For Jackson, such acknowledgment, while befitting, was also a coup for a man gunning to make the White House his primary residency for the next four years.
That foreign policy victory is credited with boosting Jackson’s run, which resulted in him winning five primaries and caucuses, along with more than 18 percent of the overall vote. In that contest, he came in third for the Democratic nomination, which went to Walter Mondale, who, of course, lost the general election to Reagan in a massive landslide.
And while Jackson’s 1988 presidential run failed to land him in the White House, his foreign policy successes, continued to pile up: shortly after Goodman’s release, Jackson negotiated the release of 22 Americans in Cuba; prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he got Saddam Hussein to release hostages there; during the 1999 war in Kosovo, he managed to get captured POWs in the former Yugoslavia freed.
Yet, for all his accomplishments, his only official appointment came from President Bill Clinton as Special Envoy for the President and the Secretary of State for the promotion of democracy in Africa in 1997. Somehow, despite a stellar track record, his foreign policy successes are widely ignored or, worse yet, viewed as flukes. Slate.com ran a piece, “How Does Jesse Jackson Do It,” in 1999 that, in many ways, reflects this view. In the brief article, a few logistics of how he managed to secure entry into some countries, even noting how he got to Iraq on press credentials, are mentioned, as well as how he obtained his visa to Belgrade through Serbian-American Rep. Rod Blagojevich, who then served alongside his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress.
What is rarely, if ever acknowledged, is how Jackson’s background in the civil rights movement, especially in the 1960s, has contributed greatly to his success in the foreign policy arena. Many Americans, political analysts and historians even, fail to note the international impact the widely celebrated social revolution had. Speak to some leaders who have struggled and struggle for freedom and equality in their own respective parts of the world and most reference the Martin Luther King, Jr. as a key influence.
During the 1970s, Jackson traveled extensively throughout Africa, to which both Syria and Lebanon are closely tied. Africa itself is a continent filled with numerous countries with relationships that truly span the globe and Jackson has been honing his there for decades. Although the United States may have underestimated those relationships in the past, Jackson has always treasured them, along with many of his black activist colleagues.
Perhaps more undervalued than all is the power of black American Christianity. Because most journalists and political analysts lack a true understanding of the depth of the “black church” beyond big cities like Chicago and New York City or rural cities like Selma and Birmingham, they are unaware that many black Christians have been traveling abroad for years. Black churches, like white churches, have long nurtured foreign relationships, be it their congregations financially contributing to various missions and charities, especially aimed at aiding women and children, or their pastors and other high-ranking church officials taking trips abroad. Missionary work and foreign exchange is central to many black churches and, the more high-profile the spiritual leader, it is almost assured that he has traveled outside the U.S. extensively.
Jesse Jackson, like the rest of us, is far from perfect. His stumbles have been well-documented. However, one thing that the thirtieth anniversary of his successful negotiation of U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Robert Goodman’s release forces us all to confront is that he has indeed contributed to the public good on many fronts. Although his motives have been questioned often, his results are undeniable.
Ultimately, even if one dislikes Rev. Jesse Jackson, his record as a citizen who has gone beyond the call of duty for his country and his fellow Americans cannot be debated. Ask the families of Goodman and the countless other Americans he has miraculously played a significant role in freeing. For that, he truly deserves not just a medal but our respect.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.