Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jesse Jackson: Barack Obama is 'anchor guy' in 54-year relay

[Editor's Note: Make no mistake folks. Without Rev. Jackson's Rainbow Presidential Campaigns of 1984 and 1988, there would be no Barack Obama campaign today. The Obama campaign is carrying the torch from not only Rev. Jackson, but from other courageous pioneers such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Harold Washingtion and David Dinkins. Obama is a towering figure because he's standing on the shoulders of giants. Keep Hope Alive! -- Paul B]

August 21, 2008
By M.E. SPRENGELMEYER Scripps Howard News Service

CHICAGO — It takes the Rev. Jesse Jackson 10 1/2 minutes just to get warmed up.

He enters the studio dressed head-to-toe in black. He has black history on his mind, too.
So when Jackson sits behind a desk and begins an hour-long interview, he doesn’t wait for the first question before launching into a detailed monologue that can’t be interrupted.

Sen. Barack Obama’s climb up ‘‘the mountaintop’’ is the history of the civil rights movement from 1954 to the present, Jackson says, and he thinks it’s sad that much of that journey isn’t being depicted by current media coverage of the campaign.

In Jackson’s mind, Obama is the last runner, ‘‘the anchor guy,’’ in a relay race that began before he was born.

Think back to 1954, Jackson says, and the U.S. Supreme Court decision that finally outlawed ‘‘race supremacy’’ — the so-called ‘‘separate but equal.’’ Don’t forget Emmett Till, whose brutal lynching the next year so shocked the national conscience that it inspired the likes of Rosa Parks and began turning the tide, he says.

Jackson says we can’t forget the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. nor Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964, she was ‘‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’’ and pried open the doors to the Democratic National Convention for delegates of all colors.
Don’t forget all the little steps it took to open up the process for women, for young people, for immigrant voters and others, he says.

And, yes, Jackson adds, don’t forget what he had to go through in 1984 and 1988 to make the idea of a black presidential contender more than just a novelty.

‘‘This year, what one sees, is the blossoming of trees planted in ’84 and ’88,’’ he says.
It’s an elder statesman’s attempt to make sure his generation’s contributions aren’t lost in the new generation’s success.

‘‘I wanted to make sure the media saw this not just as a three-year race with a phenomenal guy, but a 54-year race with a phenomenal guy,’’ he says.

Jackson goes on to praise Obama at every turn. He says he grew emotional when he was traveling in Africa and heard the news that Obama, whose father was African and mother was a white woman from Kansas, had reached the magic number of delegates to clinch the nomination.
‘‘Within his body is the DNA of reconciliation. That is the key to the kingdom . . . the healing, closing the gap,’’ Jackson says. ‘‘And I just took a deep breath after I cried, because I knew it was the last lap of a 54-year race.’’

As Jackson speaks, an assistant is rolling his own videotape. Why? Because at that point, in mid-June, Jackson already felt he had been burned by his own comments that he says were taken out of context.

Various online sources speculated about generational friction, envy or strained relations between the 66-year-old Jackson and the 47-year-old Obama.

Already, a South Carolina newspaper had quoted Jackson saying Obama was ‘‘acting like he is white’’ for not speaking out more forcefully about the arrest of six black juveniles in Jena, La., on murder charges. (Jackson later said he did not remember the particular comment, but did repeat some of the general criticism.)

Nothing so controversial surfaced in the Rocky’s interview in mid-June. But then, a few weeks later, during a break from a Fox News interview, Jackson was caught on a live microphone whispering to a fellow guest that he thought Obama was ‘‘talking down to black people’’ with his talk about faith-based initiatives. He added a now infamous line about taking a knife to Obama.

Jackson was ripped and ridiculed from far and wide. Even his own son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., distanced himself. Commentators accused Jackson of being motivated by envy — a notion he later told CNN was ‘‘ridiculous.’’

The network even posed the question to viewers: ‘‘Has Jesse Jackson become irrelevant?’’
Although Jackson had nothing but kind words about Obama, he made one thing perfectly clear:
That the path Obama took on the way to the nomination was far smoother than the campaign trail he had blazed.

‘‘This has been a victory for Barack and his family because they have run a very astute, smart, well-thought-through campaign,’’ he says. ‘‘It was a victory for the civil rights struggle because the fruits of our labors have produced the platform from which he could be launched and win. And it’s a victory for America. This is a redemptive moment for America. It’s a transformative moment.’’

And, he insists, people must not forget when it began.

Chicago has long been Jesse Jackson’s kind of town.

It’s where the South Carolina native first began his theological studies. It’s where he founded Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) in 1971.

Chicago is where a contentious mayoral election in 1983 brought division within the old racial coalitions of the Democratic Party and ultimately prompted Jackson to run for president in protest.

The city was home base for Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988.
Afterward, Chicago is where Jackson settled into his role as a Democratic Party elder and tried to play a unifying role in the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

That year, as a relatively tranquil convention washed away lingering memories of the city’s 1968 smackdown, Jackson set aside his own anger over President Clinton’s signing of a controversial welfare reform bill. He made a speech urging other skeptical liberals to rally behind the president — something that angered some of his own followers.

It was ‘‘an imperfect choice,’’ and the alternatives, fighting or staying home, would have helped Republicans, he says. ‘‘And I felt that the value of keeping the party together was worth the hit that we took,’’ he says. ‘‘You can agree to disagree, but there’s a higher prize.’’

Chicago still is home to Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. From a Hyde Park headquarters, he leads fights on domestic fronts like opposing predatory lending and other urban woes, and he uses it as a base for international work, particularly in Africa.

But now there’s an even more famous resident in the neighborhood: Sen. Barack Obama.
Media trucks, Secret Service vehicles and parades of tourists now roll down the streets a few blocks away from Jackson’s long-time headquarters, checking out the residence of what could be the first black man to live in the White House.

Make no mistake. The Rev. Jesse Jackson always knew that was not going to be him.

Some people don’t know the genesis of Jackson’s first run for president in 1984.
It started with a contentious mayoral election in 1983, when Jackson and other African-American community leaders rallied behind Congressman Harold Washington to become Chicago’s first black mayor.

Black mayors had been elected all over the country, but not yet in Chicago. Washington was taking on incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, the son of the legendary former mayor.

Jackson and others were angered when prominent white Democrats came to Chicago supporting the white candidates, ignoring ‘‘please don’t’’ telegrams signed by 100 local community leaders, Jackson says. Former Vice President Walter Mondale backed Daley and Sen. Ted Kennedy backed Byrne.

‘‘They were our liberal allies. We assumed that once we made a great break politically, they would be with us,’’ Jackson remembers. ‘‘But once we moved to self-determination, a number of our allies backed up. They wanted to represent us, not be our partners in politics.’’

Washington won, largely with the help of a black-Hispanic coalition. But racial divisions remained. A number of black ministers and other leaders met and decided to send a message in the 1984 presidential election.

‘‘I said, ’Somebody has to run,’ and in the meantime the crowds around ’Run, Jesse, run!’ kept getting louder and louder,’’ he says.

It was about sending a message that a key Democratic constituency would not be taken for granted. But it wasn’t about winning, Jackson says

‘‘We didn’t really believe we could win,’’ he says. ‘‘Except running was winning.

‘‘Registering voters was winning. Bringing in new people was winning. Learning how to run a convention on the floor was winning. Having our own trailer was winning. Having access to the mic was winning. Having access to the national press corps was winning. Having our issues on the front line was winning. So we began to define winning in many long-range terms.’’

Jackson remembers the ‘‘culture shock phenomenon’’ he faced on one of those early trips to the first caucus state of Iowa, where he knew some people in the crowds were there to see the ‘‘spectacle’’ of a black candidate.

He tried to tell a group of white farmers how they had more in common with inner-city blacks than they might imagine.

‘‘You look through the TV lens and you see blacks in . . . Chicago unemployed. You think they are lazy; they don’t want to work,’’ Jackson said. ‘‘They came to work. The jobs left . . .They see you through the TV lens, you’re not working, they think you’re getting a subsidy because you feel privileged. You get a subsidy because the big farmers, corporate farmers, took your farm. You guys have an awful lot in common.’’

After the speech, a white farmer approached Jackson, he recalls.

‘‘The farmer said to me, ’You know, we hear what you’re saying and we think you’re right. We’re just not there yet . . .’ ‘‘ Jackson says.

Jackson knew in 1984 that the country wasn’t ready for someone like him to be president. ‘‘And we shook hands. I embraced their children. I kissed their children,’’ he says. ‘‘Their children, 24 years later, are there now because of a cultural transformation in our society, because America is becoming more mature, less anxious, less reactive on the question of race and gender.’’
In that 1984 race, ‘‘people begin to get used to seeing a person of color on that stage debating these issues,’’ Jackson says.

He remembers being approached by the organizer of one campaign forum and told, ‘‘We’re glad you’re in, but if you don’t want to be in tomorrow night, you don’t have to be, because we’re going to debate foreign policy.’’

The implication: That a black candidate was only interested in ‘‘urban’’ issues.

‘‘But,’’ he told them, ‘‘you know, we came here on foreign policy. Slavery was a foreign policy . . . It was a bigger foreign and trade policy than was banking and insurance. I understand foreign policy maybe the best.’’

It was the kind of ‘‘culture shock’’ that seems archaic in 2008, when a Democratic candidate forum got little voter interest if Obama wasn’t on the stage.

In 1984, and then in 1988 when Jackson doubled his previous showing, earned 1,250 delegates and had the clout to influence Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ platform, ‘‘I knew that in time we could break through these ancient cultural barriers,’’ Jackson says.

Jackson uses that plural pronoun, ‘‘we,’’ regardless of whatever strained relations people perceive between him and Obama.

Both before and after his now-infamous, ‘‘hot mic’’ blasts about Obama, Jackson is emotional when imagining the scene on Aug. 28, 2008, when the nominee is scheduled to take the stage and formally accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

‘‘Aug. 28, 1955: Emmett Till lynched. A very low moment in American history; really state-sanctioned terror,’’ Jackson says.

‘‘Aug. 28, 1963: Dr. King speaks in Washington about a dream, a dream beyond the predicament of that day, to end apartheid . . . Aug. 28, 2008: Barack will be nominated in Denver, nominee of the Democratic Party for the presidency. What a growth in a country.’’It’s a history that the older man thinks the young man must embrace.

At the convention, ‘‘Well, you know, clearly he must acknowledge this is a high point in America’s struggle to make this a more perfect union. It’s a time to heal the breach,’’ he says.

Many analysts attribute Obama’s success to his ability to ‘‘transcend’’ the old racial politics.
His toughest moments of the campaign came when his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, injected controversial, highly racial overtones into his sermons and speeches. In July, when Jackson’s ‘‘hot-mic’’ whispers about Obama dominated a 24-hour cable news cycle, some said it actually helped the nominee gain even greater distance from an old-school activist who has alienated many white voters for years.

No matter. Whatever he might be saying when he thinks the microphones are off, Jackson publicly points to Obama as the man who’s at the pinnacle of that civil rights struggle now.‘‘There’s unfinished business. I (am) not at all romantic about the structural inequality and the gaps yet to be closed and the healing that must take place. But we’re getting there,’’ Jackson says. ‘‘I think that what Barack must show is that, from the vantage point of that mountaintop, how to get all of us into that promised land . . .’’

No comments: