The conservative legal activist group Judicial Watch is absolutely giddy with delight at the chance to pound the Rev. Jesse Jackson. They denounce him as a charlatan and scam artist who uses civil rights activism as a cover to shamelessly shake down corporations. In the process, they say, he and a handful of cronies — and even family members — have become rich.
The revelations about Jackson's business dealings were made during a civil suit in Los Angeles a few months back. The jury did not find Jackson guilty of any wrongdoing.
But Judicial Watch, which bankrolled the legal action, got what it wanted — namely, dirt on Jackson. Judicial Watch specializes in digging up muck on government agencies that abuse their power. But mostly, the group hammers liberals and Democrats for their political foibles. If Judicial Watch can malign, impugn and discredit Jackson as a two-bit race hustler, the inference is that other civil rights advocates are also con artists who rake in big bucks off of civil rights activism.
This, of course, is an overblown slander. Judicial Watch's hard conservative politics makes it a lousy messenger to sound a warning about corrupt civil rights leaders, but it doesn't totally discredit the message.
Jackson and other top civil rights leaders are mostly middle-class business and professional persons. Their agenda and top-down style of leadership is at times remote, and often wildly out of step with the needs of poor and working-class Blacks. They often approach tough public policy issues such as the astronomical Black imprisonment rates, the dreary plight of poor Black women, Black homelessness, Black-on-Black crime and violence, the drug crisis, gang warfare and school vouchers with a strange blend of caution and wariness.
They keep counsel only with those Black ministers, politicians and professional and business leaders whom they consider legitimate and will blindly march in lockstep with their program. Mainstream civil rights organizations have transformed civil rights advocacy from the in-your-face activism of years past into a corporate-style competitive business where success is measured by piling up political favors and corporate dollars.
The profound shift in the method and style of Black leadership began in the 1970s. With the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the collapse of the traditional civil rights organizations and the destruction and co-option of militant activist groups, mainstream Black leaders did a sharp turn. They quickly defined the Black agenda as starting more and better businesses, grabbing more spots in corporations and universities, electing more Democrats, buying bigger and more expensive homes, taking more luxury vacations and gaining admission into more country clubs.
They launched a frenzied campaign to establish themselves as the leaders of record for African Americans. Their reward was more business and construction contracts, foundation grants, corporate contributions to their fund-raising campaigns, banquets, scholarship funds and training programs. To keep the corporate dollars and political favors flowing smoothly, mainstream Black leaders keep a tight monopoly on leadership.
They hold endless meetings where they pat themselves on the back with awards, plaques and testimonials. This enables them to cut front- and back-room deals, broker legislation and hatch schemes with politicians and business leaders on behalf of Black communities — and along the way some have parlayed that into a mother lode of personal riches.
Their penchant is to pick low-risk, high-profile issues that get media attention, celebrity endorsements and political prestige. These issues do not offend governors, mayors, city councilors, state and federal officials, corporate leaders and bankers.
This is in stark contrast to the leadership style of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights leaders of days past. That style was egalitarian, hands-on and in the trenches. King always kept a careful eye on the needs of poor and working-class Blacks. He was a selfless leader who never made a nickel from his civil rights activism. He would be appalled at the cash fetish of many prominent Blacks, especially those that are hailed as Black America's leading political and civil rights leaders.
Jackson has fearlessly pushed the envelope the past two decades on many civil rights issues, and more often than not he's been on the side of the angels on these issues. That's what makes Jackson fair game for Judicial Watch's hatchet job. He is and remains Black America's top-gun civil rights advocate, not to mention its most visible and prominent media presence.
Judicial Watch probably got it right about Jackson's civil rights wealth. But that says less about the disgrace of Jackson making profit off of activism than it says about the fact that activism could be reduced to a business in the first place.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.