Jesse Jackson Sr. has turned 65, and his birthday coincides with his four decades of service to the civil rights movement. Jackson's birthday is a good time to step back and reflect on his lifelong dedication.
As a community, we're pretty brutal in our critique of men and women in public life. We laugh at their foibles, note their voracious craving for publicity and are especially critical when they hop from issue to issue or press conference to press conference, with no follow-up in sight. When you're a public figure, that's all considered fair game.
But we shouldn't stop there.
At some point, we should also express our admiration and gratitude to those who spurn lucrative careers in the private sector to keep the spotlight shining on the seemingly intractable issues of racism, unequal education, inadequate housing, unemployment and criminal injustice. They are the ones, in Jackson's words, who keep hope alive.
Love him or loathe him — or something in between — it is undeniable that Jesse Louis Jackson has spent his entire adult life at the forefront of the battles over civil rights. After leaving the seminary to participate in the Selma-to-Montgomery March that paved the way for passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Jackson has been on the case. In some respects, he has been ahead of his time.
During his 1984 presidential campaign, he often talked about how asinine it was for the United States to have a "no talk" policy toward its most ardent enemies. Talking to one another provided no guarantee that differences would be settled, Jackson argued, but not talking forestalls any likelihood that parties can set aside their differences. Today, more than two decades later, we're in an imbroglio with North Korea and, like some spoiled kid, we refuse to talk to their leaders. George W. Bush still misunderstands what Jackson understood in 1984.
Journalists covering Jackson's maiden campaign were provided an experience that would also prove to be valuable years later. When Jackson took his low-budget national campaign to New Orleans, we did not head for Bourbon Street. Instead, he took us to the Desire housing project. As a person who grew up in public housing in Tuscaloosa, Ala., I had not seen the likes of poverty and suffering in Desire. So when Americans were shocked to learn last year that poverty was so widespread there, Jesse Jackson had already made that point clear to us during his campaign.
Right-wing critics often accuse Jackson of expecting too much from the federal government. His is a generation that understood that the federal government, especially for those living in the segregated South, was the government of last resort. But they miss a larger and perhaps more important point: Jackson is extremely traditional and, over the years, he has exhorted students to turn off the TV and get turned on to studying.
Rather than bemoaning race-based White voting patterns, he has challenged African Americans to increase their voter registration and participation. More than Black conservatives, he has practiced self-help. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rainbow/ PUSH, the National Urban League and the NAACP are all self-help organizations. Conservatives don't have a monopoly on self-help.
Finally, as you lift a toast to Jesse Jackson this weekend, lift one for his courage. I have heard death threats against him relayed over police radios. I know about the hate mail he receives and I know the sacrifices the Jackson family has made to allow Jesse to be Jesse. And while he and I have disagreed on some issues in the past and will probably do so again in the future, I've never questioned his commitment.
It's time to step back and say to Jesse Jackson: Thanks for your unselfish service. We're all the better for it.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.