The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is peeved that Martin Luther King Jr.'s chronicler, Taylor Branch, revealed that King regarded him as an egoist and opportunist.
Branch made the charge in At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968. He claimed that after a stormy meeting in Memphis shortly before his assassination, the Rev. King shouted at Jackson that he wanted to carve out his own niche in society and was only interested in doing his own thing.
Jackson has a right to be incensed at Branch. The revelation comes decades after King's death, and Jackson did not have a chance to refute the accusation. But Jackson's ire and the charge's propriety aside, the flap points up the glaring contrast in objectives, style and even personal motives between King, Jackson and other mainstream Black leaders.
King's style of leadership was egalitarian, hands-on and in the trenches, and he 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, glitter and bling fetish of prominent Blacks. He would have been aghast at the money squabble within his own family over the King Center's fate.
King also would have recoiled at the frantic maneuver of some Black leaders to command center stage at press conferences, get their pictures and quotes in the media and put their spin on racial issues. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is a textbook example of that penchant. He grabbed headlines by claiming Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment to Blacks for their allegedly profligate ways. A shamefaced Nagin later apologized, but he got his camera action.
Nagin's shoot-from-the lip quips were no different than how other telegenic leaders operate. Jackson's media grabbing hit-and-run style of leadership has long been geared to burnish his image and credentials as a humanitarian, religious leader and peace advocate. This instantly boosts his stature as media hero and strengthens his standing as Black America's main — if not only — man.
That's now more important than ever to Jackson. In the past few years his standing as the supreme Black leader has taken a severe pounding with the scandal over his out-of-wedlock child, allegations of financial profiteering from his civil rights actions and the ever-present charge that he is a crass opportunist who relentlessly chases TV cameras and microphones.
In years past, King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and other mainstream Black organizations relied on the nickels and dimes of poor and working-class Blacks for their support. This gave them complete independence and a solid constituency to mount powerful campaigns for jobs, better housing, quality schools and against police abuse.
The profound shift in the method and style of Black leadership began tragically enough, with the murder of King, the collapse of legal segregation in the 1960s, the class divisions that imploded within Black America and the greening of the Black middle-class. By the close of the 1960s, the civil rights movement had spent itself. The torrent of demonstrations, sit-ins, marches and civil rights legislation annihilated the legal wall of segregation.
Branch may have been picky, gossipy and uneven unfair in airing King's criticism of Jackson. But when Jackson and today's Black leaders turn leadership into a corporate-style competitive business in which success is measured by piling up political favors and corporate dollars, they leave themselves wide open to that criticism.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.