DENVER – As Barack Obama officially becomes his party's presidential nominee, a great disservice to him – and to national civil rights leaders – is the notion that Obama is somehow in competition with the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
In most instances, this is couched as young Barack Obama has surpassed the outdated race-based politics of the modern Civil Rights Movement. For example, the Chicago Tribune published a front-page story a week ago under the headline: "Jackson eclipsed in the age of Obama."
The story, written by David Greising, said, "Obama's nomination will cap a period of striking change in leadership of the African-American community. And Jackson must adjust in order to remain relevant in the age of Obama."
My longtime friend Rochelle Riley, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, wrote a column under the headline, "It's time for Rev. Jesse Jackson to retire from politics." She noted that when Jackson ran for president, people asked: "What does Jesse want?" Riley wrote her column on the heels of Jackson professing an interest in castrating Obama. She observed, "It's 20 years later, and I don't care what Jesse wants. And neither should America."
First, let's get a grip on reality. Even if Obama wins, that will not mark the end of Black politics, as the New York Times magazine recently proclaimed. Obama is the only African-American serving in the U.S. Senate. In the history of the United States, only two Blacks have ever been elected governor. And if Obama were elected president, the Senate would again be lily-White, as it has been for most of its existence. Sure, Obama's election would be a political milestone, but it would not change the fact that Blacks are underrepresented in politics and everything good and overrepresented in prison and everything bad.
Another flawed argument being advanced in connection with the possible Obama presidency is that his election would prove there is no longer a need for affirmative action and other social programs designed to help level the playing field.
For the record, affirmative action has never been limited to African-Americans. In fact, it can be argued that White women, another oppressed group, have benefited from affirmative action more than Blacks. In addition to women, other protected classes have included the disabled and other ethnic groups. So, to strike down affirmative action solely because a Black man has been elected president shows an ignorance of how the program was designed to work.
No president – not even a Black one – can or should be a substitute for agitating on behalf of people who have been locked out of society. When police shoot unarmed African-Americans in New York City, I want Al Sharpton on the scene. When Black males are being railroaded in Jena, La., I expect Jesse Jackson and SCLC's Charles Steele and NAACP leaders to show up. And while they work from the outside, I want National Urban League President Marc Morial to be working on the inside, making sure that Blacks ascend the ladder of success.
The downside to social activism is that many of your own people undervalue your accomplishments while Whites accuse you of being an ambulance chaser. To the latter, Sharpton says he's not chasing the ambulance – he usually arrives first.
As for Jesse Jackson, he deserves to be roundly criticized for saying he wanted to cut off the private parts of Obama. In addition to being crude, it came across as petty jealousy. Obama has accomplished in 2008 what Jackson failed to do in 1984 and 1988. Moreover, it was Obama who had become the face of change, not Jesse Jackson.
That notwithstanding, we should not ignore the contributions of a person who has devoted his entire adult life to the civil rights struggle. We should not minimize his two presidential runs that paved the way for many Blacks to become elected to office. Nor should we forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appointed Jackson head of Operation Breadbasket to place more emphasis on economic justice. When you tally the pluses and minuses, Jesse Jackson has accumulated far more positives than negatives. That's why he shouldn't be kicked to the curb by Whites eager for a "post-racial" society or Blacks who want to supplant him as the No. 1 leader in Black America.
A dangerous game is being played out before our eyes, a game in which we can have only one Black leader. And some Black leaders are abetting the game by insisting that Jesse Jackson step aside and make room for them. There is room on the stage for more than one actor. And no one should ascend to power by diminishing Jackson's contributions. Civil rights leaders are not in competition with Barack Obama. And nor should they be in competition with one another. We need all of them.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.