When the Rev. Jesse Jackson admitted he had an affair with an aide and fathered a child out of wedlock, media pundits went into overdrive assessing his new infamy. Conservatives abandoned all attempts to contain their glee at Jackson's embarrassment, seizing the opportunity to denounce him for a multitude of sins from hypocrisy to extortion.

Jackson had already infuriated the GOP with his hyperbolic (and some said hypocritical) protests of the great Florida vote theft. So the revelations of his sexual indiscretions, especially the news that Jackson took his pregnant mistress to visit the White House during President Clinton's own sex scandal, bathed them in a spirit of pure vindication. Jackson's black supporters, however, fervently stood by their man and urged his quick return to the fray. Most of his progressive white supporters also seemed willing to forgive him (though many would have preferred more than a three-day sabbatical).

Significantly, Jackson's re-emergence came at the second annual conference of the

After his three-day sabbatical, Jesse Jackson
headed for Wall Street.


Wall Street Project, an initiative he launched to help bring African-
American business aspirants closer to the sources of investment capital. The captains of capitalism and their black petitioners (gathered at Jackson's behest) greeted him warmly in his first post-scandal foray. But among some African-Americans, this appearance raised more concerns about the quality of black leadership than any revelations of sexual indiscretion. Questions about leadership have been rumbling through the black community with sustained intensity for several years. Don't African-Americans need new leaders with a more mature global consciousness? Is the civil rights leadership still relevant?

Many activists are convinced that the anger stirred up by the presidential election and its aftermath could help power new growth in the civil rights movement. An "emergency summit" was called by the National Black Leadership Roundtable on January 4 to capitalize on the new activist spirit that seems to have sprung from the election protests. The gathering attracted leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Urban League, the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, the National Bar Association, the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, and other black protest and professional organizations. Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus also attended, along with a number of black elected officials from around the country. Although nothing earthshaking emerged from the summit, the gathering served as a reminder that old-style leadership remains important.

Despite talk of the need for new leadership styles to better deal with the problems of the new millennium, it's old issues like voting rights and affirmative action that still stir the masses of black people. "Jesse Jackson remains a popular figure among African-Americans, because blacks still believe that the basic fight for civil rights is still going on," explains David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank. In its latest survey, Jackson received a favorable rating by 83 percent of those blacks polled.

That hasn't quelled vocal, sometime vitriolic criticism of Jackson from radicals, nationalists and black conservatives. Jackson is blamed by many progressives for squandering a rare opportunity to build on the multi-ethnic, left-populist movement that came together around his two presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988. Jackson lost his luster when it became clear that he wanted the Rainbow Coalition to serve as a vehicle of his own design rather than a grassroots, nuts-and-bolts political organization. Although there have been concerted efforts to increase the visibility of radical thinkers, they were excluded from the National Black Leadership Roundtable. Such an omission is nothing new. Organizers of the Black Radical Congress founded the group in 1998 to help insert a radical critique into the discourse, but so far its voice has not been heard.

Most nationalists never trusted Jackson. He was seen as a kind of "Rev. Leroy," a duplicitous preacher in black folklore, whose intent was seduction more than salvation. Jackson's current troubles only bolster that portrayal. He did attract the nationalists' attention when he aligned himself with Farrakhan in his 1984 campaign; it seemed to herald an alliance of the divided heirs of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the beginnings of a black united front. That alliance soon fell apart, but Jackson has always included issues dear to nationalists--like economic empowerment and community control--in his pitch. The nationalists have bigger problems than worrying about Jackson, however. While the enormous success of the Million Man March seemed to herald a changing black leadership, Louis Farrakhan hasn't held onto the imagination of the black masses.

And despite well-funded media megaphones and unwarranted appearances on political talk shows, black conservatives have yet to stake their claim on any black constituency. Their "compassionate conservative" presidential candidate employed more race-friendly symbols than any GOPer before him, but still failed to capture even 10 percent of the black vote. Predictions that the growing black middle class would defect from the Democrats have failed to come true.

For their part, black conservatives tend to hold up Jackson as an example of all that is wrong with black leadership. He often is derided as a "poverty pimp" who gains his power only by exploiting blacks' sense of vulnerability. They argue that Jackson and the whole civil rights fraternity utilize a myth of widespread black poverty to more efficiently extract favors from guilty whites. But given the increasing numbers of black conservatives (as well as a frothing horde of white critics) who are making this familiar charge, it's striking that the masses of African-Americans still support Jackson so solidly.

The 2000 elections have produced a discernible change in the tempo of the black freedom movement. The revelations about Jackson's sexual irresponsibility will do little to taint his luster within the African-American community. In fact, because of the black community's historically honed impulse to circle its wagons when under attack, the scandal may in fact add a bit to Jackson's shine.

The issue of whether his leadership is under challenge is more an issue for whites than for blacks. Whites have always had a vested interest in limiting the range of black leadership. Throughout African-American history, the white leadership of the United States has tended to choose specific figures to represent blacks. In most cases, the leader was chosen for his (inevitably it was a man) ability to reinforce the racial hierarchy. With rare exceptions, black people seldom followed this lead. There's little reason to expect much change now.


Bottom Navigation Home Archives Contact Us About In These Times Subscribe to In These Times