The Root of Jesse: The Politics of Jesse Jackson
“And there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah, Chapter 11, Verse 1
After the excitement of the 1960’s, politics in Black America did not suddenly come to a halt. In the aftermath of the deaths of Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcom X and the government attacks against the Black Panther Party; another leader arose from out of the shadows and took forward the politics of African-America to the next level. His name is Jesse Jackson.
After witnessing the death of Martin Luther King Jnr as a young man, Jackson rose as the heir to the throne that Martin Luther King Jnr occupied and positioned himself as the future leadership of Civil Rights movement. By the 1980’s, Jackson was the dominant voice in African-American politics and was leading the civil rights movement in the direction of mainstream politics.
In 1984 and 1988, Jackson took the Civil Rights movement to its highest level by raising his Rainbow Coalition to launch a campaign for the Democratic Presidential candidacy, becoming the first African-American male to do so.
Despite his massive contribution and the great burden that Jackson took upon his shoulders after the death of Martin Luther King Jnr; Jackson has not been given the honorific status that has been vested upon the African-American heroes of the 1960’s. It is rare during Black History Month to see social media posts whizzing around that depict Jesse Jackson as one of the many heroes of the African-American canon.
It is time for the younger generations to acknowledge Jesse Jackson as possibly the greatest political organiser to arise from the historical African-American people and to acknowledge the huge debt that Barack Obama owes to his fellow Chicago resident and Elder statesman.
When Barack Obama was a young man in the 80’s, his two major political inspirations were Harold Washington, the legendary African-American Chicago Mayor, that took on the Chicago political machine and won and Jesse Jackson. There is no way that Jacksons Rainbow Coalition campaign did not inspire the politics of Barack Obama. Obama walked the same streets where Jesse Jackson had walked before him.
I met Obama in 2007, at the beginning of his campaign for the Democratic party candidacy, he was delivering a speech at Jesse Jackson’s annual conference in Chicago. At the time, Barack Obama was not as known as he was when he launched his campaign as the Democratic Party candidate for President. He was green and I remember well, the attendees; who were veterans of Jacksons 1984 and 1988 campaigns, urging him on with hope in their eyes and Jackson doing his usual Keep Hope Alive speech and speaking excitedly about the prospect of Barack Obama.
I remember when I arrived back in the UK and spoke of Barack Obama, he was someone who was unknown. Jackson was supportive towards him from the beginning, even if like many he thought that Hilary Clinton was the better candidate. He committed to giving Obama an opportunity to speak before his supporters.
When Jesse Jackson cried at the inauguration of Barack Obama, it was not a PR stunt but the genuine emotion of a man who had seen his dream manifested and who was aware of the contribution that he had made to that dream, despite not being given his honour as an important figure in the making of the first African-American President in US history.
It is true that Jackson was caught making some angry off the cuff statements about Obama but Jackson, who has proven himself as the singular leader of the historical African-American legacy, from Washington to Dubois and MLK, was simply being a loyal African-American and bearer of the historical slave legacy that is at the centre of the African-American narrative that in a way was highjacked by Obama. Albeit to good effect.
Without the looming figure of Jesse Jackson, I doubt that Barack Obama would have had the courage and will to run for President. He may not have thought to run for the Democratic party candidacy if not for the reasonable success that Jesse Jackson had in his race for it. Maybe the Democrat party members that initially supported Obama may not have supported him without the precedent set by Jackson.
I was not old enough to remember the campaigns ran by Jackson but looking back over recordings of Jacksons classic speeches, particularly during his 1988 run, such as the powerful “I understand” speech, where he speaks with passionate fervour on his life story through a beautifully written speech that he tells his supporters, the wider Democrat party and Americans struggling to survive that he understands the difficult circumstances that many Americans experience in life.
In his 1988 run, Jackson was second only Michael Dukasis and beat a young Al Gore securing nearly 30% of the vote in a very effective campaign that shook up the Democrat party at the time. Jackson could have very nearly been their Presidential candidate in 1988. It was a close race and Jackson was a serious contender.
Jacksons loyalty to the King dream is strong and he has proved it over more than 50 years of active service.
Jacksons rise from orphan and descendant of slaves in the segregated south; from convicted activist to student and confidante of Martin Luther King Jnr and later leader of the biggest multi-racial political coalition in American history prior to the coming of Barack Obama is the greatest African-American political story never told.
The story of Jackson is the next episode in the epic story of African-Americans and their rise from slavery to the White House that needs to be told before the world.
If there is anyone that can be acknowledged as the leader of African-Americans walk out of the 60’s through to the 70’s and 80’s. it is Jesse Jackson. If there is one that has a triumphant tale to tell, whose story is the story of African-Americans rise through the 80’s to their present status as global icons, it is Jesse Jackson.
Maybe in the 90’s, Farrakhan eclipsed Jackson as the leading voice for African-Americans but the walk out of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s to the mainstream politics and corporate black America of the 80’s that led to much of what we see today was heavily influenced by the politics of Jesse Jackson. Directly or indirectly.
When Martin Luther King Jnr delivered his last speech about going to the mountain top and seeing the promised land, Jackson was sitting next to him, when Harold Washington delivered his victory speech as new Chicago Mayor, Jackson was there. When Barack Obama was a young politician looking a break, Jackson was there. Much of the American promised land of the Hip-Hop Generation has come into being through the contribution of Jesse Jackson.
In the Bible, Jesse is the Father of the greatest King of Israel, David. It is written that there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow from his roots. The same can be said of Jesse Jackson for out of his political lineage has come roots that have led from slavery to the White House. Amen.