MAXWELL:  Jesse Jackson’s bungled crusades

3/30/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Can you identify at least two specific contributions that the Rev. Jesse Jackson has made to African-Americans and to American society at large? If you draw a blank, it’s not your fault. Jackson himself is at fault.

Instead of recalling Jackson’s considerable achievements, many whites see the civil rights activist as a pain in the neck. Many blacks, too, are hard-pressed to identify specific good deeds of Jackson. Most think of him, without affection, as a man of good conscience, who speaks passionately but who utters too much bad rhyme in the name of justice.

Jackson, in fact, has enriched all of our lives in some way: He helped to improve public housing in Chicago; persuaded many black parents to turn off the TV at 8 p.m. and make their children study and do homework; encouraged inner-city residents to establish neighborhood crime watches; formed drives that registered thousands of new black voters; negotiated several lucrative contracts between industry and black entrepreneurs; persuaded tight-fisted bankers to lend to low-income people; and, most dramatically, in 1984, secured the release of a Navy pilot who had been shot down over Lebanon and, in 1990, brought home 47 Americans who had been freed from Iraq and Kuwait.

Why, then, do so few Americans remember these remarkable triumphs? Mainly because Jackson, never seeing a TV camera he doesn’t love, is a ubiquitous gadfly who vexes and angers the very white people whose behavior and attitudes he wants to change. And, increasingly, the good reverend is picking the wrong fights and battling them in the wrong venues.

On Monday night, for example, he failed to disrupt the Academy Awards ceremony as promised. And things got even worse when host Whoopi Goldberg belittled Jackson before an international audience of millions. His cause _ racism in the movie industry _ is legitimate, but the chemistry and logistics were all wrong, making him seem silly and irrelevant.

Now, Jackson is off to Laurens, S.C., where he intends to shut down the Redneck Shop, a tiny business that sells racist merchandise. Jackson told a crowd there that he has asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate the shop. As contemptible as the business is, it is private enterprise and has a right to exist. Is Jackson so desperate for a cause that will put his face on TV that he must travel from California to Dixie to interfere with a legal operation?

If conscience guides this man of the cloth, common sense sometimes escapes him. With each new bungled crusade, Jackson risks sinking into irrelevancy. This is an unfortunate turn for a man who has contributed so much to this country, who ran for president twice and brought important issues to the forefront of the political debate.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.