MAXWELL: Rev. Jackson’s time has come to step down

4/1/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The time has come for the Rev. Jesse Jackson to step down as top man of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. I arrived at this conclusion grudgingly.

Let me explain.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jackson, now 59, for the first time in 1965, during a Southern Christian Leadership Conference voting rights march in Mississippi. Our paths crossed on several other marches and during rallies. After I moved to Chicago to attend graduate school in the early 1970s, I occasionally attended Jackson’s Drexel Avenue church to keep abreast of happenings and issues affecting the Southside.

Then, in 1974, when I taught at Kennedy-King College, I, like dozens of other black teachers in Chicago, became an Operation PUSH volunteer. I spent 10 hours a week tutoring five high schoolers in English and reading.

Another part of my job was encouraging parents to turn off the television until their children had completed their homework. Jackson created the program, and it was successful because of his personal touch and because we, the army of volunteers, did our work enthusiastically. (Many in that army continue to serve children to this day.)

But Jackson’s reputation is now in ruins, and the time has come for him to let someone else lead what remains of a viable organization and its affiliates.

His real troubles began in January, when the nation learned that he had fathered a child during an extramarital affair. Indeed, this is not the same man who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. This is not the preacher who rescued American hostages in faraway lands and returned them to their families. Name another civilian who has performed such a feat. Tell these families how bad Jackson is.

I am not asking Jackson to step aside on moral or ethical grounds. I do not have such authority, and I suspect that 99 percent of his white detractors do not have such authority, either. Many of them have cheated on their wives and have committed worse acts.

Jackson needs to find another job purely on practical grounds. His continued, high-profile association with the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition is hurting the organization when it can do its best work _ when more African-Americans than ever before are looking inward to solve some of our deepest problems.

My concern is that Jackson’s reputation will die slowly, lingering far too long on the national scene. I fear that as his stature falls, that of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition will be diminished, too.

As soon as the extramarital affair and the child became news, many white conservatives _ who always despised Jackson and his causes _ jumped for joy. They had their opening and immediately filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission concerning Jackson’s financial practices, and they notified the Internal Revenue Service about alleged income tax irregularities.

Although I and others disdain Jackson’s hypocrisy on several fronts, we are more upset that he has made himself, along with his and other civil rights groups, open to attacks from his enemies.

Delmarie Cobb, Jackson’s traveling press secretary in 1988, summed up the firebrand’s predicament for the New York Times: “What he did was put everything at risk by brazen, hypocritical and reckless behavior. Yes, they’re out to get you. What are you supposed to do _ help them? Give your enemies ammunition?”

Cobb is right, of course. Civil rights itself, pejoratively called the “civil rights establishment,” is now being targeted, as if the old evil of racism has been exorcised from the nation’s soul. The day after Cobb’s words ran in the New York Times, this newspaper published a column by the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby, who is no friend of marginalized minorities.

Using Jackson’s troubles as his peg, Jacoby wrote: “”Civil rights’ leaders today are typically shakedown artists like Jesse Jackson. . . . The old struggle to cleanse the law of distinctions based on color has given way to demands for permanent racial preferences. And “racist’ has become an all-purpose smear, suitable for every target.”

And, so, there we have it: Civil rights is a farce because Jackson, an individual, an adulterer, has lost his standing.

Jackson now is the issue _ not the resegregation of our public schools in this post-busing era, not problems in the workplace, not racial profiling on many of the nation’s major highways, not environmental racism, not rental car discrimination, not various forms of unequal medical treatment, not the daily slights that insult and enrage.

Blame Jackson for this turn of events. His egomania, his selfishness and, well, the stupidity of it all will weaken the viability of our many just causes.

Jackson should bow out now, quietly and gracefully. The enemy _ including black Republicans who benefited from Jackson’s nearly four decades in the civil rights trenches _ does not need more reason to ignore and discount our grievances.

All that said, I respect Jackson’s contributions to the movement. He helped a lot of little people find a lot of big-time personal dignity. Anyone who dismisses that truth has no right to criticize him.