Jesse Jackson (still) has a credibility problem

Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. delivering his remarks ...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Three years ago, Ebony magazine published a story whose headline captured the sentiment of many people: “Does the Rev. Jesse Jackson Still Matter?” Jackson thinks he does, and he’s been barnstorming Michigan to rally people in the wake of General Motors’ bankruptcy filing. On Saturday, Jackson was in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he said America’s auto industry needs a more prodigious Washington bailout. (Less than 50 people attended Jackson’s talk.) Today, Jackson is scheduled to visit Lansing, Michigan, where he’ll outline how the U.S. auto industry can better compete in the global marketplace.

At a 2003 rally for jobs in Chicago, a group of young African American men heckled Jackson for being a hypocrite, saying that he managed – through personal connections – to enrich loved ones with lucrative employment but did little for the average worker. (The rally was covered by the Chicago Tribune, whose archived story can be read after registering here.) “I can’t find a job and you haven’t done anything for us,” yelled one man, who also disparaged Jackson by screaming, “Let’s go get a Budweiser, Jesse.”

The beer reference made sense. In the 1980s, Jackson led an economic boycott against Anheuser-Busch (the makers of Budweiser) for its apparent lack of minority hiring, but in 1998 – after Jackson had ended the boycott – the corporation awarded Jackson’s sons Yusef and Jonathan a majority interest in its multi-million-dollar Chicago beer distributorship. A shakedown? Critics said yes. Ronald Burkle, the billionaire businessman who helped convince Anheuser-Busch to consider Jackson’s sons as partners, admitted to the Chicago Tribune that Jesse Jackson asked him to “look out” for Yusef and Jonathan.

Jackson has a troubling history of opportunism that’s been documented, especially by people with conservative agendas such as Kenneth Timmerman, whose book, “Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson,” details Jackson’s long history of double standards. It starts with Jackson lying to the media in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. Jackson claimed to have cradled King’s head on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel, when it was Ralph Abernathy – a more prominent leader – who did that. Jackson claimed to have spoken to King in those dying moment. It was Abernathy who did that. Frontline, the Public Broadcasting System’s investigative show, examined Jackson’s actions and spoke to civil-rights author Marshall Frady, who said, “King aides, long resentful of Jackson, saw his behavior as brazen opportunism. They were already angry that he had spoken to the press in the hours after the assassination and furious that he had so dramatically inflated his own part in the story of King’s final moments.”

In an introduction to the 1985 book, “Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Race,” Abernathy indirectly criticized Jackson, writing that “Leaders of today must learn to subordinate their own egos to the greater good of those whom they represent. . . . What is needed today is not charisma so much as character. . . . The truth shall set us free.”

The truth about Jesse Jackson is complicated. He’s done wonderful things round the world, secured the release of U.S. hostages and soldiers, and raised awareness of issues in an eloquent and dramatic way. But Jackson’s hidden side has come to the surface again and again – whether it’s his “hymietown” remark from 1984 or his “I want to cut his nuts off” remark from last year. And even Ebony magazine – though stating Jackson does matter – quoted a 29-year-old African American minister named Markel Hutchins, who said that Jackson and other aging leaders were fixated on “maintaining their leadership status and position.” Jackson is 68. Hutchins said he told Jackson that, “real leadership knows when to step up and when to step out or get out of the way.”

Jackson hasn’t left yet. In fact, he’s showing little sign of leaving the public stage that he has occupied for more than 40 years.

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