(c) Jeanne Powell 2009
"Rev. Jackson's Tears"
(All Rights Reserved )
So much to celebrate last November 5th, the day after America's 2008 national election. The Chicago audience was giddy with excitement as the incoming president spoke. No reason to notice an older man standing quietly in the crowd, tears running down his face, features twisted with emotion. Once the photograph was published, though, responses were quick -- twitters, smug columns and lightweight editorials, cartoons and yawns.
During Obama's speech, many people across the country waited for some recognition of the pioneers and martyrs whose sacrifices paved the way. And that recognition came in a few graceful phrases, too few, before the photogenic president-elect moved on. Of course, he was president of all the country, and his speech must reflect that reality.
Jesse Jackson Sr. has grown old in service to the civil rights movement. He walked and sat in and demonstrated with Dr. King and the other ministers of the SCLC, and continued serving after Dr. King was assassinated. So many events Jackson witnessed and experienced after answering the call in 1960, leaving school to work in the Movement. He did not have an Ivy League education or middle class upbringing. Like so many civil rights pioneers, he brought what he had, brought all he had, and went where he had to go.
Rev. Jackson was blessed to have walked with greatness, and to have inspired thousands of African American youth who otherwise would have fallen through the cracks in our fractured, race-oriented society. In 1971 he formed PUSH, People United to Serve Humanity, and campaigned for economic empowerment of the disadvantaged and people of color. In 1984 he formed National Rainbow Coalition to concentrate on issues of social justice and political empowerment. And he ran for president in 1984 and 1988.
Go back to those incredible years in the library and Internet videos, and look at the faces of America's majority newscasters, as they exhibit irritation, impatience and actual fear that Rev. Jackson was taking precious votes away from Democrat frontrunners in presidential primaries. The historic nature of his effort, following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass and Shirley Chisholm, was lost on them.
After nearly 200 years, there came a time when Christian ministers no longer led the way in African American culture -- after hundreds of slave uprisings; the Civil War; the lynching and burning alive of African Americans by domestic terrorists; violent assaults on African American communities in the 1920s; all the marches and sit-ins by those who practiced passive resistance, plagued by death threats and assassination attempts in the 1960s. Other civil rights advocates were spat upon or shot or beaten to death for asking for the right to eat at a cafe, ride on a Greyhound bus, register to vote, send children of color to integrated schools.
It came to pass that their time was then, was then, not now. Business professionals and attorneys from the African American community, men and women successful in the secular world, moved forward and ran for public office on every level, to cement the changes, illustrate the progress made by those ministers, nuns, priests, rabbis, students, farm workers, homemakers, and revolutionaries like Stokely Carmichael of SNCC so long ago.
Ghosts were present that day in November 2008, and Jesse Jackson clearly felt their weight. Civil rights volunteers kidnapped and murdered in secret, others shotgunned as they drove cars to help local activists, and others clubbed to death on public streets in the south. Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman. Viola Liuzzo, whose murder left a husband and two young sons in Michigan, the state where I spent most of my childhood. Four little girls in a Birmingham AL church.
The many threats against Dr. King when he took the Movement north for housing integration marches in Illinois and and when he led strong opposition to the American war in Vietnam. Medgar Evers, NAACP leader, shot from ambush as he pulled into his driveway one night. President Kennedy brought Evers' widow to the White House, and Evers was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. That same year JFK was murdered in Texas. Charles Evers and Robert Kennedy formed a close friendship; both had lost brothers in public service.
"At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there is a railroad made of human bones, black ivory, black ivory..." Amiri Baraka reminds us. The most notorious holocaust in human history occurred from the mid-1500s to mid-1800s; European historians estimate that as many as 100,000,000 human beings were kidnapped from west, central and east Africa. Half of those kidnapped died during the brutal voyage of the Middle Passage and their corpses were thrown overboard. Slave labor camps of the Second World War took their inspiration from slave labor practices on plantations in North America, South America and the Caribbean, before the abolition of the international slave trade in the middle of the 19th century.
A titanic struggle to end slavery and preserve the Union took place between 1861 and 1865, but it did not end there. Douglas A. Blackmon in his book, Slavery By Another Name, has written of the systematic re-enslavement of Blacks after the Civil War, even before the end of Reconstruction, and continuing until World War II. Well researched and horrific to read. How strange that we continue to condemn European countries for their wartime evil, without exploring also the deep horrors of racial brutality in this country.
So many gone...so much suffering...so much violence aimed at an entire people in order to justify using their slave labor to build the wealthiest economy in the history of the the world. Racism remains the bloodstained elephant with broken tusks in the center of the room, as people tiptoe around it, eyes averted, looking for an easy way out.
Yes, there were tears on Rev. Jackson's face the day Obama spoke about his presidential victory. Yes, there were many around the country who would have liked Obama to visit the segregated graves of the Black Civil War veterans in Arlington National Cemetery, and the civil rights memorial designed by Maya Lin in the south, and the bones taken from slave graveyards discovered during excavation for new construction projects.
Time remains, and abides. After all, the ghosts of our ancestors remain with us always. And Jesse Jackson's tears spoke of many rivers to cross, of dreams deferred, and the absence of a crystal staircase for generations of African Americans.
(c) 2009 Jeanne Powell
Causes Jeanne Powell Supports
Union of Concerned Scientists, VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War), Doctors Without Borders, Waterkeeper Alliance, PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility...