Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Recognition long overdue for Jackson's political trailblazing

By DeWayne Wickham

In a little noticed, long overdue act of acknowledgement, 12 members of the Congressional Black Caucus stood before a nearly empty chamber of the House of Representatives last week to give the Rev. Jesse Jackson the praise many would deny him.

Jackson's campaigns for the Democratic Party's presidential nominations "forever changed the political ... landscape of this country" and "laid the foundation" for the election of Barack Obama, Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., said in a brief floor speech.

That was the recurring theme of the 12 black members of Congress and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the lone white representative, who spoke in tribute to the 25th anniversary of Jackson's 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Back then, Newsweek and the Village Voice proclaimed Jackson the candidate of "transformations" and "change."

In his presidential campaign last year, Obama promised to talk to America's enemies if he became president. But in Jackson's trailblazing campaign, he did just that when he persuaded Syrian President Hafez Assad to free Navy Lt. Robert Goodman, a U.S. pilot shot down over Lebanon by Syrian anti-aircraft gunners a month earlier.

Although his campaigns were far from flawless — Jackson's use of the pejorative "Hymietown" to describe New York Jews dealt his 1984 ambition a serious blow — his two presidential runs did more to change the face of American politics than anything else in the past 100 years. While the 1965 Voting Rights Act opened the way for more blacks to vote, Jackson was the political Pied Piper who drew them to the polls in record numbers.

Marjorie Fields Harris, a former executive director of Al Sharpton's National Action Network, said of Jackson: "His voter registration effort in previously overlooked and disenfranchised communities was historic" and helped lift "African-American governors, senators, judges and other elected officials into office. His run was iconic and — love him, or hate him — no student of history could ever argue that his campaign wasn't our first real glimpse of what an African-American president would look like."

That's no idle praise.

"Jackson brought about significant increases in black voter registration in '84 and '88. And Democrats made election gains that were very much tied to the turnout of these black voters," said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

In fact, Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1986 due in large part to that surge in black voter registration, the Joint Center has reported. And that wasn't the only ripple effect from Jackson's campaigns. Since 1984, the number of blacks in Congress has grown from 21 to 42 members. Many blacks who rose to prominent positions in the Democratic Party also had close ties to his candidacy.

Among them are Ron Brown and Alexis Herman, who served as the secretaries of Commerce and Labor in the Clinton administration. Brown also did a stint as Democratic Party chairman after serving as an adviser to Jackson. Donna Brazile, a manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, also had close ties to Jackson's White House campaigns.

Those who forge change seldom benefit from it. The doors that Jackson opened made it possible for Obama to achieve Jackson's dream. And that's something those who write the history of these times shouldn't forget.

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