Archive for Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Jesse will never sound the same

January 24, 2001


You're Jesse Jackson, preacher man, orator, civil rights activist and unofficial statesman. You came out of Greensboro, N.C., poverty, a boy born out of wedlock. You didn't let your humble beginnings squash your dreams. You were a bright young man and a star high school athlete. The Chicago White Sox offered you a baseball contract, but you declined.

You were Jesse Jackson, and right from the beginning you were more than an athlete.

After college, you joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and people who loved King said you were one of his best disciples. You were a serious young man with a lot of discipline. You became an ordained Baptist minister, and even in your youth, when you opened your mouth people stood up in the pews and praised your name. It was the same wherever you went. Some said you had a big ego, but you were Jesse Jackson, one of America's most important preachers.

You formed Operation Push and inspired thousands of young people to "Do God's Work." You spent much of your time going into schools in the inner city to persuade young people to study and to make something of their lives.

You're Jesse Jackson, and one of the things you learned from Dr. King was how to turn a phrase. "Hands that once picked cotton," you said, "are now picking presidents." Your words captured the imagination of millions of people who registered to vote for the first time.

You dressed in fine suits, and you traveled all over the country and to many parts of the world. People admired you, but some branded you a trickster. They often whispered that there was a big difference between you and Dr. King.

But through it all, you stayed clean, and nobody pinned anything on you. You opened your mouth and the people followed you. You were a black Pied Piper in a preacher's garments. All your life, young women looked at you with bedroom eyes.

But during your second year of college, you had married the beautiful Jacqueline Lavinia Brown. A lot of hearts were broken when you promised to be faithful to your bride. You and your wife had five children, and together you forged a strong family. Your lives were played out in a fishbowl. Rumors floated about your peccadilloes, but they didn't stick.

You were a role model for black children. "Jesse came from nothing but he worked hard and made something of himself," black mothers around the country scolded their children. "You can do it, too."

Everywhere you went, people recognized you. You galvanized people around the world into action. You were a catalyst for boycotts, marches, voter registration drives, and you brought home hostages from abroad. You came from humble beginnings, and you rose to greatness. Presidents recognized your political power.

You're Jesse Jackson, and the second time you ran for president, you garnered 7 million votes. Your greatest blunder was a whispered reference to New York as "Hymietown." Millions were shocked by the insensitivity of it. You! A minister and civil rights leader! You apologized, but damage had been done.

You're Jesse Jackson, and you count presidents among your friends. When Bill Clinton brought shame to the Oval Office in a sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky, you stopped by to counsel him and help him win forgiveness from the public.

When you arrived, you were not alone. With you was one of your "assistants," a woman named Karin Stanford, who, at the time, was four months' pregnant with your child.

The deceit came out last week, and people who admired you for years began looking at you with new eyes. Some were willing to forgive; others question where the $40,000 you reportedly gave your mistress came from.

You're Jesse Jackson at 59, no longer young. You carved out a great life for yourself, and you helped a lot of others along the way. But after this breach of trust, no matter how you explain away your 20-month-old daughter, born outside your 38-year marriage, the name Jesse Jackson will never sound the same.

Claude Lewis is a retired columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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