Wed, 27 February 2013
Farewell Jesse Jr., We Hardly Knew Ye: A Lesson on the Limits of our Black Political Class
A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Bruce A. Dixon
It was late afternoon on a special election day in Chicago, 1995. I was working for a congressional candidate, former State Senator Alice Palmer. The outcome was not in doubt, we were going to lose. But a professional does what a professional has to do, so I'd rounded up a couple brothers to work the thousands of homeward bound commuters passing through the 95th St. el station for our candidate those last three or four hours before the polls closed.
As it happened, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., the father of our main opponent was working the same crowd for his son, Jesse Jackson Jr. the next congressman from that district. When the crowd slacked off a little between trains, we talked. It was impossible not to feel good for Rev. Jackson, who was about to see his son have a chance to expand and build upon the work he'd pursued for decades. Junior, I remember telling his dad, was about to have a chance to do a lot of good, maybe even some great things, and I congratulated him before leaving.
Jesse Jr. wasn't the first or the worst African American princeling to be handed a congressional seat by his family at or before the age of 30. He probably did a lot less damage in his 17 years than Memphis TN's Harold Ford, whose folks gave one to him at 27. To be entirely fair, Junior also did a lot less harm to the long-term interests of African America than many of his other colleagues in the Black Caucus, worthless souls like Alabama's Artur Davis, New York's Greg Meeks, or Georgia's David Scott.
With longtime Jackson strategist Frank Watkins, Junior co-authored a valuable and insightful book, Toward a More Perfect Union, in which he proposed constitutional amendments for the rights to vote, to a decent job at a living wage, a clean environment, and more. The other two books which he co-authored with his father were forgettable at best.
If Junior had shown imaginative leadership in Congress, he might have been mayor of Chicago by now. But imagination and leadership seem to have eluded the young prince. Junior mostly kept his head down in Congress, voted with the crowd on Iraq and other mattters, and by 2003 he was shilling for a south side casino and a new airport in his district supposedly as “job creation” measures.
The very specific acts that led to his downfall and disgrace are almost inexplicable. Blonde bimbo stripper girlfriend, $40,000 gold Rolex watches, buying Michael Jackson's hat and living off one's campaign fund are all such obvious no-no's it's hard not to view them as cries for help from a man who might have been over his head almost from the beginning. Who knew the life of a black prince came with so much pressure, so many expectations and demands he just could not meet? Personally I hope Junior eventually gets it together and finds a way to make a real contribution.
For the rest of us, the lesson of Junior's rise and fall is that it's time to put aside the princes and princesses of our black political class, and come up with new leaders, new pathways to, and new models of leadership. That's going to mean casting aside the two party system, in the Democratic half of which our black political class have made their careers.
A young man in Junior's former south side Chicago congressional district, LeAlan Jones has apparently survived a challenge to his status on the ballot as a Green Party candidate. If Jones can get it together for the special election in April, and the November 2014 general election, maybe we'll see a glimpse of what that new leadership could look like.
For Black Agenda Radio I'm Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at www.blackagendareport.com.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report. A longtime Chicagoan, he now lives in exile near Marietta GA, where he is a state committee member of the Georgia Green party and a partner in a tech firm. Contact him via this site's contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.