CHICAGO. — The American Library Association met this week in Atlanta, where 8,000 people heard Jesse Jackson deliver the keynote address. Mr. Jackson was an appropriate person to address the newly militant ALA. Members began a march from Atlanta to Washington to protest the closings of libraries in our cities and counties.
Mr. Jackson reminded the librarians that he went to jail, for the first time, trying to integrate the public library in his hometown, Greenville, South Carolina. Later, he joined the march of the librarians when it passed through Greenville yesterday. ''I looked up at what it said over the door -- 'public.' My father was a taxpayer, a veteran. I thought I was part of the public.''
Mr. Jackson had first tried to enter the ''white library'' when the woman in charge of the ''colored branch'' sent him there with a note asking that he be allowed to consult books not contained in the colored stacks.
That woman, a Mrs. Smith, was fondly recalled by Mr. Jackson when he mentioned Thurgood Marshall. ''Some public librarian like Mrs. Smith is probably preparing, even now, a man who will follow in Justice Marshall's footsteps.''
The poor and disadvantaged are those most hurt when branch libraries close or restrict their hours. It is ironic, Mr. Jackson said, that a country talking about bailing out other nations cannot keep its own libraries open -- that it is imitating, by default, the totalitarian regimes that close libraries and burn books. Mr. Jackson saw in this a failure of commitment to public institutions in general. He traces the same thing in the attempt to give up on public schools. ''Since all our children are chosen, all our schools should be choice.''
But, as usual, Mr. Jackson blamed parents and children themselves when they fail to take advantage of schools or libraries. He says all parents should turn off the children's television for two hours of homework every night. ''Dogs raise their puppies, and cats raise their kittens -- and they are just animals. We, who are only a little less than the angels, must raise our own children.''
But the nation should help parents in that effort. Mr. Jackson said he supported the welcoming parades for veterans of the Gulf War. ''We love our troops. We loved them before they were troops. It is easy to love someone who volunteers to die for you. But President Bush welcomes back a woman who dug sand in Saudi Arabia and then tells her she does not deserve day care, or comparable-worth pay, or the same health policy that the Congress has. Only four children of congressional parents were in the gulf. No children of the executive branch. No children of CEOs.'' If people are good enough to die for us under enemy attack, we should make a provision that they should live when attacked by sickness.
Mr. Jackson preached the unity of the Rainbow Coalition, and said that efforts to divide black and white were smoke screens. ''Whites fear for their jobs. They should fear for their jobs. They are losing their jobs. But they are not losing them to African Americans. We did not stop making Oldsmobiles to start making Soulmobiles. We stopped making Oldsmobiles to start buying Hondas and Toyotas.''
If Jesse Jackson sounds like a presidential candidate, that is because he is one, always. But why can't any other candidate sound like a candidate and still make sense?
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.