Behind Jackson's outburst

Activists point to debate in civil rights community about Obama

July 11, 2008|By Kelly Brewington and Tanika White | Kelly Brewington and Tanika White,Sun reporters

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's inflammatory comments about Barack Obama this week highlight a philosophical debate within the civil rights community about the focus of his campaign for president, activists said.

During a break from a Fox News program, Jackson whispered to another guest that Obama was "talking down to black people" and then, unaware that his microphone was on, used crude language to describe wanting to castrate Obama.

Jackson's off-air comments came after a guest asked him about Obama's recent speeches in black churches about the responsibility of black fathers and his proposals to expand President Bush's faith-based initiative.

While some civil rights stalwarts dismissed Jackson's remark as vulgar and offensive, they said Jackson's broader criticism of Obama should not be overlooked. Some activists say Jackson has not focused sufficiently on policy solutions to some of the problems facing the black community.

"There is a lot of debate within the civil rights community about Obama," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, a member of the NAACP board from Philadelphia. "A lot of the old war horses like Jesse and I have had serious questions about his orientation to race, given his words about transcending race. Saying that he didn't believe there was a systematic racial problem in this country - that goes to a very core of the way we see racial issues in this country."

Others, however, said Jackson's criticism illustrated a generational divide among black leaders and might reveal the 66-year-old Jackson's fears that his stature is fading. Obama is 20 years his junior.

"It was shortsighted and reactionary," said the Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., pastor of Baltimore's Union Baptist Church and an Obama supporter. "Now is the time to pass the baton, and to realize there are others who are able to address these situations."

The Obama campaign accepted Jackson's apology but maintained that personal responsibility has been a core issue for the Democratic presidential candidate.

"He will continue to speak out about our responsibilities to ourselves and each other, and he of course accepts Reverend Jackson's apology," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign.

Melissa Harris Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, said the incident wouldn't turn black voters away from Obama despite their feelings for Jackson, whom she called "the inheritor of the civil rights movement."

She said, "Oh, the blacks are with Barack. We're with Barack."

Some have suggested that a rift between Obama and Jackson might even help Obama with white suburban voters."If Jesse Jackson is against you, then [white people] figure you must be a good candidate," Lacewell said.

Jackson has made controversial statements before. He was sharply criticized for using the term "Hymietown" to refer to New York City in 1984, and he recently complained that Obama was "acting like he's white" for not protesting on behalf of six black teenagers charged with beating a white classmate in Jena, La. That comment and this week's drew rebukes from his son, Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

In apologizing for his most recent statement, the elder Jackson called his support for Obama "unequivocal." But the veteran civil rights activist and two-time Democratic presidential candidate also stressed that he thinks Obama must confront a multitude of issues confronting African-Americans, not solely issues of morality.

"There's a discussion going on in the black community about the absence of a public policy approach to the black community by Barack Obama," said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist who held senior roles in Jackson's two campaigns. "Instead he went into the Apostolic Church in Chicago on Father's Day and gave a speech on responsibility, a moral speech. We're not electing him to be our preacher in chief. We're electing him to be our commander in chief."

Walters said this debate among black voters has not become public, because many are eager for Obama to win the presidency.

"Jesse Jackson didn't raise this issue; he was caught," Walters said. He added that many blacks are "used to voting for whites in the context where they didn't quite know where they stood with them. Well, here comes an African-American and the expectations are higher."

Mondesire said it's unfortunate that few civil rights activists have held Obama accountable for his lack of a civil rights agenda: "I think black America should have had this conversation a long time ago. The truth is in the early days of the campaign, not everyone was on board with Obama."

Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and national president and CEO of the Baltimore-based NAACP, said Jackson and others might be misinterpreting Obama's remarks about family.

"I don't think it was browbeating or talking down to anybody, but raising an issue that generates every day in black barbershops and salons in this country," said Mfume, an Obama supporter. "Only this time, it is on the national stage."

Mfume said he also understood Jackson's point that Obama needs to unveil a platform on black issues. Mfume said he thought Obama would do so during the Democratic convention next month.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com tanika.white@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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