I had the pleasure of seeing Jesse Jackson, Sr. speak this past President's Day at Harvard Law School. It was the first time I had ever seen the man in person.
He was very impressive, intellectually and rhetorically. I came away with the impression that he generally gets an unjustifiably bad rap in the media. There was the whole infidelity thing a while back, which so many public figures go through. These incidents, to me, are always reasons to examine our own impressions and judgments. Why is it that such scandals affect different public figures in different ways? With some, it seems to destroy their careers, while with others, they come out smelling like roses. This is evidence that the scandals are used as reasons to disempower people; they are blown up when they serve particular interests and shushed up when they do not.
This was in the back of my mind as I sat and soaked up Rev. Jackson's presentation. Stylistically, he is brilliant. He is doing us a great service by delivering actual content in his political appearances, rather than the empty pontificating and pandering that is the norm in politics (and perhaps in this blog). But he does it in a very un-Al Gore way, a way that excites and motivates the crowd. His speech was dotted with exclamations like:
"Am I alone in here?"
and "Is anybody with me?"
to which the crowd is happy to respond. You can't beat it---solid arguments wrapped in the polished technique of a preacher.
Some of my favorite moments. The "Cotton Curtain". I know it's been said before, but it's still smart. The attention he focused on how black candidates in the past have been portrayed as too caught up with domestic policy, so they wouldn't be able to lead the nation in the area of foreign policy. His response? "Blacks came _over_ here on _foreign_ _policy_." He talked about campaigns, and about how his campaign in 1984 actually did good as _part of_ the campaign. He led a spontaneous march in LA, for example, starting at some projects, that motivated the establishment of job training and other service centers in those projects. _While_ he was campaigning! What good are Kerry or Dean or Bush doing _while_ they are campaigning? He asked why it is that white people are leading the anti-death penalty movement when it is black people that are being killed. His point? That we need to whiten the face of poverty and blacken the anti-violence movement. He said that every King holiday should be a time to analyze the gaps and inequalities in our society, not a time for "idle black celebration".
Even when blacks have been the majority in particular elections, they are still discussed as a minority. And he said that the "I have a dream" speech should be renamed the "broken promise" speech, as that was King's real focus in that speech. To remember that speech as the "I have a dream" speech is to wrap ourselves in warm fuzzy, when really, King was pointing out that society was failing to live up to its obligations.
Finally, Rev. Jackson decried the lack of polling places on college campuses. Why can't students vote on campus? Why have polling places that were on campuses before disappeared? Hm, who do students turnout for...
It was a great event. I have a new-found respect for the Reverend. I thought he was something of a figurehead before, though I agreed with many of the things I thought he was figureheading for. After this though, I think there's some real substance to the man. See him if you can.