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Leonard Greene is a columnist for the New York Daily News.
If there is anybody in America who deserves to finally retire, it’s the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
We know the job’s not finished, that racism still flourishes, that voting rights are under assault and that the U.S. Supreme Court just took a wrecking ball to affirmative action. It’s no secret that police brutality continues, that we’re losing the war on poverty and that Black people suffered more than anybody else through the coronavirus pandemic.
But what more can we ask of him?
He was there at the start of the 1960s, sitting in at segregated lunch counters with other college students
He was there, in Memphis, with Martin Luther King Jr., talking up to King on the balcony when the fatal shot rang out.
He was there, months later, for the Poor People’s Campaign that King had started. He was elected “mayor” of the Resurrection City protest camp on the National Mall, and told the crowd, “I am somebody.”
He delivered the eulogy for Jackie Robinson.
He fought for economic empowerment, for the release of hostages held abroad and for the end of apartheid in South Africa.
He ran for president of the United States, and told us to keep hope alive
And we did. He didn’t win in 1984. He didn’t win in 1988. But his inspiring and credible campaigns laid the groundwork for a political movement that gave birth to Barack Obama.
What more can we ask?
The mantle has long been passed. The Rev. Al Sharpton has for years been the most prominent civil rights activist. But he learned at the feet of Jackson, and, like his mentor, he has made mistakes along the way.
Jackson called New York City “Hymietown,” and the moral leader fathered a child out of wedlock. He allegedly smeared King’s blood on his shirt before talking about his death on TV, and took a crude swipe at Obama in the months leading up to Obama’s historic election win.
But the good far outweighs the bad. It’s not even close.
“He has planted and nurtured seeds that are growing beyond his own organization,” said Sharpton, who became a Jackson disciple as a boy preacher at the age of 12. “We hope to continue in a way that makes him proud.”
Jackson, 81, announced last week that he is stepping down from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, his Chicago-based civil rights perch.
“His commitment is unwavering, and he will elevate his life’s work by teaching ministers how to fight for social justice and continue the freedom movement,” the organization said in a statement.
Jackson has been slowed in recent years by health issues, including a Parkinson’s Syndrome diagnosis that he announced in 2017.
“I’m going to make a transition pretty soon,” Jackson told Fox 32 in Chicago. “I’ve been doing this stuff for 64 years. I was 18 years old.”
Jackson said he would work with the new leadership team through the change.
“I want to see us grow and prosper,” he said. “We have the ability to build on what we’ve established over the years.”
Jackson will forever be linked and compared to King. But he did manage to accomplish something that King could never do. He got old.
He didn’t make it past the mountaintop either, but he did keep hope alive.