The following is a commentary on the speech given by Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Kennedy School of Government on February 17, 2004. The views expressed herein are solely the author’s and are not representative of the views held by the Harbus.
OK, so here’s a joke: Jesse Jackson walks into a bar. Says ‘ouch’.
Yeah, pretty bad joke, I know. But is it ‘bad’ or is it ‘in bad taste’? I would wager most would go for the former. We will revisit this later, but let us say in the meantime, that the iconic Rev. Jesse Jackson is not long on humor.
But he is full of energy, and Jackson was in town on February 17, 2004 to deliver a speech at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. “We, the people, have the power,” he preached. “When we act, we shape political behavior.
Leaders at their best follow opinion polls. We must mold opinion and that comes bottom up.”
He has this husky, melodic baritone to his voice, which would convince most to agree to anything he utters. And he has much of value to say, if only he did not clutter it with rhetoric and potshots.
At HBS, we spend entire courses devoted to what makes a leader. Jesse Jackson is such a leader – as was his mentor Dr. Martin Luther King – however, when we hear him speak, and witness the way he lives, it leaves us with the question; as future leaders, can we afford to make mistakes, and still maintain credibility? Can we compromise our integrity, and expect others to follow us?
These tough questions hang over Jackson whenever he assumes his leadership role for his political advocacy group, the Rainbow Coalition, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. These are tough questions, for a man who recently admitted adultery – yet spiritually advised Clinton regarding Monica Lewinsky; for a man who labels Bush a racist who stacks “the courts with Confederate judges (and) manipulates images of black and brown faces” – yet referred to Jews as ‘Hymie’ and to New York as ‘Hymietown’ during his 1984 presidential election campaign.
It is a shame that Jackson is inconsistent and often contradictory.
Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition has done much to further the advancement of minorities and to fight for issues such HIV, literacy and the importance of the family unit. His two presidential campaigns registered more than three million new voters, and it is hard to fault the man’s passionate belief that everything he fights for is just, is moral, is right.
He certainly means well, as he announced at the KSG (BGIE slackers pay attention): “Today we face the bitter fruits of the shift from surplus to deficit: passing on unfunded mandates to the states, downsizing the middle class, expanding poverty and creating a record North/South divide between surplus culture and deficit culture.” He also blasted the U.S. trade policy, remarking that “globalizing capitalism is a good thing, but you’ve also got to globalize human rights and workers’ rights and labor rights and the like for it to make sense”.
He was not afraid to take lessons from MKT and segment with sweeping generalization: “In the New South, Whites tend to vote racial fear, rather than economic interest. Blacks often vote despair over hope.”
He gave us a new footnote for STRAT’s Wal Mart case: “Wal-Mart is a Confederate Trojan Horse. On the outside of the horse, the name means cheap prices. Inside the horse, it means cheap wages, no health benefits, crushing small vendors and losing jobs to slave-wages overseas.”
He also went TOM-like and operational: “We must build a coalition – indeed, a multicultural rainbow coalition. We must revive hope. We must revive hope in the vote, and urge massive voter registration. All colleges and universities must have polls on campus. High school seniors must be registered to vote, as they choose college over war – lower tuition and a world at peace.”
He got all LEAD on us: “We must lead the world by the best of our values – freedom of speech, our commitment to the Bill of Rights, integrity.”
And on that note, here’s another joke:
“Black people have got to stop lying to themselves. One, Rodney King WAS driving drunk at a hundred miles an hour and deserved to have his a** beat! Two, O.J. did it! And three, Rosa Parks didn’t do nothing but sit her tired a** down!”
Bad or in bad taste? Jesse Jackson is very clear; he says it “crossed the line between what’s sacred and serious and what’s funny”. In fact, he felt so strongly about it, he pressured MGM studios to remove the scene from the 2002 movie ‘Barbershop’. A scene where the dialogue above is delivered by an African American (Cedric the Entertainer), written by an African American (Ice Cube) and directed by an African American (Tim Story).
And in demanding this scene be cut, Jackson crossed the line between being a tolerant human being and being someone who believes in censorship. So much for freedom of speech. And herein lies a central problem in the public perception of Jesse Jackson – he is a contradiction.
Jackson is a contradiction because he is a man of God, preaching morality, yet one who committed adultery – by his own admission – fathering a child with his with a former staff member. Allegedly, the mother, Karin Stanford, was paid $40,000 from one of Jackson’s tax-exempt charitable organizations to help relocate her to California, in addition to a continuing $3,000 per month in support. He clearly wasn’t awake during FRC. But Jesse, you told us “We’ve got to fight to save our country. We must also do so with integrity. You can’t build trust around blatant dishonesty.” Hmmm.
Rev. Jesse Jackson came across as a good man during his appearance at the Kennedy School. A man of conviction. A man of belief. A true leader.
But can we follow him? The tough questions remain; as future leaders, can we afford to make mistakes, and still maintain credibility? Can we compromise our integrity, and expect others to follow us?
Can we forgive the infidelities of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, or – let’s not get partisan here – the alleged past drug abuses of the current president? Can they simply cry tears and wipe the slate clean? Is there such a thing as redemption, as forgiveness? Can we bring back Enron ‘s Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling?
One for an LCA class, I think. The Rev. Jesse Jackson might want to sit in on this one.