Civil rights activists, Black historians and other notables gathered at Georgetown University to pay tribute to the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., 70, for a lifetime of human and civil rights achievement. Author, radio host and Georgetown sociology professor, Michael Eric Dyson, PhD, hosted the Nov. 7 event.

The Rev. Al Sharpton opened the evening with a short history of Jackson’s career, “After reviewing how Jackson journeyed from Alabama to Chicago at the behest of the King to helm the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket, that Jesse Jackson brought the King Movement national.

“If Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket had not taken root in Chicago, Rev. King’s base would have remained a Southern base.”

Sharpton provided a timeline, starting in the 1960s through two bids for the presidency and ending with the 2008 election. “We could not have gotten to the sunshine of Obama if it hadn’t been for the rainbow of Jackson,” Sharpton said.

Sharpton was followed by a panel of activists and scholars who discussed Jackson’s legacy and impact on American history, including: James Peterson, PhD, director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh University; Gary Flowers, executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum; Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office; Grace Ji-Sun Kim, PhD, associate professor of doctoral theology at Moravian Theological Seminary; and Jeff Johnson, a commentator for MSNBC and

Dyson’s wife, the Rev. Marcia L. Dyson, described Jackson as “an American icon.”

During the course of the discussion, Dr. Kim said on the international level, “Jackson is such a hero for many people around the world.” Flowers, who once worked in Chicago for the Rainbow/PUSH coalition proclaimed Jackson to be “the man who transformed the last 25 years of American society.”

Peterson choked back tears as he expressed admiration to Jackson for his life of achievement, even when attempts were made to denigrate or marginalize him. Upon composing himself, Peterson concluded by saying he could not have achieved his own accomplishments “without the legacy of Jesse Jackson.”

Jeff Johnson said Jackson has stayed squarely on message, no matter the era. “Jackson continues to focus on the social justice issues he’s been addressing since he was in the limelight. His legacy in 2011 is not connected to all that he has done in the past, but to his ongoing substantive work.”

Murphy, who worked closely with Jackson as finance director for his 1988 presidential campaign, said, “I felt respected and embraced by the Rev. Jackson on an intellectual level, on an emotional level and on a political level. I’ve seen his rejection; I’ve seen perseverance; I’ve seen his ability to see and feel into the future about how we could be.”

Murphy, former Georgetown head basketball coach John Thompson Jr., his son, the current coach John Thompson III, and journalist George Curry, proposed college courses be established to teach new generations about Jackson’s unique career.

Locally, the part of his career with perhaps the most high-profile impact on District of Columbia affairs came when Jackson ran for office as “shadow senator” in 1991 and served in the position, established to lobby for D.C. statehood, through 1997.

Marcia Dyson also described Jackson’s colorful communication style. “You’re the man for every season,” she said. “You’re the man with rhyme and reason.”

Jackson was next given a rousing “thank you” by the Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III. This ringing sermon also cast special light on Jackson’s signature phrasing, especially his famous “I Am Somebody” line. Humbled by the admiration of the audience, Jackson said, “My biggest ambition is just to sow seeds. You have no idea what seed might germinate, where, and in the end it does not really matter to me where it blossoms.”

Researcher DeRutter Jones contributed additional material to this story.


Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO