Friday, January 23, 2015
January 23, 2015: MLK Stories: Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton
[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week’s series on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. Please add your responses and other MLK connections for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the significance of two post-King generations and leaders.
There’s a direct, and almost contemporaneous, through-line that links Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jesse Jackson and then to Al Sharpton. Fiery 24 year old Jackson had come to King’s attention after the 1965 Selma marches, and by 1967 had become the national director of Operation Breadbasket, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)’s economic organization. He was close enough to King to be with him at Memphis at the time of his assassination, and continued to run Operation Breadbasket after that tragic event. And a year later, in 1969, Jackson appointed a charismatic and ambitious 14 year old, Al Sharpton, as the youth director of Operation Breadbasket’s New York City branch. Even if you’re not willing to link Jackson and Sharpton in the negative, Fox News kind of way—and it should go without saying that I’m not—the two men are indeed inextricably linked by that organizational connection, and through it to King and his legacy.
When it comes to how they have carried that legacy forward, however, I would have to separate the two. Two of Jackson’s most prominent endeavors, his early 1970s founding of the new political and social organization People United to Save Humanity (PUSH; the S was later change to Serve) and his 1984 creation of the Rainbow Coalition and subsequent presidential candidacy, represented what I could call important next steps for a post-1960s Civil Rights Movement, bringing similar perspectives and activisms to bear on evolving and new concerns and issues. Sharpton has helped create his own such organizations, from 1971’s National Youth Movement to 1991’s National Action Network, and I don’t want to downplay the significance of those efforts. But Sharpton’s most consistent role has been as a media presence and voice, culminating in his current work as both a radio and television host. The size and scope of media have of course grown substantially since King’s era, however, so this too could be seen as a next step in the legacy of his activism and movement.
Each man has in any case followed his own personal and career path, and there’s no way to know with any certainty whether and how King would have connected to these next steps (although Coretta Scott King apparently declined to endorse Jackson’s presidential candidacy, arguing that her husband would never have run for president). But while I will admit to preferring many of Jackson’s choices to Sharpton’s (I’m not sure that being a syndicated radio and TV host is conducive to activism, to put it bluntly), it seems to me that the ideal way to view all three men is additive, rather than as alternatives or opposed. That is, the history and story of the Civil Rights Movement over the last sixty years cannot be told without all three, and more importantly without the broader factors and issues that they collectively help us remember. One of the great tragedies of American history is that King did not live to contribute to all those subsequent efforts, and no one can replace him; but Jackson and Sharpton have offered their own meaningful contributions, and have become an important part of King’s legacy in the process.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Responses or other connections you’d share for that weekend post?