Still Selma after all these years
By Michael M. Bates
Jesse Jackson is getting some richly deserved criticism for charging Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) is "acting like he's white" when it comes to the racially charged incident in Jena, Louisiana. Since shooting his mouth off, Jackson's backed away, claiming he either doesn't remember saying any such thing or that his words were taken out of context, whichever excuse you'll buy.
If you're as old as dirt like me, the occurrence is reminiscent of Jesse calling Jews "Hymie" back in the mid-1980s. A faulty memory can be so terribly cathartic sometimes.
Jackson also asserted recently that if he were a presidential candidate, "I'd be all over Jena. Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment."
The 1965 marches from Selma, Alabama were a major turning point in the civil rights movement. On what's known as "Bloody Sunday," several hundred marchers were attacked by police with clubs and tear gas.
Jackson's comparing Jena to Selma would have greater impact if he didn't have a history of equating so many other things to Selma. To be sure, Mr. Jackson was indeed present. In a 1988 piece on Jackson, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Maraniss wrote: "Andrew Young remembers Jackson in Selma as a guy that nobody knew, giving orders to other marchers. (Ralph) Abernathy remembers Jackson doing errands and asking him for a job on the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) staff."
Nonetheless, Jackson's experiences there must have been life-changing. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. told a 1997 graduating class: "My father was so emotionally caught up in the struggle and so moved by that occasion that he almost named me Selma. But thank God for Momma's better judgment."
Selma Jackson. Kinda catchy I think, especially for a male.
Clearly, Jesse Jackson can't get Selma off his mind. Last year he wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times of New Orleans demonstrators demanding that elections be postponed because of Katrina's impact on the city: "So like the marchers in Selma 41 years ago, thousands of citizens in New Orleans march for the right to vote.'
In 2003 he involved himself – as he does so often when TV cameras are in the vicinity - with a strike by Yale University employees. "This (strike) is going to be for economic justice what Selma was for the right to vote," he told cheering workers.
Florida's disputed electoral votes in 2000 provided another opportunity for him to hit a familiar refrain: "This is a replay of Selma all over again."
The previous year, Jackson defended six high school students expelled for a football game brawl in Decatur, Illinois. "The march on Selma had to do with access to voting, equal protection under the law," declared Jesse. "The march on Washington: access to public accommodation, equal protection under the law. In Decatur: access to quality education for all children, equal protection under the law."
Californians voted in 1996 on a constitutional amendment prohibiting public institutions from extending preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. Jackson opposed the measure, declaring, "California must be to the equal opportunity movement in 1996 what Birmingham was to the public accommodations struggle in 64 and Selma was in 65 to the voting rights movement."
Earlier that year, Jesse called for a boycott of the Academy Awards. Not for, as you might imagine a self-proclaimed country preacher would protest, the sewage customarily turned out by the film industry. No, Jesse's beef du jour was movie land's treatment of minorities. He averred: "Hollywood in the 90s is as racist as Selma in the 60s."
1991 found Jackson promoting unionization at a food processing plant in a small North Carolina town. "Hamlet is to these economic issues of workers what Selma was to the political issues of 1965," he maintained.
With much fanfare, Jesse Jackson announced in 1985 that his Operation PUSH would "adopt" Tunica, Mississippi. The town's impoverishment wasn't the only problem he intended to work on: "Tunica is going to become to the voter-enforcement movement what Selma was to the voting-rights movement."
Selma, Selma, Selma. Jesse just can't stop talking about it. No doubt he'll continue milking Selma for all it's worth in future crusades. It's a plan that works for him. Again and again and again.
This Michael Bates column appeared in the September 27, 2007 Reporter Newspapers.