Have African-Americans placed too much emphasis on building up individuals than building strong institutions to fight for their causes? That was an interesting theory that came up during a Nov. 7 forum at Georgetown University hosted by sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson to honor the legacy of Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
Most of the event was devoted to recollections from academics, activists, religious leaders and others about how Jackson broke down barriers and played a critical role in their decision to become politically involved. Rev. Al Sharpton, who was 12 when Jackson first entered his life, talked about how the civil rights leader’s perseverance helped maintain victories such as the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts but also made it possible for there to exist a cadre Black corporate elites who have headed some of the nation’s largest corporations.
Sharpton also pointed to Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 runs for the White House that, he said, made President Obama’s successful 2004 bid possible because he demanded back then that Blacks and other minorities be given seats at the table where many political decisions are made instead of being on the sidelines to pass out the fliers or go to jail in protest.
Jackson helped ignite an activist fire in political commentator and correspondent Jeff Johnson, who observed that Jackson is still very relevant to young adults today because he “continues to address substantive and pragmatic issues and providing solutions even when those who should be listening aren’t.”
But as Sharpton and others observed, the sort of activism practiced by Jackson, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights legends based not on a foundation of emotional outrage in reaction to social and political injustices, but a serious infrastructure that included training people in how to make change. Johnson said that in too many cases African-Americans have looked for that one charismatic individual to be the person who will lead them as opposed to creating a communal infrastructure to produce “more and more young soldiers who are prepared in their own way at the local level to do the very thing Rev. Jackson did before anybody knew who Rev. Jesse Jackson was.”
He suggested the creation of a training institute named after Jackson that would support young local activists and organizations by providing research and training.
“Young people aren’t looking for someone to roll in from New York or D.C. to change their community,” Johnson aid. “They are looking for people to believe in the work that they’re already doing, to plug them into the local apparatus and support them from a national space.”
(Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)