Jackson eclipsed in the age  of Obama

Obama, with daughter Malia, visits Jesse Jackson at Rainbow/PUSH Coalition headquarters in Chicago in 2004. (Tribune / E. Jason Wambsgans)

In this periodic series, the Tribune examines the nation’s enduring struggles over race.

For most of Jesse Jackson's life, his trademark declaration — "I am somebody!" — has been self-evident.

But not so much anymore. The rise of Barack Obama and a surge of young leaders in the civil rights movement are raising questions about how big a somebody Jackson really is these days.

It is a perplexing transition not just for Jackson but for the civil rights movement too. For both, the challenge will be to remain central to politics in this country even as Obama's nomination for president next week prompts many Americans to believe the major goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved.

Jackson will have none of such talk.

"It will be a stunning achievement for America," Jackson said about Obama's impending nomination. "But the work of civil rights, broadly, the whole fight for the rights of the individual, will continue."

Obama's nomination will cap a period of striking change in leadership of the African-American community. And Jackson must adjust to the change in order to remain relevant in the age of Obama.

In politics, where Jackson once was without peer as an African-American on the national stage, Obama has eclipsed him. The generation Obama represents has achieved success everywhere from Capitol Hill to city halls to state capitals across the country. In civil rights, Rev. Al Sharpton leads a new wing of the movement that is flanked by radio voices and bloggers who have shown an ability to mobilize mass protests.

"The largest challenge facing Jesse is, in a day when you have a Barack in government and there are players like Sharpton in civil rights, are you still relevant?" Sharpton asked.

"Part of his relevance is that some of the new players out there, people like me, he helped mentor. The question now is, does he play the elder statesman in terms of living through them?"

How Jackson, 66, handles not just the presidential campaign but a prospective Obama presidency will do much to define his legacy. It also will say much about what new course the civil rights movement must set.

"Jesse is caught betwixt and between," said Cornel West, a Princeton University professor and leading voice on African-American politics. "But that is true of Jesse's cause as well."

An embarrassing slip

A humiliating public stumble jolted Jackson into this delicate adjustment period. When a Fox News microphone in early July picked up Jackson's use of a vulgar expression to criticize Obama, the episode seemed to symbolize Jackson's frustration at feeling left on the sidelines by Obama's historic ascendancy.

The "open mic" episode, Jackson said, was the most humiliating public moment of his career, worse even than when he briefly withdrew from public life after news surfaced in 2001 that he had fathered a daughter out of wedlock.

To help himself recover from the Obama gaffe, Jackson spent 10 days fasting and meditating in the Arizona desert, he said, "talking with Dr. King, reading the Bible and talking with myself" in an effort to sort out what had prompted his ill-chosen remarks.

"I wanted to see if there was a gap between my heart and my lip," he said.

Jackson's verdict: He felt his heart was true, squarely behind Obama. And even if his lips had run amok—expressing a desire to emasculate the African-American candidate for "talking down to black people"—he stood behind the message.

"It was not meant to publicly embarrass him, because I had shared the message with him before," Jackson said.

Jackson makes a point of saying he speaks frequently with Obama by telephone. However, Obama has never campaigned alongside Jackson in the 18 months since he declared his candidacy in front of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield.