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Persevering Even When Heroes Fall

Persevering Even When Heroes Fall

Disappointed is perhaps the best way to describe how I felt when I awoke to the news that Rev. Jesse Jackson  had cheated on his wife and has fathered a 20-month-old daughter with a former employee and college professor. I wasn’t shocked, not dismayed, not even morally outraged. Simply disappointed.
On the heels of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, and after years of hearing rumors that Jackson was a philanderer, this latest revelation didn’t shock me. Still, it hurt. Of course, it is always disappointing to be reminded that our leaders are not only as vulnerable and flawed as the rest of us but, on occasion, incredibly naïve about the public scrutiny they are subject to.
Last September, I had an opportunity to attend a Congressional Black Caucus hearing on the crisis of Black fatherhood at which Rev. Jackson’s son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., was one of the speakers. During his remarks, he instructed the audience to hold their right hands high above their heads and form a small circle by joining the tips of their thumbs with the tips of their index fingers. He then instructed the group to lower their circles slowly toward their faces until the two conjoined fingertips rested lightly on their chins. Rep. Jackson demonstrated as he spoke, but instead of bringing his fingers to his chin, he rested them on his cheek. He then asked the group to hold the posture while looking around. Nearly everyone had their fingers on their cheeks, despite his specific instruction to place the fingers on the chin.
Rep. Jackson used the exercise to demonstrate the challenges parents face in rearing children. Often, it is not what we say, but what we do that makes the greatest impression, he said.
I don’t know whether the young congressman knew about his father’s situation at that time. But whenever it was revealed, I only can imagine the depth of disappointment it must have caused a son who loves both of his parents and who has so assiduously followed his father’s example of public service and fighting for justice. 
Certainly, the congressman is not the only person who Jackson Sr.’s example has inspired. I suspect that, initially, Dr. Karin L. Stanford —  the mother of Jackson’s young daughter —  was, herself, stirred by the Reverend’s example. Her 1997 book, Beyond the Boundaries, is reputed to be a thoughtful examination of his work in international relations and foreign policy. The book won the National Conference of Black Political Scientists’ Outstanding Book Award in 1998. As a graduate of California State University-Chico, the University of Southern California and Howard University, and as a former professor at the University of Georgia, Stanford also has been in positions to have inspired others.
The flaws of the human condition make missteps such as the ones made by these two accomplished intellectuals more commonplace than we care to admit. Perhaps the universe is ordered this way to keep us humble — especially those who lead.
Still, for many in the family of African American educators, the Jackson/Stanford episode is a particularly bitter pill to swallow because it hits so close to home. The proximity of scholars to political leaders and policy makers is as old as the concept of government. Generally, scholars in these positions are viewed as purveyors of wisdom. African American scholars have had a particularly hard time gaining such respect.
As the number of Black women scholars continues to grow, so should opportunities for people like Stanford to work alongside dynamic political leaders — male and female. Perhaps her experience will serve as a lesson to those who will follow that access to power not only enhance one’s capacity to wield significant influence, but also one’s duty to exercise sound personal judgment.
We can only hope that Stanford is strong enough to emerge from this crisis and resume the career that her credentials have prepared her for.  It would be a greater shame for her to abandon it.
Jackson has stumbled in the public spotlight before. The “Hymie Town” incident cost him a significant amount of political clout, which he has never really recovered. Let’s hope that when the dust settles this time, he’ll be able to reconcile with his family and continue the work to which he has devoted his life; albeit it with his moral credibility tarnished.
Most of all, let’s pray that the innocent child who is at the center of this ignominy will grow up nurtured by the knowledge that even in the face of public censure, her parents were unwavering in their unconditional love and commitment to her, and that her life was worth their embarrassment.
As for the rest of us, I expect we will shake off our disappointment and remain committed to the values we hold dear. The causes that the Rev. Jackson and others have pursued over the years are larger and nobler than he or any of us who have joined the fight. After all, as the late, great educator John Henrick Clarke pointed out in a 1996 documentary about his own life, if a leader falls and the person behind him can’t pick up the mantle, either the leader wasn’t very good or the cause wasn’t worth fighting.  

— Cheryl D. Fields is Editor-At-Large for Black Issues in Higher Education.

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