Why Jesse Cried a River

Among the multitude of reactions news cameras caught on the night of November 4, none reflected the historic moment more than Jesse Jackson. Standing in the crowd of dazed and overly ecstatic Obama-supporters, Jackson, with finger in mouth, cried uncontrollably. Almost, and I hate to say, like a 5-year-old boy who’d dropped his ice cream. While his outpouring of emotions was understandable—being an icon of the civil rights movement—him crying a river for a man he’d said he wanted to castrate baffled as many people as it touched. And it posed the question to many who watched: while Jesse wept, was he honestly crying for Barack’s win or was he tearfully mourning the passing of his own legacy.

History clearly states Obama wouldn’t have won had there not been a Jesse Jackson. Two decades ago, HE was the first black candidate to seriously have a shot at the White House. He’d built his international profile by negotiating the release of two captured American pilots in Syria. He’d assembled a national Rainbow Coalition out of folks—blacks, working class, progressive whites, Latinos, gays, youth, etc—standing outside of Reagan’s Revolution. His 1988 campaign raised millions, registered millions to vote, and out of the 54 primary contests, he came in first or second in 46 of them. Most notably, Jesse opened the door for a Barack nomination when, according to writer William Jelani Cobb in a September 2008 issue of Vibe, he “negotiated for the Democratic Party to switch from winner-take-all primary elections to distributing delegates proportionately,” which is how Hillary Clinton lost to Obama.

Unfortunately, after his ’88 run, Jesse’s legacy and relevance seemed to diminish with each mishap and misstep. The child produced by an extra-marital affair. The growing image of Jackson as an “ambulance chaser,” not really wanting to confront substantial issues but rather chase the racial topics that get maximum media coverage. (One topic being at the top of his past agendas was criticizing hip-hop music and rap artists). Then there was his mercurial reaction to Obama. He’d outwardly supported the candidate until the truth came out during that interview on Fox News. You know the one, where after the cameras supposedly stopped rolling, Jackson complained about Barack “talking down to Black people,” then pantomimed the famous nut cut. Many had speculated then that the civil rights leader simply couldn’t contain his jealousy of the young politician who could possibly go where he couldn’t. And given how Obama got past Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Jesse couldn’t really get beyond Farrakhan (ya’ll remember that association coming to head with “Hymie Town”) you could see how far skillful campaigning by a black candidate had come.

But I think when Jesse watched Barack become President-Elect Obama, his torrent of tears was the melting of his burdens. Him being overwhelmed by the history of the moment was a given. However, over the last 20 years, he’s been a man searching for a cause and a substantial place in history. Not as someone who almost got to the mountaintop, but as the person who took folks there. (Remember, Jesse got an ego, too.) And on election night, he got to witness the fruits of his greatest moment—beyond the ill- conceived marches and movements and, hm, relationships—come true. And so he cried like a kid who dropped his treat, then looked up and saw a younger, smarter kid offering him a tastier one.