Brown funeral and MLK remembrance spart questions about Jackson

Matt Towery

1/4/2007 12:01:00 AM - Matt Towery

As we again approach the time of year in which America again pays homage to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have you ever wondered why Jesse Jackson is so often left in the corner at official ceremonies involving the King family?

Most former King associates are rightfully honored by the family. For example, King's successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was the late Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. This self-effacing, good-natured gentleman was truly fit to carry on King's work.

The late Coretta Scott King herself, MLK's widow, also campaigned tirelessly to "keep the dream alive," as she put it.

Other King lieutenants practiced what King preached by working to feed the hungry, as the late Hosea Williams did, or working more broadly in public service, as Andrew Young did as an American ambassador.

But Jesse Jackson followed a different path following King's assassination in Memphis in 1968. (He was there with King the day he died.) Jackson became the charismatic superstar whose Operation PUSH and Rainbow Coalition launched him into a long career as agitator, litigator, entertainer and even presidential contender.

Give Jackson his due. He's been a gifted orator with a keen political sense. When staged alongside black activist Al Sharpton, Jackson can take on the air of a distinguished statesman.

Such was the case when the two appeared together at the recent funeral of singer James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul." For once, Sharpton had a legitimate reason for his presence. Believe it or not, he had once been a road manager and even a backup singer for Brown.

As for Jackson, I'm sure he knew Brown well. Even if not, it's no surprise to see him at a major event where he was obviously welcome.

He isn't always welcome. At Coretta King's funeral last year, it was impossible not to notice that Jackson was not among those invited to speak. In fact, the King family has shown a distinct chill toward Jackson in public settings. It's really no secret among those who closely follow the First Family of America's civil rights movement that Jackson appears to get the cold shoulder from the Kings.

There are many theories as to why. One highly placed source says the unacknowledged rift goes back to the day of King's assassination. Apparently, some who were on the balcony of the motor lodge where King was gunned down, and others who were later at the hospital, viewed Jackson's behavior that day and night as at least self-promoting, perhaps even calculating.

Whether those who speak about this on condition of anonymity will ever reveal their true thoughts to the public is doubtful. Just as politics is a world in which private views -- such as Gerald Ford's interview with Bob Woodward -- often only come to light after the person in question has died, so too it seems to be in the world of King's legacy.

Public opinion over Jackson has been mixed over the years. It's fair to say that his unfavorable poll ratings usually outpace his favorable ratings. Nevertheless, his popularity among African-Americans is always high. For the purposes of Jackson's career, that's all that really matters. Self-appointed though he may be, he remains a prominent spokesman for American blacks.

So much more the irony that many prominent names presumed to be admirers of Jackson in fact feel uneasy in his company and unsure of his motives, both now and for many years past.

With new African-American leaders prominent in the U.S. government, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and possible presidential candidate Barack Obama, it's safe to wonder whether Jackson's emerging role will be reduced to showing up at funerals and initiating lawsuits.

James Brown was known as "the hardest working man in show business." Jesse Jackson may be the hardest working self-promoter in America.