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Jesse Jackson speaks at a news conference in New York, Jan. 15, 1997. PHOTO: MARTY LEDERHANDLER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Refighting battles the movement had already won helped ensure poor blacks would stay impoverished.
In his 1989 autobiography, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” Ralph Abernathy, a close friend and mentor of Martin Luther King Jr., offers a gripping account of King’s assassination at a Memphis, Tenn., motel in 1968.
King was shot standing on the motel balcony while Abernathy was inside. “I bolted out the door and found him there, face up, sprawled and unmoving,” Abernathy wrote. “Stepping over his frame I knelt down, gathered him in my arms, and began patting him on his left cheek.” While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, Abernathy tried to comfort King, who was losing consciousness. “Martin. It’s all right. Don’t worry. This is Ralph. This is Ralph.”
Jesse Jackson, a young King confidante, had been down in the motel courtyard chatting with other members of King’s entourage when the shooting occurred. “I glanced at the courtyard below, consciously aware for the first time that somebody, somewhere had fired a gun,” Abernathy wrote. “It had been only a matter of seconds, but no one was visible in the parking lot. Jesse . . . and the others had apparently taken cover—where, I didn’t know.”
Mr. Jackson made his presence known a short time later, according to Abernathy. After the ambulance left and the news media arrived, Mr. Jackson made a beeline for the television cameras. “ ‘Yes,’ Jesse was saying, ‘I was the last person he spoke to as I was cradling him in my arms.” The next day, Abernathy wrote, “Jesse appeared before the Chicago City Council wearing a bloodstained shirt and saying that it was the same shirt he had been wearing the previous evening when he had held Martin.”
Last week Mr. Jackson, 81, announced his retirement as head of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil-rights organization he founded three years after King’s death. By the late 1970s, Mr. Jackson was arguably the most prominent black political activist in the country. Over the decades, his theatrical self-promotion became familiar. His preening and rhyming—“Down with dope, up with hope!”—was affectionately parodied on late-night television. He ran for president in 1984 and 1988, did better than any black candidate before Barack Obama, and has since been a major player in Democratic politics.
Mr. Jackson likes to bask in the glow of King, but comparisons between the two can be overdone. When King died, blacks were far better off than they had been before, thanks to his intimate involvement in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Mr. Jackson has done well for himself, financially and otherwise, but can the same be said for the black Americans he claims to represent?
On some level the question may be unfair. The needs of black Americans in the King era were manifestly different from the problems the black underclass has faced since the 1970s. Mr. Jackson and other activists, from Al Sharpton to the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, have modeled their activism in many ways on King’s, but it has been in the service of battles for basic civil rights that had already been fought and won. Hence, the diminishing returns.
“After the 1960s, any understanding of the role of black leaders was cast in the context of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership, with the implication that African Americans can rise in American life only through direct-action protest against the political order,” wrote historian and Booker T. Washington biographer Robert Norrell. “To be sure, that confrontational approach accounted for King’s great success, but as the sole model for group advancement it has not always worked, because it does not apply to all circumstances.”
After King’s death, black America didn’t need another King. It needed a leadership that would focus on helping the black underclass develop the skills, attitudes and behaviors necessary to take full advantage of the rights King had worked to secure. What emerged instead was a leadership that shifted the focus from equal rights to racial favoritism and blamed all racial disparities primarily on racism.
Mr. Jackson’s quarter-century-old Wall Street Project, for example, essentially shakes down successful corporations for “donations” in the name of expanding job opportunities for minorities. It’s possible that blacks are underrepresented on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley because of employers’ racial animus, but the far more plausible explanation is that hiring at Google or Goldman Sachs reflects the significant racial gap in academic achievement.
Mr. Jackson helped turn the civil-rights movement into an industry that has boosted the fortunes of blacks who were already better off but he has done little to help the black poor. Worse, by advocating an ever-larger welfare state that creates incentives not to work and subsidizes counterproductive behavior, Mr. Jackson and his political allies have inadvertently helped to keep the black poor impoverished.