By David A. Love (Article originally published on thegrio.com.)
With the imprisonment of former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s historic march on Washington, it seems that the children of civil rights icons are not in the best of shape these days.
In fact they are, well, a hot mess, and appearing more like fodder for a reality show than material worthy of the history books.
The most recent example of civil rights families’ fall from grace is that of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. The senior Jackson reached the height of his influence and power 25 years ago this summer, when he delivered his stirring “Keep Hope Alive” speech at the Democratic National Convention.
That year, Jackson had waged a most successful campaign for president, winning 6.9 million votes, seven primaries and six caucuses, with a multiracial “rainbow coalition” and significant white support.
“All of us – all of us who are here think that we are seated. But we’re really standing on someone’s shoulders. Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Rosa Parks. The mother of the civil rights movement,” said Jackson at the 1988 convention in Atlanta. “My right and my privilege to stand here before you has been won, won in my lifetime, by the blood and the sweat of the innocent.”
Jackson also reflected on the sacrifices made by the martyrs of the civil rights movement: “Many were lost in the struggle for the right to vote: Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young student, gave his life; Viola Liuzzo, a white mother from Detroit, called ni**er lover, had her brains blown out at point blank range; [Michael] Schwerner, [Andrew] Goodman and [James] Chaney – two Jews and a black – found in a common grave, bodies riddled with bullets in Mississippi; the four darling little girls in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. They died that we might have a right to live.”
But 25 years later, Rev. Jackson’s son, Jesse Jackson Jr.—a former Congressman fallen from grace—and Jesse Jr.’s wife, Sandi, are headed to federal prison for misspending $750,000 in campaign funds on such personal items such as TVs, a $43,000 Rolex watch, fur coats, restaurant dinners, and others. Jackson Jr. will spend 2.5 years behind bars, with three years of supervised release, and Sandi Jackson will spend a year on lockdown.
King family squabbles take center stage
How the civil rights community went from being arrested for acts of Jim Crow-era civil disobedience to landing in federal prison over a Rolex watch is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, looking at the progeny of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, one can only express a sense of disappointment over the squandered opportunities this family has had to carry the torch from their parents. Much of that time, in public at least, has been wasted on squabbling.
The family is so divided, apparently, that they are holding separate events to commemorate their father’s March on Washington.
Youngest daughter Bernice King, also head of the King Center, came under criticism recently for saying that her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.”
And we won’t even talk about Alveda King, niece of Dr. King and right-wing, anti-abortion Tea Party activist, who said her uncle would stand with Glenn Beck if he were alive. She also accused the NAACP of race-baiting over the George Zimmerman verdict, and took issue with the viral image portraying Dr. King wearing a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin. Following Zimmerman’s acquittal, many black pastors wore hoodies from the pulpit as they delivered their sermons.
Tragedy for Malcolm X’s family
Meanwhile, the family of Malcolm X has had its challenges and setbacks as well, to compound the tragedy of the slaying of the civil rights leader in 1965. Malikah Shabazz, the youngest daughter of Malcolm X, has been in and out of trouble with the law, including identity theft and grand larceny charges.
Malcolm’s second daughter, Qubilah, who witnessed her father’s assassination at the Audubon Ballroom in New York, was indicted in a plot to kill Minister Louis Farrakhan. But the charges were dropped and she signed a plea agreement agreeing to seek maintaining her innocence but accepting responsibility for her actions. Even Minister Farrakhan came to her defense.
Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, died in a fire set by her grandson, Qubilah’s son Malcolm, when he was 12. And that grandson, Malcolm, was beaten to death earlier this year under some very questionable circumstances in Mexico.
The legacies aren’t all golden
Looking at the current state of our civil rights families, what, if anything, should we make of them?
To begin with, it is implied that in dynasties—whether monarchies, political families or otherwise—the descendants do not have to work hard and prove themselves, and are able to thrive from the achievements of past rulers. In other words, the power and authority is bestowed through inheritance.
And in the case of the sons and daughters of the movement, perhaps the expectations were too high. Should we expect the child to have the same acuity, leadership ability, charisma and vision as the mother or father? Can we, or should we, expect the children of civil rights leaders to make the same sacrifices as their parents? Should they not make their own decisions and live their own life? Moreover, can we reasonably expect perfection in the children, when their parents, though placed on pedestals, were imperfect, as are all human beings?
Another thought: When J. Edgar Hoover said he wanted to “Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement,” he meant that, and we should take him at his word. We cannot know the full extent of the disruption of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program on the black community, nor the damage inflicted upon these families, these children who had to share their parents with the movement, the streets, or even the jail–and in some cases lost them at a young age and witnessed their murder.
Further, when I think of some of the descendants of civil rights legends and giants, I cannot help but consider the recent inter-generational “beef” between Harry Belafonte and Jay Z. Belafonte criticized high-profile celebrities such as Jay Z and Beyoncé for their lack of social responsibility. It must be noted that in 1964, the elder singer and activist traveled to Mississippi with Sidney Poitier to deliver $70,000 to civil rights workers, without police protection and while being chased by the Ku Klux Klan. Can a new generation of would-be leaders even comprehend this?
If the beneficiaries of the civil rights legacy do not understand or appreciate the nature of the sacrifices made by those who came before them, or the values behind those acts of greatness, they will be unable to step to the plate as leaders to address today’s challenges.
And if you haven’t looked around, the problems are great, from gun violence and poverty to a conservative rollback of voting rights. And we do need effective leadership to address these issues. But that type of leadership is taught, and certainly not inherited.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove