Debate in civil rights community about Obama
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's inflammatory comments about Barack Obama this week highlight a philosophical debate within the civil rights community about the focus of his campaign for president, activists said.
During a break from a Fox News program, Jackson whispered to another guest that Obama was "talking down to black people" and then, unaware that his microphone was on, used crude language to describe wanting to castrate Obama.
Jackson's off-air comments came after a guest asked him about Obama's recent speeches in black churches about the responsibility of black fathers and his proposals to expand President Bush's faith-based initiative.
While some civil rights stalwarts dismissed Jackson's remark as vulgar and offensive, they said Jackson's broader criticism of Obama should not be overlooked. Some activists say Jackson has not focused sufficiently on policy solutions to some of the problems facing the black community.
"There is a lot of debate within the civil rights community about Obama," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, a member of the NAACP board from Philadelphia. "A lot of the old war horses like Jesse and I have had serious questions about his orientation to race, given his words about transcending race. Saying that he didn't believe there was a systematic racial problem in this country - that goes to a very core of the way we see racial issues in this country."
Others, however, said Jackson's criticism illustrated a generational divide among black leaders and might reveal the 66-year-old Jackson's fears that his stature is fading. Obama is 20 years his junior.
"It was shortsighted and reactionary," said the Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., pastor of Baltimore's Union Baptist Church and an Obama supporter. "Now is the time to pass the baton, and to realize there are others who are able to address these situations."
The Obama campaign accepted Jackson's apology but maintained that personal responsibility has been a core issue for the Democratic presidential candidate.
"He will continue to speak out about our responsibilities to ourselves and each other, and he of course accepts Reverend Jackson's apology," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign.
Melissa Harris Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, said the incident wouldn't turn black voters away from Obama despite their feelings for Jackson, whom she called "the inheritor of the civil rights movement."
She said, "Oh, the blacks are with Barack. We're with Barack."
Some have suggested that a rift between Obama and Jackson might even help Obama with white suburban voters."If Jesse Jackson is against you, then [white people] figure you must be a good candidate," Lacewell said.