Out of America: Jesse reborn by resurrection of Rainbow's ends

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - There are few things as melancholy, yet as fascinating, as the relics of US election campaigns past. Going through old office files recently, I came across some faded Jesse Jackson brochures from 1988. They still exude a passion you can almost touch.

The files were printed before that year's Democratic primary in Michigan which he won so stunningly, the high- water mark of Mr Jackson's party political career. Since then the fortunes of America's most celebrated living civil rights leader have steadily waned - until, perhaps, now.

Last week, Mr Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition convened a conference here to tackle the problems of urban crime and its most single depressing aspect, the growing scourge of violence that blacks commit against each other. Many of the most important black figures in the US attended, from politicians and cabinet officials to entertainers such as Bill Cosby. It would be an exaggeration to say they resolved anything. But Jesse Jackson has a new mission.

His career is a story of failures, of a flight from responsibility thinly masked by headline-stealing stunts such as a hostage release in the Middle East, or a visit to Fidel Castro. Twice Mr Jackson sought the presidency and lost. Four years ago, he declined to run for mayor of Washington DC, even though the high-profile job was his for the asking. 'I'm a tree shaker, not a jelly maker' he once remarked, explaining his aversion to the chores of elected office.

During the 1992 campaign, in which he did not run, Mr Jackson was sidelined and spurned by Bill Clinton the candidate, as he nudged the Democratic party towards the white mainstream. Under Bill Clinton the President, matters did not improve. Mr Jackson failed to become head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People civil rights organisation and no prominent government job was offered. What Mr Jackson once called his 'endless campaign' continued, its vehicle the Rainbow Coalition. But before last week, most people had stopped listening.

They shouldn't have. For all Mr Jackson's faults, he is still the nearest thing to a leader black America possesses. The Clinton cabinet may contain four blacks; there are people such as Kweise Mfume, leader of the black Congressional Caucus and whose story, from the mean streets of Baltimore to power and esteem on Capitol Hill, is as inspiring as anything Mr Jackson can offer.

Many blacks resent Mr Jackson. Among ordinary voters, he is apt to alienate as many as he attracts. But few can match his credentials, his oratory, his physical presence. And in the painful matter of acknowledging the crisis of black-on-black violence, no other black leader has so much as raised his hand.

Violent crimes in the US are mostly committed between people of the same race. Though blacks are barely one- tenth of the population, they account for half of all murder victims. Between 1980 and 1992 violent crimes (excluding murder), rose four times as fast against blacks as against whites. Proportionately, twice as many blacks as whites consider crime and violence the most important problem facing the country. Count Mr Jackson, who lives on a Washington block that saw five murders in 1993, among them. 'There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life,' he said recently, 'than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then to look around and see someone white and feel relieved.'

Such words have not endeared him to everyone. Mr Jackson was accused of playing to racial stereotypes and feeding white prejudice. Nor was his statement greatly appreciated that ascribed the violence of the inner cities to 'spiritual surrender, ethical collapse, and degenerative self-hatred'. But they cannot be faulted for courage and honesty. He may sound on occasion like a Republican suburbanite, but the last thing Mr Jackson wants is to make the problems of black America worse.

There was, he warned at the weekend, 'no quick fix' - certainly not the mixture of more police and prisons, stiffer sentences, and reduced rights of appeal for convicted murderers contained in the Senate crime bill that the President supports. Such ideas tackled symptoms rather than causes: the lack of jobs, the breakdown of the family, a culture that has lost hope and values.

And so back to that yellowing brochure of 1988 and its proclamation of 'Bold Leadership, New Direction'. It applies perfectly to 1994. Of Jackson the crusader, there is no doubt. The Rainbow Coalition will hold further anti-crime summits before a youth march to the White House on 4 April, the 26th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. 'We shall turn Dr King's crucifixion date into a resurrection.' If Jesse Jackson has the patience to see this venture through, he will seal his own resurrection in public life.