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When Jesse Had Game

Some see him as a discredited relic of the past, but he was once a young firebrand who inspired my generation.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks on a radio broadcast from the headquarters of Operation PUSH, July 1973.

As news programs around the country marked the 40th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recently, I watched the special reports and documentaries with a mixture of shame and pride, joy and sadness, inspiration and discouragement. I listened to the interviews of civil rights leaders who knew King and the regular folks who did not; the recollections of people who marched with him and those who wished they had.

I saw U.S. Congressman John Lewis sob at the memories and Andrew Young recall one poignant moment after another. I listened to ministers in whose churches King had preached speak in awe about the power of his words. And, more times than I can count, I saw that iconic picture of King lying dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and the men who loved him pointing in the direction of the shooter.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. was among those men and each time I saw the picture, I realized how limited his presence was in the coverage of the anniversary. For someone who had actually been there during King's murder, his near absence from the commemorations was telling.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but I doubt it. Jackson has lost so much credibility over the years and has been so overexposed, that it would not surprise me if members of the news media had consciously avoided him.

This got me thinking about my introduction to Jackson. It was by way of Sesame Street, the beloved children's television program that debuted in 1969, the same year my siblings and I arrived in this country as immigrants from Haiti. The show taught me about all things American, including how to speak English.

Our parents had come to the U.S. two years before us, and during the years we lived apart from them, our longing to be with them was nourished by our father's stories about the wonderful lives and opportunities we would have once we got to that "great country." Those stories imbued us with a sense of security and promise about the future, a feeling of belonging in America even before we'd arrived.

When we did arrive though, we found a completely different reality, one defined by hardship, isolation and alienation. The country was undergoing radical social change and still reeling from the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy.

Our family was shunned by our black American neighbors worried about competition for the limited number of jobs and decent housing available to blacks back then; and rejected by white neighbors nervous about racial tensions and the integration taking place in our neighborhood.

From our perplexed perspective as newcomers, America seemed disappointingly defined by race. I often asked my father through tears why he brought me to such an awful place where American children teased me mercilessly because of my accent, pulled my hair ribbons, and called me "Haitian" like it was dirty word.

"So you can be somebody," he'd answer each time without hesitation.