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.
For my father, who never voted in Haiti, "being somebody" meant living without the yoke of political oppression. It meant raising us in a place where we could freely express a political opinion and where the possibility existed that we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be. These were noble and ambitious notions that my six year-old mind could not yet grasp.
But two years later, Jesse Jackson appeared on Sesame Street and, along with a collection of multi-hued children, recited his now well-known poem I Am – Somebody. It was a sweet television moment that embodied the hope for racial harmony for a new generation of young Americans – for my generation.
Though I was too young to fully appreciate the poem's larger universal message, I was not too young to see the parallels between my father's mantra and that of the famous black activist. I got the part about being "somebody." I understood it mattered.
The poem would later become an anthem of sorts that spoke to the aspirations of politically and socially marginalized black Americans, a group to which my immigrant, striver family now also belonged.
As I grew up, I came to understand that although political activism was dangerous and to be avoided in Haiti, in America political disengagement was the real danger. In Haiti you ran the risk of being disappeared. In the U.S. you risked being invisible.
As a teenager, I watched how black activists used politics as a tool for addressing the needs of the larger black community, and how they elected leaders they believed would protect their interests within the larger white political establishment. I became a student of politics, and in a small way Jesse Jackson was responsible for that.
It's pretty amazing how far Jackson's star has fallen since then. It's hard to believe that, like Barack Obama, he once captured the imagination of the American body politic. I know he is now viewed as a self-serving, attention-hungry, sometimes ethically-challenged dinosaur of the Civil Rights Movement. I know that he brought some of these criticisms on himself. I know he has made some spectacular and hypocritical blunders. I know. I know. I don't need to list them here, we all know them. I've criticized him myself, been disappointed in him myself, and even laughed at him when he became the center of news stories that had nothing to do with him or civil rights. (Think Terri Schiavo.)
I have what may be an unrealistically high standard for people who call themselves reverends. If they want to lead me, then they have to better than me. (Many of them rank as media hucksters in my book.) Still, I also know that well-meaning ministers, pastors, priest, imams, rabbis, and others of the cloth too, are all human and they fall, and fail, just as often as the rest of us.
So I went back and viewed that Sesame Street episode with Jesse on YouTube and I felt my heart instantly soften. I can't lie. It took me back to my childhood and then my brain fast-forwarded to when I was a young journalism student in New York and scared to death of asking public officials questions – in public. I was intimidated by people in power, and by the pack of aggressive reporters that is the New York City's press corp.
Press conferences gave me hives. Speaking in public terrified me. This drove my journalism professors crazy. It took me months to work up the courage to ask the then-mayor, Ed Koch, a question even though I attended his daily press briefings. City Council President David Dinkins refused to give me the time of day because he recognized early on that I lacked the aggression gene. I stood quietly in the back of the room at press conferences hoping that someone else would ask the questions I needed answered. More often than not, they did.
Then one day I was assigned to cover a speech by Jackson for my reporting and writing class. He would be speaking in the large reception area in my dorm, no less. News cameras were everywhere; pit bull reporters lobbed all sorts of questions. I stood at the back of room holding my tape recorder and ridiculously over-sized microphone knowing that I could not return to class without a relevant sound-bite. I could barely hear the questions, much less Jesse's answers. I looked at the questions scrawled in my notebook and each time I attempted to ask a question, a more aggressive reporter would drown me out.
When the press conference was over, a crowd surrounded Jackson, and his handlers began hustling him out a back door. I stood there dejected and on the verge of tears when Jesse caught my eye.
He pointed at me, signaled for to me to come closer, and asked if I had a question for him. Yes, I said meekly. Everyone turned and looked at me as I approached him and read my question verbatim from my notebook. He took the microphone from me and spoke carefully into it, giving me a detailed answer, and added some other asides, for good measure.
You got what you need? He asked. Yes, thank you, I said.
I knew my professors were starting to doubt my reporting abilities and I was immensely grateful to Jesse. He helped me overcome a semester long hurdle in a matter of minutes. Of course, no one who knows me now would believe I was once shy about asking questions.
The irony that I would one day make my living writing about a political system that I once didn't even understand, is not lost on me. I was not attuned to the nuances of American racial politics when I was first introduced to Jesse on Sesame Street, and I had just become an American citizen when I actually met him 15 years later. I could not even vote for him when he ran for the presidency in 1984
It's sad that Jesse has been reduced to a caricature of his former self, even if it has partly been by his own hand. It's sad, too, that we've forgotten or overlooked how much he has done for black Americans and for his country. The man has traveled the world and, at times, has been an effective goodwill ambassador for the U.S. He got American prisoners released in Syria and Cuba and Belgrade. He has promoted democracy in Kenya and political reconciliation in Northern Ireland. He has taken courageous stands on a great many important issues, and despite his worst moments, he was often on the right side of those issues.
He has also traveled to places where he was neither invited nor welcomed, and those visits have rubbed many people the wrong way. But we live in a free country and that has made the arc of Jesse's life all the more interesting.
In our up-to the-minute media culture, recent history often trumps a record of past good works, but I'm glad the past is not completely erased and is there for us with just a click of a mouse.
Though Jesse may now be seen as an imperfect standard bearer of the Civil Rights Movement, his Sesame Street message that I was "somebody" made me feel part of a larger black American family and taught me that black pride was universal.
Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.