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Rev. Jesse Jackson Honored at Georgetown University

David M. Whettstone | 11/16/2011, 2:23 p.m.

There can be no doubt that Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is an iconic figure in the civil rights movement. In honor of his 70th birthday, a deep appreciation of his role, work, and life was celebrated in both a public program and private luncheon facilitated by professor Michael Eric Dyson and Rev. Marcia L. Dyson on Mon., Nov. 7, 2011.

"Prophets are seldom recognized within their lifetime," said Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College, at the luncheon. However, she made a strong and present tribute to Jackson's lifetime commitment for social and economic justice by focusing on the highlights of his legacy.

Her overview--reflecting her discipline, economics--emphasized that Jackson understands and acts on the macro- and the micro- nature of life's issues. "He sees the big picture and he cares about the 'small' things .... He is dedicated to everyday people." She added that when it comes to politics and policy, "Rev. Jackson acted and acts as if he, and we, belong at the table."

Rev. Frederick D. Haynes, III, senior pastor of the Friendship-West Baptist Church (Dallas, Texas), thanked Jackson for transforming individual lives but also for his efforts to heal the nation. Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network and host of MSNBC's Politics Nation, offered powerful praise for Jackson's role in the civil rights movement.

A panel including Laura Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office of the ACLU; Gary Flowers, executive director of Black Leadership Forum; Jeff Johnson, contributor to MSNBC; and theologians/activists Grace Ji-Sun Kim and James Braxton Peterson underscored Jackson's connections to youth, women, marginalize people, the international community and hip-hop.

Various speakers cited and Jackson, himself, explained three main slogans or phrases that he is known for: "I am somebody," "Keep hope alive," and "African American."

Jackson recalled the shutting down of Resurrection City on the Mall in the District of Columbia. The effort had its focus on the alleviation of poverty. The assembly was tear-gassed. The situation grew discouraging, people were looking for vision and direction. Before the dispersion, Jackson recalled what Howard Thurman wrote in Jesus and the Disinherited, "When you're reduced to the naked essence [of yourself], you are still somebody."

Members of the crowd seeking direction and next steps, virtually did a call and response in their dialogue with Jackson. Thus "I am somebody" was forged as a rallying cry that is with us, young and old, to this day.

"Keep hope alive" was Jackson's campaign exhortation to those who believed in his second attempt for the presidency. He wanted to honor those who did not want him to give up in the late stages of the primaries.

According to Jackson, "African American" was a term well-used in the margins before he made it even more notable. He said, "The first reaction to it was from colored people, then black folk. It made us realize we are global citizens."

Jackson reminded the audience that there is much to do for the cause of social justice, the well being of others. He indicated that 52 million Americans are food insecure, the differences in immigration policy between Cuban and Haitian communities, public education under siege, prisons operated for profit, high rates of Black unemployment, and the oppression of black Africans in post-conflict Libya.

At several points in his speech he pointed out that all should participate in the needful and urgent effort of the Occupy Movement, insisting that it does have leadership and focus. For Black folk in particular, he suggested that we who are disproportionally oppressed should number "in the millions" with the movement.

"Do not focus on my work, but on our agenda," said Jackson. In reflecting over his life and career and upon social justice efforts in this country he adds, "I am convinced that this is God's work and it will continue."