It’s not too late for shamed sons of civil rights leaders to honor their fathers

June 13, 2013

As Father’s Day approaches, it’s hard for me to overlook the shameful parade of sons of celebrated leaders in our area who are in jail or on the way to jail for confessed crimes such as bribery, embezzlement and just plain thievery. Their crimes go beyond mere law breaking. The sons dishonored a legacy of public service that their fathers helped build to break down barriers to economic and political progress for African Americans.

The latest inductees to the Political Hall of Shame: Former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown, who just this week pleaded guilty to accepting $55,000 in illegal funds, some stuffed in a Redskins coffee mug. Former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to embezzling $750,000 from his campaign funds to purchase such items as a Rolex watch, furs and a fedora owned by Michael Jackson. And then there’s former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., who is serving time after admitting he stole $355,000 in city money that could have gone to make a difference in the lives of city youths.

Just as civil rights victories are celebrated collectively, the spectacles of college-educated sons in upper-middle-class families joining the felons in the prison pipeline have created collective sadness among the rank and file. These men’s very ascent to higher office was on the backs of their famous fathers, trailblazers in the political and civil rights struggle. Civil rights veteran Jesse L. Jackson’s credible run for president in 1984 and 1988 was a jewel in the foundation later polished and perfected by President Obama. Ron Brown, the late commerce secretary and Democratic National Committee chairman, opened avenues for black businesses and business development, as did the senior Thomas.

One can only wonder what created this downward spiral and what does it say to the next generation? What lessons did they learn from their fathers? Is this fathering gone wrong? Jesse Jr. and Michael Brown grew up as privileged sons fathered into circles of wealth and influence. They grew to manhood at a time when the rhetoric of hard work, integrity and ethical-based public service rang in their ears, and the doors opened by their famous fathers were present for them to walk through.

Did their upbringing evolve into a culture of greed where victories for the masses were internalized as victories for self, entitling them to the biggest symbols of material success: expensive cars, the bling, the swagger, the style. In some circles, public service has become the Big Ticket of self-indulgence, creating a court of youngish, entitled black princes or superstars. In a way, the fruit did not fall far from the tree, because men like the senior Jackson and Brown often performed as Kings of the Hill.

My listening ear has picked up many excuses for this behavior. An often-heard argument: “Well, these black men are not doing anything that whites haven’t been doing all along.” Granted, theft is an equal right among thieves, but to African Americans — who represent a group that has been denied resources, seen their children swallowed up by drugs, poor schools and a prison pipeline — that choice must not be an option.

Like many area residents, I am pained by this sad spectacle because I had personal contact with these fathers. In the early ’70s in Chicago, I was a neighbor and frequent visitor to the Jackson household, talking to his wife, Jackie. I delighted in carrying the chubby-faced Jesse Jr. on my shoulders. Throughout his career, I respected him as a brilliant man. I also had many conversations with Brown and Thomas.

Despite their setbacks, there is still a future role for these favored sons. Their fathers were not perfect servants but at their very best were public servants. It is not too late for the sons to honor their fathers.

Barbara Reynolds is an author and former USA Today columnist.

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