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Congressional Black Caucus celebrates Jesse Jackson's first presidential run

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By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009; 2:18 PM

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus paid tribute to the 25th anniversary of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's first run for president Wednesday morning on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In successive one-minute speeches, caucus members praised Jackson as a trailblazer whose presidential runs in 1984 and 1988 were important steps toward President Obama's election last year.

The decision to honor Jackson comes at a time when the meaning of black political power is being debated and redefined. The CBC's recognition of his career, which will continue at a "Discussion on Race" event Wednesday night, is a nod to the history he represents and their belief that issues of race are still central for black politicians.

Wednesday, Jackson looked on with pride as his son Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) presided over the first hour of House business and CBC members stepped to the microphone.

"We really benefited from his unbelievable work," said caucus chairman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who was twice a Jackson delegate at Democratic Party conventions. "He paved the way for many of us to run for Congress and other elected offices. He showed us how to build a serious grass-roots movement that cut across race and class."

Lee was followed by 11 other CBC members and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio). They spoke to a nearly empty chamber.

Jackson called the tributes "a joy." "I remember talking to President Barack about it," he said. "He was a student at Columbia in 1984, watching the debate. To see so many people gain traction in that season is really gratifying, but I see many people whose spirits are now challenged as they grapple with this sinking economy."

Jackson, the second African American to seek a major party's presidential nomination -- after New York's Shirley Chisholm -- won five primaries in 1984 and captured 6.9 million votes and 11 contests in 1988. Lee said it was the coalition Jackson tried to build that elected Obama.

Jackson is part of a generation of black political leadership that grapples with Obama's emergence and talk of a "post-racial" society, an idea that the president himself has rejected, noting that racial disparities still exist. Yet, his administration has been criticized by some for appearing to shy away from direct discussions of the topic. Jackson, who endorsed Obama, made his own controversial statements about the then-candidate during last year's campaign.

Lee was not the only CBC member who recalled working for Jackson's early efforts. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was his national co-chairman. Del. Donna M. Christian-Christensen (D-U.S. Virgin Islands) led his campaign in the Virgin Islands.

The Congressional Black Caucus has itself been a part of the debate about the meaning of black political power during the Obama presidency, and the discussion on race Wednesday night is intended to "examine the critical role of race in our society and how race continues to shape the legislative priorities of the caucus."

"By honoring Rev. Jackson they want to say that there would be no Barack Obama if there had not been a Jesse Jackson," said Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University and editor of a forthcoming book, "Whose Black Politics? Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership." "They are trying to assert that they are still here, and that they are still relevant."

Wilbur Rich, a professor of political science at Wellesley College, agreed. "Both Jackson and Obama have come out of the same Chicago political tradition, but they occupy very different spaces. It is time for [Jackson] to relax and get all his accolades."


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