Politics » Politics Feature

Jackson Soldiers On

Civil rights icon pointedly stays out of a local voting controversy during a weekend visit to Memphis.

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose very presence has an inspirational quality, may have been spread somewhat thin on Sunday, when the great icon of civil and human rights made appearances in Memphis relating to both the city's forthcoming homage to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Operation PUSH, Jackson's own self-empowerment initiative, and to the celebration of Black History Month.

Jackson also needed to be mindful to the demands of various important local projects and causes, such as the ongoing campaign of CME Church functionaries to renovate the Collins Chapel Health and Recreational Center (aka Correctional Hospital) for African Americans with special needs, one of several community improvement projects whose aims are aligned with the purposes of Jackson's PUSH organization.

The Reverend has made repeated visits to Memphis on behalf of its renovation, the estimated price tag of which has risen from $3 million a year ago to its current projected level of $5 million. 

Earlier on Sunday, Jackson participated in a press conference upon his arrival at Memphis International Airport, preached the morning service at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, and toured the Collins Chapel facility, after which he took part in yet another press availability.

Then came an evening visit to Mt. Pisgah CME Church for what was billed as a "community town hall forum." At Mt. Pisgah, a palpably tired Jackson (recently he announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease) turned out to be essentially a guest observer, sitting at a conference table in the church's front aisle, along with various church and school and public officials, while other officials and political candidates of various kinds sat in the congregation itself. 

His role during this phase of the program was to be a witness to the proceedings, which would go on to include lengthy speeches from those sharing the conference table with him — on issues ranging from Collins Chapel to school issues, and to matters involving Kroger vacating Orange Mound and rising MLGW rates.

All the while, Jackson sat silent, taking things in. There arose one potentially controversial moment, when City Councilman Ed Ford Jr. rose to expound, first on the grocery-desert problem developing in Orange Mound and then on the issue of a forthcoming November referendum on the November ballot by the council.

The referendum, backed enthusiastically by Ford, calls for the cancellation of a Ranked Choice Voting initiative approved by the city's voters in a previous 2008 referendum and scheduled for implementation by the Election Commission during the forthcoming 2019 city election. In a nutshell, RCV would allow voters to cast as many as three votes for an office, ranking their preferences. The procedure distributes the voting results in such a way that runoffs in cases where there is no majority winners would prove unnecessary.

"Ranked Choice Voting, in my eyes doesn't help us," Ford said, comparing RCV to poll tax procedures of the Jim Crow past. He spoke of having debated the matter against "somebody in from Minneapolis" and against University of Memphis law professor and former County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, an RCV supporter.

"They must have gotten desperate," he said, noting that his debate opponents had cited both former President Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson himself as RCV proponents. At this, Jackson, clearly determined to stay out of a local controversy, evinced no response whatsoever — though it is a fact not only that he has endorsed RCV as a progressive measure but that his son, U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., has sponsored legislation supportive of Ranked Choice Voting in Congress.

When Jackson finally got his pulpit moment, he was content to lead the congregation in one of his patented self-empowerment chants. His only intervention into a local issue occurred when he joined County Commissioner Van Turner — head of the Greenspace nonprofit that had removed two Confederate memorials from parks purchased from the city — at the pulpit. The Reverend joined hands with Turner and raised both their arms overhead. Then, having soldiered on for justice one more time in Memphis, Jesse Jackson paid his respects to the congregation and left the building.

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