Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) was originally Operation Breadbasket, founded in 1965 as the Chicago division of SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council). The program was started to combat economic inequalities in the North. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appointed Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., who was a protege of Dr. William Abernathy, to serve as head of the Chicago initiative. After two years, Rev. Jackson was appointed to serve as the national spokesperson for the organization.
With the passion and ambition of youth -- and a unique sensitivity to the urban ethos that allowed him to connect with the inner city -- Rev. Jackson was armed with an unblemished hubris and a keen sense of self-awareness that allowed him to excel in trumpeting the rights of the under-privileged with whom he identified. Rev. Jackson became the leader of black folks everywhere after the passing of Dr. King. Then after splitting with SCLC, Rev. Jackson founded Operation PUSH in 1971, located in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, where he was allowed to think publicly, muse spiritually, and forge initiatives that would inspire blacks and burn deep into the consciousness of white America. PUSH was a center for advancement but not just through protesting and standing against initiatives that were racist; PUSH championed ideas that would help the underclass and ultimately build all of America.
My congregation, the City of Faith Christian Church of Chicago, is a neighbor of PUSH, as we are located just a couple of blocks away. As a lifelong Chicagoan I am deeply invested in the continuing work of PUSH. As we currently travel through the bewilderment and redefining of black America in the age of Obama, PUSH is needed more now than ever. Two years ago we were swept away by the political and social euphoria of the campaign to elect Barack Obama and the idea of the first black President. However, silently black America divested the majority of its political and social capital to ensure the election of its first black President, a narrative that has been more imposed upon him by black America than trumpeted by the President himself.
Now that the euphoria has subsided and the harsh reality of the Bush years still simmers in urban neighborhoods, we are indeed left wanting. In black America, many questions remain. How shall we now live? And who will speak for us? These are the intelligent and conscious questions brewing in our souls as the President is enamored with lifting the economic tide for all America, a tide that will lift all boats in the water. Meanwhile, Black America is still left alone to fend for itself because mainstream America cannot comprehend the paradox of post-racial power structures that continue to equal discrimination and disenfranchisement for black people. The President of the United States is a native of a minority group that is still under-served and lags behind in every measurable category, especially educationally, economically and socially.
When Rev. Jackson was running for President, I was 9 years old. I vividly recall the night of July 18, 1984, when Rev. Jackson was preparing to give a speech at the Democratic National Convention espousing the ideas that would serve as the platform for his candidacy for President. At the time I could not explain to you what a Democrat or a Republican was but I knew who Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was because he was a fixture in our home as he was in most black homes at that time. My parents and my grandparents were immersed in black civil rights culture and raised me to be conscious of the struggle for equality and justice for all people. From my earliest memory I was made to understand that prejudice and hate in any incarnation were alien to the Judeo-Christian values that permeated our home. On that night, I could not tell you why exactly I was made to sit and watch television or what the occasion was, but I sensed it was important because all of my family had gathered in the room and the anticipation of what was to come was palatable. There I sat amazed and transfixed on a figure that in some ways resembled me while also embodying the best of what it meant to be black and a servant of all people.
Much later on in life I came to understand that I actually was a reflection of him. That night he spoke of things I could not yet understand. He used words like "nuclear proliferation" and "women's suffrage" but there was not one word lost on me that night. Each word became etched in the tapestry of my developing political, social and spiritual consciousness. That night my political imagination was birthed by someone whose own mind had been consumed by a better tomorrow for all people.
Once in a generation we get a public figure whose voice calls us beyond our own subjective existence and compels us to see the worth of the entire human community; that night Rev. Jackson did that for me. I watched just a short time ago as young people all over the world were electrified to mobilize around the hope of a changed America. I could relate because twenty-five years earlier on a hot summer's night that speech did the same thing for me.
What concerns me now is that while Rev. Jackson's mind is as sharp today as it was 25 years ago, the times and the world in which we live have changed. Operation PUSH has failed to be the distinctive voice it once was. What made PUSH in the 70's uniquely effective was its connection to young black Americans and its ability to mobilize them into a political force ultimately called the "Rainbow Coalition".
The failure of Operation PUSH today is that Rev. Jackson he has yet to identify a successor that mirrors his own political intelligence, his depth of social and civic awareness, and his keen understanding of global citizenship. PUSH needs a leader to succeed Rev. Jackson that is similar to him in many key ways. PUSH needs someone who can sit down with policy makers and legislators; who understands the nuances and impact of public policy on urban economic and social structures; and who can deliver effective policies back to black communities and common folks in a language they can understand. PUSH has always been the place where the government and the ghetto met in linguistic harmony. PUSH cared for and pastored those who couldn't pay their bills, who had been displaced by CEDA, or suffered when the WIC program was dissolved and welfare was abolished.
Operation PUSH faces some serious challenges, one being the stubborn nature of its leader. As is true for the rest of us, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.'s strength is also his greatest weakness. His pristine self-confidence has not allowed him to embrace the reality of his own mortality and his legacy aside from his own children. PUSH itself must be more than his former accomplishments; it must live on as an inspirational, dynamic force if black America is to recover and heal itself. If PUSH fails to identify that person, a proper successor, America and particularly black America will lose what PUSH has historically been. It will lose the legacy of PUSH, and will lose the support that PUSH can provide in a world with an unpredictable future.
Operation PUSH must remain in the forefront, forging new ideas, new faces, new paths, and new creative endeavors to forward a progressive grassroots agenda. Such innovation is especially crucial if Push is to survive in today's racial climate. Indeed, the the black agenda is no longer ballyhooed like it was under other presidential administrations. In this era, it's instead whispered from the backroom of the White House, mostly going unheard.