Champion of the dispossessed and disenfranchised, 25 April 2009

When contemporary American history is written, his name will figure prominently in it. Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson Sr. will be remembered most of all for going out on a limb for the underdog, writes BALAN MOSES. REVEREND Jesse Louis Jackson Sr is the quintessential example of a large man who can get away with a small voice, when he wants to.

When the tall and hefty American peace advocate began speaking at an interview in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, he disappointed newsmen who had expected a booming baritone that would rattle windows.

Whether it was a case of the numerous speaking engagements since arrival on Monday that had got the better of his vocal chords, or a deliberate effort to conserve his voice, the scribes will never know.

Jackson spoke in an almost inaudible whisper compounded by a tricky American accent, a far cry from the loud and clear voice that he employs on stage to make his point.

But his words, soft as they were, rang out loud and clear: he would always stand up for the underdog, peace, the truth and people everywhere who were getting a raw deal.

In short, the 67-year-old believes he is the one that the dispossessed and disenfranchised should gravitate towards for succour.

He has been pursuing these ideals since the 1950s when he began standing up for his rights as a quarterback who was, reportedly, not given a fair shake because of his colour.

It has been a long road for the man listed as one of the 10 most respected Americans today in seeking equality for blacks, Latinos and Asians in the United States, besides groups like women and children who have been victims of discrimination.

His fight has not been limited to America. The woes of underdogs worldwide has taken him as far as Indonesia to take up the gauntlet on behalf of workers at apparel factories.

For Malaysians, Jackson's larger-than-life personality came to the fore when he took on white opponents in the 1984 and 1988 presidential contests in the United States -- and lost respectably, for a black man.

He earned respect in his community, and elsewhere in the world, for having the gumption to stand up and ask to be counted as a national political leader less than 20 years after segregation in its most blatant forms screeched to an abrupt halt.

And to ask whites to vote him into the highest office in the land was audacity at its height, but he did it without a second thought, twice.

But, that is the measure of the man who earned his stripes as a senior member of Dr Martin Luther King's team. (He reportedly held King in his arms seconds prior to the latter's death after being shot.)

Malaysians in their mid-50s and older will always remember that dark day when local newspapers splashed the news of King's slaying on their front pages.

Jackson ran into controversy almost immediately after that fateful incident when it was pointed out by some that he was allegedly not around when King sank to the ground after being shot.

It was also alleged that he had issued the story to gain publicity but then one should give him the benefit of the doubt as it was a long time ago and many of his critics from those days are no longer around.

But detractors of that account (he has been dogged by controversy, public and personal, over the years) have put it down to his media savvy instinct which they claimed he had always used to the hilt.

This was amply displayed when he walked into the interview room, and walked out again, when he heard that the NST photographer had arrived to check out his reflection on a nearby glass panel.

Satisfied that he was adequately groomed for the moment when the cameras would start clicking, he walked in flashing a fleeting smile that beat a hasty retreat the minute he was seated.

Jackson (some say actor Will Smith will look like him in 20 years time) has always known how to use publicity to maximum effect, something that catapulted him from a smalltime black activist in the 1960s to one of the best known black persons alive today.

One is tempted to think that this was why he agreed to a press conference just before a flight to Bangkok and barely hours after the end of a day chockful of meetings.

In classic Jackson style, he has flung himself headlong into the case of Roxana Saberi, the US-Iranian journalist who has been jailed for eight years by the Iranian regime for allegedly spying for the US .

Given his ability to sweet-talk his way out of the most thorny situations, again a testament to the fine negotiating skills he has honed over five decades of public service, he is probably the best suited for the job.

Given the antipathy around the world for the US in the wake of the disaster that was former US president George W. Bush's foreign policy, Jackson can probably pull it off in his personal capacity.

(He was careful to underline the fact that his efforts had nothing whatsoever to do with the US government.)

Given the fact that he has told people around the world of his willingness to give Iran every possible chance to contribute to international peace and goodwill, he may be the man that the Iranians want to negotiate with.

The press conference, organised literally overnight by Foreign Minister Datuk Anifah Aman's media aide Edward Jules Savarimuthu, was a virtual repeat of much that he had stated over the four days that he had been in Malaysia .

He was quick to praise Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak for his leadership skills and role in ensuring a smooth transition in political leadership.

Jackson also spent time attributing much of Malaysia's success as a nation to its longest-serving prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in glowing terms.

But what was most telling about the personality of the man was the understated manner in which he answered a question about whether he had paved the way for the election of Barrack Obama as US president.

The man at the forefront of the fight for equality for blacks in the US, and people around the world, for more than four decades quietly said that he was only one among many who had prepared the nation for a black president.

That quality will certainly endear him to many, and win him many battles on all fronts, in days to come.

Jackson was in Kuala Lumpur this week as a keynote speaker at the Bridges -- Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace conference organised by the International Peace Foundation and Sime Darby Berhad.