The US civil rights leader and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson set off a racial firestorm yesterday after he accused his fellow Democrat and fellow African American, Barack Obama, of "acting like he's white" in his campaign for the White House.
Rev Jackson – whose chequered political career has been regularly punctuated with controversial race-related outbursts – told an audience in South Carolina he did not think Senator Obama was bold enough to catch up with the party's frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.
He reserved special criticism for the rising political star's reaction to a growing scandal in rural Louisiana, over a group of black high school students tried on charges of attempted murder in the wake of a schoolyard fight. The scandal, known as the case of "Jena Six", has become a lightning rod for black activists and their sympathisers across the US, and even moved David Bowie, the rock star, to announce yesterday that he was contributing $10,000 (£5,000) to the boys' legal defence fund.
"If I were a candidate, I'd be all over Jena," Rev Jackson said at an event at a predominantly black university in South Carolina's capital, Columbia. "Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma" – the Alabama town that witnessed big marches and a notorious dust-up with police during the 1960s civil rights movement.
The Jena affair has certainly brought back ugly memories of racial segregation in the South. The schoolyard fight began when a black student sat under a tree known as the White Tree. The next day, three nooses appeared on the tree in an unmistakable throwback to the racial violence of the Ku Klux Klan.
When six black boys subsequently got into a fight with a white boy, they were arraigned on felony charges of attempted murder and tried as adults. An all-white jury found one of the boys, Mychal Bell, guilty of second-degree battery in June, and he has remained in jail – even though he hasn't been sentenced yet – because he can't afford the bail. A recent federal appeals court ruling overturning his conviction has done nothing to secure his release.
Rev Jackson's attack on Senator Obama seems a little puzzling, because the Obama campaign put out a statement last week urging the Louisiana prosecutor to drop the case. "When nooses are being hung in high schools in the 21st century, it's a tragedy," the Obama statement said. "It shows we still have a lot of work to do as a nation to heal our racial tensions."
Rev Jackson later indicated some embarrassment over his own remarks, however, telling a reporter he didn't recall his "acting like he's white" comment.