When Minneapolis Fire Department (MFD) Chief Alex Jackson announced his retirement two weeks ago, it was not necessarily surprising to us in this corner. We saw it coming as far back as April 2010 in the rush to judgment over the April 28, 2010 fire that was used to unfairly yet purposefully undercut Chief Jackson.
As I wrote in my April 10, 2010 column, “All the Star Tribune and City Council Member Gary Schiff (DFL, Ninth Ward) have managed to do as shameless, vocal town criers against the department’s Chief Jackson, Assistant Chief Penn, and Fire Marshall Tyner, all African Americans, is get egg on their faces.”
Despite how he has been treated, the good news is that Chief Jackson is leaving for retirement on his own terms, his head unbowed.
Due to my long experience as one of the federal court-appointed overseers of the department, I am extremely familiar with the MFD and its demands. It was not always an easy task to convey to the union and the politicians the importance of adhering to the orders of the federal court.
In the early 1990s, City officials thought they could skirt the laws. The federal court sanctioned the City to the tune of $1 million in fines. In the case called Carter v. Gallagher, Alex Jackson, John Griffen and Ricky Campbell gave testimony exposing the City’s court order violations.
Alex Jackson has been an outstanding public servant and excellent fire chief. He took a department in budget disarray and low morale and reestablished the department’s strength.
I watched Alex Jackson come into the fire department as a recruit. I watched him, Ricky Campbell, and the late Big John Griffen provide a level of leadership that enabled the MFD to become one of the most respected and diversified departments in the United States.
And, as I wrote in my column of December 30, 2009, the integration of the MFD is a nationally recognized historic success story. Half the size of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), it has twice the number of Blacks.
Chief Alex Jackson has been attentive to the orders of the court and the plan put in place by a committee appointed for the Minneapolis Fire Department and the City of Minneapolis. Throughout his career, he acted as an exemplary professional.
But when you are committed to justice, you make enemies. We would like to think that everyone believes in equal access (diversity, opportunity, and that old civil rights term, integration). Unfortunately, too many people in positions of Minneapolis influence don’t. If they had their way, there would never be a Black fire chief and there would never be any Black fire fighters or Black police officers.
During this occasion of the celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and coming up on Black History Month, what better time to retool and remember the successful battles that were fought during a time that has moved beyond the current battles of today. Chief Jackson exemplifies what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said that some Blacks may be unqualified, but they are definitely qualifiable.
Chief Alex Jackson was both old school (respected the past) and new school (understood the importance of the past for the present and the future). He will be moving on with his life, his career, and will continue to pursue his vision of a better America for all.
The loss is the city’s and its public institutions. All of us will lose as another successful warrior, advocate and visionary moves on.
We say this to Chief Alex Jackson as he folds his flag of success and moves off the battlefield: Well done, Sir! Well done! And may God keep His hand on your shoulder and those of your family, for yours has been a story of success.
You have made proud the many legends that came before you, such as Cecil Newman, Nellie Stone Johnson, and Brother Michael Collins, all successful warriors who could not only talk the talk but could walk the talk as well.
As Cornel West would put it, “You’ve got to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer. A thermostat shapes the climate of opinion [transformative]; a thermometer just reflects it [runs on polls]. Lincoln was a thermostat. Johnson and F.D.R., too.”
It’s also the difference between the evidence-based commentary of this column and mere prejudiced judgments that have been directed at Chief Jackson.
Ron Edwards hosts “Black Focus” on Channel 17, MTN-TV, Sundays, 5-6 pm; hosts “Black Focus” on Blog Talk radio Sundays at 3 pm; and co-hosts Blog Talk Radio’s “ON POINT!” Saturdays at 4 pm, providing coverage about Black Minnesota. Order his books at www.BeaconOnTheHill.com. Hear his readings and read his solution papers for community planning and development and “web log” at www.TheMinneapolisStory.com.