WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jesse Jackson Jr. came to federal court to confess his sins.
The disgraced former congressman wore wooden prayer beads where a gold Rolex — the one he paid for with stolen campaign cash — once dangled on his wrist.
As the judge explained the punishment he faces for conspiring to use his campaign fund as a personal piggy bank — up to five years in federal prison — Jackson wiped away tears with a tattered tissue.
I watched his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, scribble notes on a piece of paper. During a quiet moment, he scanned the courtroom audience and, for a few seconds, the civil rights pioneer and I stared at each other from across the room.
He wore a blank expression. It didn’t seem right.
Rev. Jackson is a fighter, and you can see it on his face. His passion is as prominent as the wrinkles on his forehead.
For a half-century, Rev. Jackson has boldly raised the issue of race by leading marches, giving speeches and even running for president of the United States.
It’s not just a concept. The guy has gone to jail fighting for racial equality.
One of the things he’s lamented and decried is the high percentage of black men in jail or prison.
African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million men and women incarcerated nationwide. And they are locked up at nearly six times the rate of whites, according the NAACP.
Now, his son will likely be one of them.
"The hurt in this valley is indescribable," the 71-year-old Jackson said in a statement earlier this week. But on Wednesday, nothing he could say as an activist, preacher or father could change things for his son.
His boy got into a predicament of his own doing, and said so in court.
"I used monies that should have been used for campaign purposes, and I used them for myself personally, to benefit me personally,” Jackson Jr. said in court. “And I am acknowledging that which the government has presented is accurate.”
The courtroom hushed when the judge finally asked Jackson Jr. for his plea.
The former congressman turned to look at his wife — a co-conspirator in his scheme who would make her own confession in the same courtroom later that afternoon — and his mother, father, siblings and supporters sitting behind him.
Then, he said the words that could break any parent’s heart — “Guilty, your honor.”
Rev. Jackson didn’t flinch. He didn’t cry. He removed his glasses, eased them into his pocket and didn’t say a word.
Later, I asked Rev. Jackson if he would talk about how the prospect of having his own son — an educated, driven black man with such promise — join that lost generation of black Americans behind bars affected him, but he politely declined.
What can a father say?