June 6, 2008
HOUSTON - For nearly half a century, Rev. Jesse Jackson has ranked as
America's most ubiquitous civil rights crusader, working alongside
Rev..Martin Luther King Jr., founding Operation PUSH, demanding
equality from corporate America and twice making credible runs for
the presidency. Now a younger African-American leader has become the
presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and many Americans
wonder whether that means the civil rights movement has finally
achieved its goals. Last month, Jackson, 66, sat down with Tribune
Southwest Bureau Chief Howard Witt in Houston for a conversation.
This is an edited transcript.
Q: It seems there is a shift going on within the civil rights
movement away from the old-guard groups such as the NAACP and
Operation PUSH and toward blogs and Internet-based groups. Would you agree?
A: No. New technology does not change the land-based organizations.
It just allows you to cover more ground more quickly. New
communications are good for hot-button issues. They strengthen
mobilization, not organization. Organization requires ground troops
and follow-through. You can take a given issue and blog it and
YouTube it and MySpace it. But organizing requires much more
[Recently], I went to Haiti. There are food riots in Haiti. Seventy
percent of the people make $1 a day or less. Sixty percent of the
women are chronically malnourished. I was holding up 5-month-old
babies who weigh 12 pounds. People are literally starving to death.
That does not lend itself to instant mobilization. That's different
than a hot-button issue. When I got back, I gave the story to Arianna
Huffington, who put it on her Huffington Post blog. We got
information in the trenches, and then she blogged it. The traditional
media has still to catch on to Haiti.
The 100-to-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity--that's not a
personality around which you can build a big demonstration. That
requires changing legislation. Fifty-five percent of the prison
industrial complex is African-American. That requires ground troops,
churches, civil rights organizations, political leaders. So it
requires a different kind of struggle.
Q. Do you see a twilight to the kind of personality-driven civil
rights movements we have known up to now?
A. Let me tell you where the change takes place. There was a time
when I was in school, it was illegal to be an NAACP member and teach
school in the south. The teachers couldn't speak out. Lawyers were
limited to a court formality because they had to face judges and
juries, almost all white. Basically, only the black preacher was free
to speak up without paying a certain kind of price.
Once we got the right to vote, those who used to be limited to a
press conference could get in to the legislative committee meeting,
the city council, Springfield, Washington. The more outlets people
have in the system, the less they protest outside, because they can
get in. You hear where I'm coming from? That is the definition of success.
Q. Where does Sen. Barack Obama fit in the history of the civil
rights movement? Is he the culmination of that movement?
A. Today someone said to me, 'You know, Barack is the first
post-civil rights leader.' I said, 'Really?' He said, 'He's not
attached to those civil rights days.' I said, 'He's a direct
descendant of it, a direct beneficiary of it!' We went to Selma in
1965, white women couldn't serve on juries, blacks couldn't vote.
Today here in Houston, I registered high school seniors, they can
vote now. Martin Luther King, locked out of the system, says he's
against the Vietnam War, almost alone. He gets dumped on by the
press, the government, everybody. By 2008, you can win the nomination
being against a war! You have candidates arguing degrees--'I was
against the war before you were against the war.' Today, the anti-war
movement is the mainstream, which is another victory for the
continued struggle. In 1984, my campaign for president, you know it
took away the trauma, the idea of a black man running. In 2008, I
woke up and in Mississippi, where Medgar Evers was killed, you see
whites voting for a black guy to be president. Men voting for a woman
to be president. So Hillary and Barack become the conduits through
which a new and more mature America expresses itself.
This is 43 years from Selma. Barack's candidacy is an unbroken line
from the blood of Selma. Dr. King talked about the snow-capped
Rockies in his '63 speech. Well, we'll be in Denver. 43 years later,
here we are.
Q. When you look back at your lifetime of crusading for civil rights,
do you feel frustrated? In many ways, you're having to fight many of
the same battles today that you did years ago.
A. No, I am not frustrated. All these battles to even the playing
field are eternal battles. The battles for peace are eternal battles.
I am impressed with the growth of America. I see a new and better
America. There's still an undercurrent of injustice. But we're
winning. When I think that my father had fewer rights on a military
base than a Nazi POW, it's unthinkable today. I was jailed trying to
use a public library, a movie theater. We're beyond that. My friends
were killed trying to vote. We're beyond that. We are winning. Walls
of fear are receding.
A black football coach for the Bears? Don't take that lightly, my
God. A black baseball coach in Houston? Houston! I was here with Dr.
King in 1966, with Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin. We hit the stage
and they give Aretha flowers, and they put tear gas in the arena and
we had to evacuate.
Q. But how far has the country really moved? For example,
African-American kids in school are three times more likely than
whites to be expelled or suspended.
A. It's an ebb and flow. It's to and fro. But I'm impressed that many
Americans are struggling to be better than they've ever been.
I think many Americans are fatigued with our past. They have the
power to maintain it, but many Americans want to go forward, they
want to change, they want America to be better. And that's why I say
it's our challenge, particularly the oppressed people, to get better,
not bitter. When you look at the hardships, the disappointments, the
contradictions, it's easy to get bitter.
But often in our prayers, we ask God to free us up from bitterness or
temptation to hate. That's overcoming pain with faith. You pray to
God to help you overcome what would be your inclination to be angry
or mean. Be angry, but don't be mean.
That has been part of the Barack appeal, the attempt to lift us up by
our spirits. To some people, that's empty. But cynicism is a spirit
and hope is a spirit. Cynicism paralyzes. Hope lifts.
Q. So there is a lot of unfinished business with civil rights, but
the point is, people want to do the business?
A. Dr. King said we fought to get freedom over indecency and
barbarism. They were blocking school doors and putting dogs on
people. There were many allies with us in the freedom movement,
overcoming barbarity. When it came to the equality movement, they
ceased to be allies, because they would not give up any of their
privileges for equality.
When I look back at my life, I see victories. I see unfinished
business, too-- I'm not blind. I just know we have more tools with
which to fight it, and we've got more allies. I see enough light to
keep my flame of hope burning bright. We are a different America from
when I was arrested trying to go to the library.
Blacks are not changing--whites are changing. White America is
changing. Dr. King reached out, but he got rejected. The reach out is
not new. The reception is new, and getting better.