Interview: Rev. Jesse Jackson

First Published: 03/10/2010 19 June 2013

Mari Shibata and Farah Jassat, on behalf of CUSU’s Black Students’ Campaign, speak to Rev. Jesse Jackson

The Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson Sr, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, is one of America’s foremost civil rights, religious and political figures. He has played a pivotal role in virtually every civil rights movement for over sixty years.

It began in 1966, when Dr Martin Luther King nominated Jackson as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. The SCLC promoted Jackson to be the national director in 1967 and he took over as chairman after Dr. King’s death in 1968.

In 1984, Jackson organized the Rainbow Coalition which merged with Operation PUSH in 1996. On August 9th 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Reverend Jackson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

In August 2007, Equanomics-UK invited Reverend Jackson to help launch the new organization in a historic nine city UK-wide tour, which coincided with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act in Britain, including the official London GLA ceremony with Mayor Ken Livingstone. In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown bestowed the ‘Global Diversity and Inclusion Award’ on Rev. Jackson at 10 Downing Street.

CUSU’s Black Students Campaign was invited to attend Equanomics-UK and 1990s Trust’s annual Racial Equality Forum at the House of Commons last Friday, where Rev. Jackson was speaking. The two representatives were invited to assist in producing Equanomics’s manifesto – which promotes  economic and social quality in time with Britain’s next general election – and had a chance to speak to Jackson extensively during his visit to Cambridge on Monday, where he spoke at the Union which sparked a standing ovation.

Before the 2005 Mayoral Election in the UK, you supported ‘Operation Black Vote’. Do you have any confidence in the current British government and who would you encourage the ethnic minority to vote in the next general election?

I would encourage everyone to register and vote as a key to enfranchisement and power. You must vote for two reasons at least; firstly, the black vote now has the numbers to turn an outcome. I’m not convinced that black voters realise that it has the power it does have and unless it’s manifested, the opposing group won’t appreciate and respect it. You guys have the power to enforce outcome. You have the margin and so you must register and use that power and leverage it for growth…

Secondly, there is such a growing disparity between black citizens and white in Britain. We’re all free, but we’re not equal – if they look at the data provided by Equanomics. Operation Black Vote – defined as  Asian, Japanese, Chinese, African-Caribbean – that vote will determine the next Prime Minister of this country. That’s a lot of power, so use that power and negotiate with it. Address the issues of education, healthcare, jobs and justice, – and access to Cambridge!

When Barack Obama was elected, I assume that a lot of ethnic minority people in America had high hopes for him. Do you feel that those high hopes are still there?

Yes. It’s just that the resistance is substantial. If he reaches out, they say he is not a leader as he seeks to reconcile. If he does accept what they say, then they say he’s polarised.

Americans need our current President; fifty million Americans have no health insurance. Fifty million more cannot afford catastrophic health protection. And with the unemployment continuing to increase, it’s more needed than ever before. So the healthcare bill is both necessary and morally right. So he’s fighting the right battle but you can say it’s a tough battle.

What would you say are the milestones of the American civil rights movement for you personally?

Well it’s been sixty years now; you go back to my father’s generation…In 1948, the government ruled out race in the military; it was a huge breakthrough, given that the blacks were bearing arms. And this was 18 years before we got the right to vote. In the Supreme Court in America they deemed the apartheid illegal, the law changes, but the culture didn’t change.

Out of that emerged new expectations, a notion that the new legal framework needed to be tested. In 1957, students of Little Rock High School were depending on the new law and they prevailed. The student sit-ins of the 60s was confirming a new law, so by 1964 the new law had become federal. The policy of all the states was that it became illegal to block people out because of race.

In 1963, Dr King gave a speech in Washington, D.C.; most people get the ‘I have a dream’ climax, but they don’t focus on the broken promise; the promise was meant to be equal protection, equal access, equal opportunity. They don’t remember that the ones from the South – from Florida to Texas through to South Merlin – could not use the same public toilet. When money was counterfeited we couldn’t buy an ice-cream, we couldn’t book a room with the Holiday Inn because of race.

But the 1965 Human Rights Act was a milestone. Before, blacks couldn’t vote, women couldn’t vote, poor farmers couldn’t vote. Then, by 1970, then students got the right to vote; another milestone. By 1974, you got the right to vote on the campus, which was empowering to students. By 1975, you got bilingual and multilingual voting. And when I ran we were able to get proportionality.

I didn’t realise many years ago when we were protesting in the South that we were fighting what we thought were local fights, local struggles. People singing ‘we shall overcome’ in Sharpeville South Africa, or in Tianemann square. We were affecting the whole world … because we are so visible for our clothes style and music style and athleticism.

President Barack Obama ran the last lap of the sixty-year race. The struggle was to knock down those walls, building those bridges because the walls had been knocked down and he ran exceptionally fast…in the last lap he did win.

During those sixty years of the American civil rights movement, was African-American jazz and protest music very popular among your community, such as ‘We Insist!’, Max Roach’s ‘Freedom Now’ suite?

Ah yes, the music kept us inspired! There was Max Roach, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, all the gospel songs…there was this whole body of music that was a whole source inspiration and information. The subjects in it addressed in it were to question what was going on in all the protests and what people had to say about it.

These songs were great for mass participation; they were the source of our information. And some of them got political; the stars themselves became active and became protestors. I remember B.B King giving speeches about the war in Vietnam and his songs would accompany a clip in the news that may have lasted for thirty seconds.

In light of your previous struggle for human rights, what are your thoughts on the actions of the current US government with regards to human rights specifically relating to the War on Terror, for example, Guantanamo?

“We must fight the war on terror and yet under the laws of international law and human rights. We had no international or moral right to invade and occupy Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction. We followed bad information and those who engaged in that action – Bush and Blair – paid no price for it, because the bigger nations are above international law, and they should not be.

The other thing to be careful of is to not associate any religion with terror because somebody of any religion can engage in acts of terror. In America, Christians inducted slavery and that was institutionalised terror. Most lynches took place after Church on Sunday: those were acts of terror. At the Church, you would see some old pictures of guys in their hats and women in their bonnets looking at somebody hanging from a tree. We should not

demean any religion, any people, as a stereotype based on acts of terror.

What advice would you give to the British Muslim community where a lot of people feel to be the victims of a racialised form of Islamophobia?

First of all, it’s not right to keep building coalitions because people in America and Britain are now facing real fears – they are being hit by acts of terror, they are facing manufacturing decline, loss of jobs, banking calamity…and so as they face this decline, they see immigrants as threats when in fact immigrants represent hope, they represent more market, more talent, more skill, more ingenuity.

So we must keep fighting to in fact go forward by coalition and hope not backwards by polarization and fear.

Do you feel that institutions such as Oxbridge and their ethnic minority students have a leading role in trying to facilitate change?

These schools must accept the challenge of opening up. Harvard, Yale and Princeton had to face the challenges of opening up. Because if you are going to come through Cambridge or through Oxford to be a world leader, you must know the world, its peoples, its cultures, its language.

The world is not driven just by who can make the highest grades – it’s driven by who has the greatest breadth and depth and appreciation of other peoples.

It’s in the interest of these schools to open up enrolment because the world is a diverse world – the world is a rainbow world. Half of all human beings are Asian; one-eight African; 1.5 billion people in India… Most people in the world are yellow, brown, black, non-Christian, poor, female, young and don’t speak English. So if you come out of Oxbridge and are going to be a leader of that world you must appreciate its demographics, its culture.

Ethnic minority students must be assertive. They must demand to be heard. They must be writers of papers. They must express their points of view. They must engage their classmates. They must test the limits of tolerance.

Just because you are an ethnic minority doesn’t mean you have a minority vision.

Finally are you proud of what you’ve achieved in your career?

I am grateful to have lived long enough to see many of the things that I’ve fought for to have become reality. I was jailed 50 years ago this year, in 1960. Jailed for using a public library.

My father came into World War Two as a soldier and didn’t have the same rights on US military bases as lots of prisoners of war. They laughed at black soldiers. We have overcome that. My parents didn’t have the right to vote. I couldn’t vote until I was 24. We’ve done that…we’ve gone from the brutality of voter denial to presidency in a lifetime.

So those changes are profound and the pain is there were so many martyrs on the way – Medgar Evers, Dr King, Shwerner, Goodman and Chaney. All along the way the martyrs paid a big price to make this day possible.

On the night that President Barack Obama won –I was weeping, I was thinking about the martyrs who couldn’t be there and I wish they could’ve been there, just to see for a moment, the fruit of their labours. Their blood and their sacrifices really made this moment possible.

And so it was both a moment of joy and reflection on the journey that had gotten us there.

And to come from those beginnings: from segregated apartheid schools of South Carolina…to lecture at Cambridge, to be inducted into the Union, is a long journey; to meet with you and to share with you and to learn from you, because it’s still an unfolding, learning process.

Obviously you can’t see around the curb until you get to the corner. So you walk by faith, with the will to keep pushing back the walls and building bridges.

Mari Shibata & Farah Jassat

First Published: 03/10/2010