Jesse Jackson, Civil Rights Leader | Teen Ink

Jesse Jackson, Civil Rights Leader MAG

By Brigit C., MA & Elizabeth Knab BRONZE, Williamsville, New York
Brigit C., MA & Elizabeth Knab BRONZE, Williamsville, New York
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You are a husband, a parent, Rainbow/PUSH president, civil rights leader, hostage negotiator, minister, political activist, teacher, TV commentator, presidential candidate and advisor. Am I leaving anything out?

Well, those are things I have done in the evolution of my life's work. First I had to go through the tough period of adolescence against the conditions of legal segregation within our country.

That's different from social discrimination, where you may choose to be with this or that group. Legal discrimination, where you are limited by color and the Constitution, is a much more difficult system. I grew up under the same laws that Nelson Mandela was arrested under in South Africa; I grew up in the South under laws where my father, a veteran of World War II, returned home without the right to vote. Yet the Nazis who moved to America after World War II became citizens and had the right to vote.

My parents had to pay taxes but didn't have the right to vote. African-American teachers by law could not make as much money as white teachers, it was illegal. My all-black high school senior class could not take pictures on the lawn of the State Capitol; white kids could, pets could, we couldn't.

My first Christmas at college I had to write and memorize a speech with 25 annotated references. So, I went home to the Colored Library (as it was called), but they didn't have enough books. The librarian recommended I go to the central public library. She told her friend, the librarian there, that I was coming to get these books; she thought this was a friendly gesture. Two policemen just happened to beat the library as I arrived. When I asked for the books, she said, "Well, I can get them to you in five or six days."

I said, "Since there's no one in the library, I could go in the stacks myself and get the books." She said, "You can't," and the police said, "You heard what she said," and that was a signal for me to get out or get arrested.

I walked out front and I looked at the sign that said Greenville Public Library, and wept.

I was determined that that summer I would enter the library. July 17, 1960, I tried with seven of my classmates, and we were arrested.

And so, I became immersed in the struggle to change conditions. I did not know Dr. King at that time. Eventually I met him, and once I finished college, I determined I would either go to law school or the seminary. Finally I went to seminary. Later, of course, I worked with Dr. King, and things flowed from that.

So, all I do now is attempt to make the world better, to make the planet feel more even, and to build relationships that afford everybody equal protection under the law, to leave no one behind. It all grows from that struggle.

I became a minister, became a father, worked with Dr.King as a political change agent, TV commentator and so, those are things I do that all grew out of my being and my history, and my will to use my life as an instrument to seek to make things better for everybody.

Of all your endeavors, which is the most satisfying?

At the core, I am a minister of the Gospel; the core of my being is that I preach and proclaim the good news. And that good news is that we must feed the hungry. As I walk the country,one-fourth of white children are born in poverty; one-half of all black and brown children are born in poverty. That disturbs me, so I must address it. The good news is to educate the ignorant, to enlighten those in the dark.

And thus, we fight for choice schools, but not choice and charter schools for a few. According to the American dream, all schools should be choice, and all children should count.

Set the captive free. The captive may be in Syria, where we went to negotiate his release in ྏ the captive may be the 600 women we negotiated freedom in Iraq under Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War. Or the captive may be the Cubans who we negotiated with Fidel Castro to free. Or they may be the three soldiers we negotiated out of Serbia.

But sometimes captives are not just captives of some foreign government; sometime people are imprisoned by their self-destructive habits; captives of submission to failure, captives of alcohol, captives of drugs. And so, setting the captive free sometimes can be from external captivity in jail, or sometimes it's internal captivity of some bad habit; some are captives of poverty.

In our society, we conveniently make poverty and race synonymous. That allows the broader society to put it in a category and ignore it. Some will say,"Well, Blacks are poor, Hispanics are poor. If Blacks worked harder and didn't engage in so much crime, if Hispanics stayed at home, if they learned to speak English, they would not be poor." We have convenient reasons to explain their poverty away.

Most poor children are neither black nor brown, they're white and they're female. Most poor people are not on welfare, they work every day. They work in fast-food restaurants, they clean hotels, they drive cabs, they do their labor in the dark, they're aides and orderlies in hospitals, they're cooks and janitors at schools, they keep other people's children, and ultimately cannot afford to take care of their own. Often they work in the football and basketball stadiums, selling the soft drinks and refreshments. But they are without health insurance. And they get sick too.

The reason we have to keep emphasizing this is because it's so easy to make it all a matter of race - and racism is real. But the vertical gap is between the surplus culture and the deficit culture, between the haves and the have-nots. In our society too few people have too much media power and money and too many have so little.

It's critical for young people to begin to analyze this in ethical terms, not just ethnic terms, in real terms, not just stereotyped terms.

What has been your biggest disappointment?

I've always had to travel so much in my work. In the formative years of my children, I didn't spend as much time at home with them as I wish I had. Fortunately in marriage you have help, so while I was the provider, my wife provided the substance by taking care of them and seeing that they did their homework, teaching them the important values, and teaching them to say their blessings, and telling them what we were doing and why. So all of them are successful young people today; Santita is a professional singer (she sang with Roberta Flack for a couple of years); Jesse Junior is a lawyer and congressman; Jonathan D. got his MBA from Northwestern and is a businessman; Yusef is a University of Virginia lawyer; and Jacquelyn is in graduate school getting her Ph.D.

I really wish I could have spent more time. No,I wish I had spent more time with them. You see, there were so many little things I didn't do because I made the trade-off of traveling and doing so much. That's the internal agony I have to live with.

As a pioneer of the civil rights movement of theླྀs, have you met your goals?

One of my concerns is that there is a growing body of at-risk children in America. And though we have more technology, access to information, every conceivable economic way to success, we're leaving more youth behind. Most urban and rural schools are not wired for the Internet; every city I visit, there are always two new buildings: a ballpark and a jail. Invariably first-class jails have the latest in technology, better than second-class schools.

Our children are at-risk when they are not born where they can get adequate health care in their formative years (so much learning takes place before age 3). Prenatal care is school, and birth to age 3 is voice school. Children born without those first levels of school are left with tremendous disadvantages and that's at-risk.

And I feel, for example, at Christmas people focus on Santa Claus and the reindeer, and the misfortunes of Rudolph. But the at-risk character of Christmas was not Rudolph, it was Jesus; he was born at risk. We turn the depth of that story on its head, and see a baby who could have died at childbirth because of the government.

Like Rome we, 2,000years later, still have many bright youngsters at risk. If the innkeeper had known that was Jesus in the belly of Mary, she could have had the baby in his inn. You never know the potential of some child who's born at risk. That child may know the cure for cancer or AIDS, or other diseases.

Today there is anger toward America's children. The judges aren't seen as harsh enough so there's "Three strikes and you're out," so judges do not give judgment. Instead there are mandatory sentences and zero tolerance. And schools take out psychologists and psychiatrists, often take out art and music, and bring in police.

And what used to be some altercation between two students now, instead of going to the principal's office, becomes taking them to the police who charge them with battery and give them a record.

So, that's why I've been involved in the Decatur problem. I'm convinced this prevailing anger toward America's youth, and anger at those who are not angry with America's youth, must be challenged.

This use of our youth as targets is one of the real challenges in my life.

You seem to be the only remaining active, visible, national civil rights leader. Why has no one else has carried the torch?

We have a much more diverse leadership base now than we had then. At that time, for example, if we wanted to have a giant civil rights rally in Detroit, Chicago, or Los Angeles, we asked Dr. King to come. And now, in all those places, we've been able to get blacks and Hispanics, and women, as mayors who on a daily basis administer government, as opposed to having, in that sense, just one very visible leader.

On a day-to-day basis there are many leaders who would then have been protest leaders. They are now legislators. Jesse Jackson, Jr. is in Chicago on a daily basis. He maybe leading a demonstration against police brutality, or closed housing or other discrimination. When not in Chicago, he's in Washington passing legislation.

And so, that's one explanation; there's a broad base of leaders.

There's no real way to determine the power, personality and circumstances. The fact is, I did work with Dr. King; I was with him when he was killed in Memphis. We never stopped the visible campaign for equal protection under the law for all Americans.

Idid run for the Presidency twice, which is a very visible platform, and registered millions of voters, and did bring Americans back home from foreign prisons in some dramatic fashion. Those led to my visibility.

But the strength of our struggle today, I feel, is that more people are empowered who may be relatively nameless and faceless. And all who are 18 and older have the right to vote.

County supervisors, city council people and state legislators, mayors of small towns, congress people - that is the new generation of American leadership, holding in its hands our destiny, I believe.

Throughout your years working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what are your greatest personal memories?

I watched him preach in churches, lead demonstrations,do television work. But the greatest memories may have been watching him behind the scenes.

One time we were in Selma, Alabama, and things were very, very tough. The state troopers were in town, and a minister named James Reed from Boston had been killed, and Dr. King was sitting on the bed talking to us when Robert Kennedy called, saying we needed to reduce literacy levels to secure voting rights. One of the excuses for not letting people vote was that they were not literate enough. So Robert Kennedy thought that we should get the level from twelfth graded own to a sixth grade.

But Dr. King said, "No, we need 'One person, one vote.'" And Kennedy said, "We can't get any better. We urge you not to march across the bridge because it's dangerous. And we think we have a deal. We can get them [the legislation] down to a sixth grade literacy level."

But folks would then still just deny the people the right to learn to read and write, and that would make them greater victims because they couldn't read and write, so, [Dr. King insisted on] one person, one vote. And he would not budge from that principle.

But at the same time, in his open briefcase was a book by Ronald Neibuhr called Moral Man in an Immoral Society and another book, The Courage to Be, by Paul Tillich, and his Bible was opened to Scripture.

So, in the middle of all that chaos and tension, he was still visiting and revisiting serious literature and thinking, through all that pressure.

I remember that very fondly.

Another time we were in the study together, and he was preparing to preach why he was against the Vietnam War. While he loved the country, he didn't love the war and felt that we were ill advised to be in it. How pained he was that the soldiers were getting the brunt of the anti-war protests, not the government. He felt conflicted by that. We must love the warriors but not the war. I watched him go through those dilemmas and, in retrospect, those are great moments.

And I suppose the last one was the last birthday we spent with him - January 15, 1968. That morning he had breakfast with his family around 8 o'clock. We actually did not know it was his birthday; he came to the church in blue jeans and a jacket, and spent the morning working on how to organize a campaign, a multi-racial, multicultural campaign to fight poverty, to find a job and an income for every American.

So, he planned to take poor people from Mississippi, from Native American reservations, farm workers from Texas, whites from Appalachia. This was his dream: to pull together all these different segments. Al Lowenstein and all our Jewish allies from New York, and leaders from labor met that morning, Blacks and Jews, and Whites, Hispanics, Native American Indians. Some would walk, some would be on mule trains, some would be flying; but we'd all converge in Washington demanding a job and income for every American.

Around one o'clock a friend came in with a cake and he stopped and we had a little celebration; it was really a surprise to all of us. We laughed, and then when we finished, after about 30 minutes, focused on how to mobilize to end the war in Vietnam.

So, that morning his emphasis was on how to end poverty in the country, the afternoon was how to end the war.

I remember those things.

What is the best advice you've ever received?

Actually, before I met Dr. King, I met Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, who was also Dr. King's mentor, and the president of North Carolina A & T State University when I was in college. At that time we couldn't use movie theaters, hotels or motels, restaurants, couldn't drink at water fountains, couldn't use public toilets, couldn't use a public park. So, the movement came about to end all that. Many students became caught up in that moment in time, because it was one of those special moments in history.

Many who left school never came back; I was tempted to do the same thing. I was just as fascinated; it became a very personal thing because of my own pain and rejection and denial of access based on the race law.

Dr. Proctor called me in one day and said, "I know you're inspired by Mike. (That's what he called Dr. King.)"But," he said, "Mike has his Ph.D. And a lot of guys are talking, protesting and doing a good job. But because Mike is so prepared with his B.S. degree and his doctorate, having read the great books, his sense of philosophy and history, his contributions will outlast theirs. He's prepared for the struggle.

"So, if you are as committed as you say you are, you must decide now to be a student of the movement, not just a student in the movement. You will cease to be a student at some point, and so your commitment to the struggle must be your commitment to prepare to offer something of substance to it."

And so I did not leave school; actually I became president of the student body. Then I went to graduate school, which was enormously important to me in terms of preparation.

And the irony of all is that - the ultimate irony - after finishing two years of seminary, Dr. King came to Chicago. I had six more months to finish. He said to me, "You will learn more theology right here in this room with me in six months than you'll learn in six years of seminary."

I said, "It's easy for you to say, you have your Ph.D."

And I asked my wife who said, "I know you want to finish, but the unique opportunity to work with Dr. King may be such that if you remain focused it may be worth the risk."

So, I left the seminary to work with him.

But, about two months ago I went into my seminary, the Chicago Theological Seminary, where the new president had pulled out my records with the faculty members. They had reviewed the courses needed to complete my degree. I had failed preaching. And I had not done well in my counseling course or international relations. But the Seminary group read my papers, articles and books since then and determined I had done enough work to finish my degree. They sent it to an accreditation committee without my name attached who also determined I had earned my Masters in Theology. So this May, I will graduate with my seminary class 33 years later.

One thing I did by being an active seminarian is learn to live the Scriptures. Today we have such a superficial view of the faith. In Decatur there were young men in trouble and they said I shouldn't have been there. Some of these boys were truants, they'd broken the law. They should not have been involved in a fight. But unlike Columbine and Paduka, there was no conspiracy. No guns, no drugs, no knives, no blood. No injuries. This did not warrant a two-year expulsion from school. If there'd been knives and stabbing, that would have been another degree. If there'd been guns, that would have been another degree. But they kicked them out of school for years; that was too severe. This is because of Zero Tolerance, which is not very well defined, and wipes them out of school without providing an alternative.

That's called controversial leadership because it's not popular to stand up for youth who are in trouble. Often leaders of substance have to take on the controversial role of defending those whose backs are against the wall, because it's the right thing to do. It's not easy, sometimes quite dangerous, but you have to have enough faith to do that which you believe is right. In time it will outlast opinion polls.

Many teens today equate success with money. What does success mean to you?

Making money and success synonymous is a big mistake. Money as currency can be used as a means to certain ends. Suppose you have food and no appetite? It can be as bad as having an appetite and no food. Suppose you have money, lots of money, but you got it illegally and end up in jail, and your parents are left with a broken heart. How can you mend a broken heart with money?

I have preached at funerals of some very famous people: Joe Lewis, Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sammy Davis, Jr., among others. And recently I did the memorial for Walter Payton, the football player. But I've never seen a U-Haul trailer attached to a single hearse; you can't bring the money with you. When Walter Payton died, most people knew he gained the most yards ever running a football. But what did he really do?

There's a song in our tradition that says, "What you're called upon to do for Christ will last." It refers to the things that matter, and though money has a role to facilitate basic necessities, money can't buy dignity.

Part of it is driven by TV asking what's your wish list, "I wish I had an expensive cashmere sweater, I wish I had a mink coat, I wish I had sneakers, I wish I had - " You start wishing for things that you can't afford, your eyes get big.

Often people close the gap by stealing or embezzling. You're caught up in some unintended consequence of a wish list, instead of focusing on a thank-you list, which is essentially non-materialistic. You can thank God for the life of your parents now, without a dime. You can go home and help your mother or father do some chore they wouldn't expect you to do, just to make them happy now.

You can avoid liquor and drugs now, it doesn't cost any money; you can avoid getting a gun and looking to shoot or get shot now, it doesn't cost any money; you can go to the public library and tap into the Internet and talk to the whole world now; you can look at the fact that you have a healthy body with a healthy outlook on life now.

Things that mean the most don't involve money. I often ask kids to name the top five dead billionaires they would like to be. They say they wouldn't want to be any of them because they're dead. It means that life is the treasure, right?

You should be materialistic enough to have decent clothes and a nice house, transportation, food, a job or work ethic. You should be materialistic enough to achieve, but not mindlessly materialistic. That's when you get greedy.

You once said, "I am not a perfect servant; be patient, God is not finished with me yet." What do you feel God still has in store for you?

That was said in the context of a very tough political campaign where there's always a tendency to take imperfect people and try and make them live up to standards. If they don't, then tear them down and destroy them, which often happens in a campaign. That's what they call negative campaigning. And in effect I was saying that to people in San Francisco, that in the course of my campaign I had made mistakes and had regrets. There were some moments I'd like to relive, but you can't unscramble the egg. So, if in my anger I inadvertently hurt somebody, I was sorry; if I helped somebody, I'm glad. But don't judge me by this campaign, because God is not finished with me yet. I have more to do.

So, I ran again, an even better campaign, and got more people to vote. Since that time, we've brought Americans out of Iraq. Since that time, we've brought Americans out of Serbia; helped free South Africa, helped release Mr. Mandela. The point is the work continues and so, as someone once asked, I think it was St.Augustine, how do you account for having such a successful life? What's your formula? You can write you can read, you can listen. But what is the real formula for being a successful person? He said, "I preach the Gospel every day and I use words sometimes - when I have to."Which is a way of saying we should reach out to help people. We should be teaching. And what we should all be doing is taking our light into dark places. And our heat to cold places. And share that which God has given to us with somebody else; that is our ultimate validation.

What is your new book about?

Jesse Junior and I have written a book called It's About the Money. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme. It's about teaching people the elements of financial management. Let's say you graduated from college, but don't know how to buy a car, get car insurance or how to buy a house; all you know is credit cards. Now that you have a job, you can buy what you can buy, and go where you want to go. You end up trapped in debt. You can't manage your financial future.

So, It's About the Money is a way to complete the four-stage movement. The first stage of our struggle was ending slavery, the second was to end legal segregation; the third stage was to give all Americans the right to vote; the fourth stage is to have access to capital.

One of the features of our Wall Street project is the Stock Market Game, where we teach people all around the country the science of the stock market. Seventy-five students in Chicago are learning how to read the stock pages. I'm giving these 75 children $200each to buy some stock. They've begun to follow the stocks and they're learning the language of the market. They're beginning to take control of their own financial future. This is important because our youth today are being exploited to buy more clothes than they can wear, to buy cars to enhance their personalities rather than to take them where they need to go. They're getting trapped in all that mindless materialism so it'san attempt to regain and redirect our values. So, It's About the Money.

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This article has 4 comments.

i love this so much!

on Jan. 26 2012 at 5:37 pm
ConvertibleHair, Shelby Township, Michigan
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Favorite Quote:
For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone

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I love this article, very interesting, doing more research on Jesse Jackson as we speak, my father and I once saw him at a Tiger game!

jayjay said...
on May. 22 2011 at 4:00 pm
hwo can i get with police brutality in kinton nc

on Mar. 2 2011 at 1:05 am
Noxfaratos SILVER, Traverse City, Michigan
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To the world you may be but one, but to one you might be the world. :)
Wise people think all they say: fools say all they think.

This was awesome! I saw him in a California Pizza Kitchen dad was like "Hey Jesse!" Haha.