Recently, I held an interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson in which we discussed a wide variety of issues including economics, civil rights, and the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. has been involved in the civil rights movement for over 40 years. He has dedicated his life in the pursuit of social equality for all Americans regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Rev. Jackson is most remember for his presidential runs in 1984 and 1988, becoming just the second African American to run for President. Although he did not manage to win the presidency, he achieved a good deal of success and helped to lay the foundation for African Americans to run for national offices. Currently, Rev. Jackson is the founder and president and of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, an organization dedicated to progressive politics and social change.
Michael Bendetson: Rev. Jackson your work in the civil rights movement began in the year 1965. What propelled you as a young man to participate in the Selma to Montgomery Marches and join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)?
Jesse Jackson: Well, there were a couple of major factors. First, when my father came back from World War II, Nazi POWs on military bases had more rights than my father and the other black soldiers. Their [black soldiers] theme was "double v"; victory against Nazism abroad and victory against racism at home. That generation returned home from fighting for freedom in Europe, without basic civil rights. This was a major disappointment to me. Second, on July 16, 1960 when I came home from college, my friend and I were arrested for trying to use a public library. Part of what propelled me [to enter politics] was my own thirst for dignity and equal protection under law. I lived in and under legal segregation and so my desire grew out of the request to end that system of law.
MB: In 1984 and in 1988, you became the second African American to seek the office of the presidency of the United States. Despite facing extreme adversity, you managed to win a number of states and finished in third place. Knowing that your odds of victory were fairly slim, why did you run for president?
JJ: I came to the conclusion that in order to end racial barriers, I needed to run for the office of the president and put forth an agenda of social justice and world peace. In addition, I concluded that someone needed to run and challenge the liberal orthodoxy. [The party leadership] had become oppressive and not sensitive to what we [African-Americans] had done with and for the party. We ran and built the "Rainbow Coalition," a multi-racial and diverse group of people who maintained the same progressive ideas of social justice and social change.
MB: Many have claimed that your presidential campaigns over two decades ago, helped to lay the foundation for Barack Obama to be elected president. How do you react to that comment?
JJ: We [our campaign] were a factor, but the above statement is not totally true. In order to understand the election of President Obama, we need to examine a timeline. The 1948 executive order issued by Harry Truman was a huge step for [African Americans]. The 1954 Supreme Court decision to make racism illegal was a great gain. That decision was followed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which were also major improvements. By the time I ran, I was still removing barriers and tearing down walls to build bridges for racial equality. All of these movements were built, one upon another. I remember talking with President Obama on one occasion. While watching me [Jackson] debate [Walter] Mondale and [Gary] Hart, he [Obama] said, "This is possible." So it is really a 60 year journey and President Obama has run the last lap.
MB: From the beginning of the Democratic primary season, you were a major supporter of Mr. Obama. However your admiration did not prevent you from making criticisms of the Obama campaign. In interview with Fox News, you were caught stating that Senator Obama was "talking down to black people." What was the cause of your frustration with Mr. Obama at that point in time?
JJ: You know I have really come to regret that comment. I never stopped supporting him [Obama], whether it was his run for the state senate, the US Senate, or the presidency. My concern was that the substance of our struggle be acknowledged. I think he has done just that. We all made adjustments as we grew through the campaign process. I am definitely on board with this presidency. I think it has shown this past week a sensitivity that is rare, with its focus on ending torture, closing Guantanamo Bay, and focusing on presidential transparency. All of those decisions in my opinion were steps in the right direction.
MB: As a man who has been combating racial injustice for the past four decades, what does the election of Barack Obama as president personally mean to you? Further, how does having a black commander-in-chief change race relations in the United States?
JJ: That night as I stood in Grand Park, many images came to mind. I thought of this exact spot 40 years earlier where people were protesting the war in spite of the tear gas being used. That night in my mind, I could see people in poor villages of Kenya, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, and Brazil who identified his [Obama] way with their own emancipation struggles. I know they all wish they could have seen it, but some of these people are even to poor to have internet and television. However, I felt their presence. That night was also about the journey. I am talking about the marches and the martyrs. I thought of the people who were injured and killed in this struggle, many of whom I knew. I wish at some point that Dr. King and Medgar Evers just could have been there for 30 seconds, just to witness it. The night overwhelmed me. There was a certain feeling of achievement from a civil rights and human rights perspective.
MB: Despite the fact that America has elected its first black president; the racial divide is still fairly prevalent. African Americans continue to fall behind the white population in statistics concerning income, education, and life expectancy. In your opinion what must be done by both the black community and the government to dissolve this divide?
JJ: Well first, there is structural inequality that must be targeted in preparation to close the [racial] gap. The War on Poverty began to close that gap, and Johnson's Great Society in general began to close that gap. Dr. King delighted in Johnson's victory over Goldwater. He delighted in Johnson's domestic policies. However when the budget shifted from the War on Poverty at home to the war in Vietnam, he said, "Bombs dropped in Vietnam, explode in American cities." He felt that America had abandoned its cities and as a result those cities suffered immensely. That is why today for example we [Rainbow PUSH Coalition] are focusing on urging the president and the congress to pass an economic stimulant package to help those in need such as college students.
MB: Over the years you have remained quite consistent in your positions on key issues. However on the question of abortion, you have altered your original stance. In the late 1970's, you stated, "There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of [a] higher order than the right to life... that was the premise of slavery." But by the end of the 1980's, you claimed that abortion was, "fight for the right to self-determination." Why the shift in policy position?
JJ: Maturity. I had gained a greater appreciation of hearing the concerns of woman, doctors, and so many others. Ultimately, it is the right of self-determination. Most women choose to have their babies, especially when the medical conditions are right and the parent has the economic opportunity to have the child. We know that when economic opportunities exist the rate of abortions goes down. In tough economic times, desperate people do desperate things, and the abortion rate goes up. I did not so much change, as I did grow. People always grow and mature. I would like to think that today, more and more women are making the choice for life, but it is ultimately their choice.
MB: Throughout your political career, you have been a major advocate for voter mobilization. During your 1984 campaign, you delivered the now famous "David and Goliath" speech. The speech clearly articulated the importance of participating in the political process. Despite the significance of the 2008 election, just over 60 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. What else needs to be done to increase voter turnout?
JJ: It is crucial to have inspiring leaders who deliver on their promises. Cynicism has run deep, because many people think their vote does not matter or do vote and nothing happens. This time [Election 2008] the fact that they won will in the future inspire more people to vote. One of the major factors this year in the increase in turnout was in many areas you had on site same day registration and voters had the option to vote over a period of 30 days. [In conclusion] the three most importance factors that increased voter turnout in this past election and will continue to do so in the future elections are same day registration, many days to vote, and inspiring candidates.
MB: Rev. Jackson you have long been a critic of both Israeli policy and the America policy of unwavering support for Israel. Considering Israel is a very loyal democratic ally to the United States in a region that is fairly anti-western, what are your objections to the current relationship between the two countries.
JJ: Let me begin by saying that 1984 and in 1988, I advocated for a two-state solution, but than I was attacked. That has now become the mainstream position. There should be a two state solution where they [Israelis and Palestinians] coexist and not co-annihilate. [Former Secretary of State] Kissinger had a no talk policy. No talk led to no contact and thus no diplomacy. You cannot have a diplomatic offensive without talking. Over time that policy has indeed changed. That is a major step in the right direction. I think that under the present circumstances, only the US can play the role of the broker. The US must be the honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. America needs to be to both of them what neither could be to the other: a trusted brokering partner. It is in their interest and our interest for America to play that role. [President] Clinton moved us in that direction, [President] Bush stepped away until for the most part the last year [of his presidency], which was not in our interest or their interests. I think Hamas should be challenged to consider really embracing Gandhi and Dr. Kings philosophy of advocating nonviolence as a way to achieve self determination, end occupation, achieve unity within their country, and gain allies within Israel. I think this idea of an eye for and eye, a rocket for a bomb, will never bring about peace for either side.
MB: In your opinion, what are the main problems and the issues that President Obama should aim to tackle in his first hundred days in the White House?
JJ: I think his lure on issues like stopping torture encloses a strong base and becomes a symbol for his presidency beginning in the right direction. Unlike Bush and Paulson, I hope that as President Obama fights for the [economic] stimulus that helps all American, especially the poor and middle class. Major attention should also be given to the future of student loans. These loans grow and stabilize the educated population. The bottom line is students should have lower interest rates and more grants. It does not stand to give banks millions of dollars at an interest rate of one percent, when banks charge students an interest rate of 6 percent. Why should the banks be scalping students? In addition to students paying less, they should get the same federal rate as the banks. We should go out of our way to get our students through college.