The Reverend Jesse Jackson was a trailblazer for a black politicians like Barack Obama and a symbol of the political power – or sometimes powerlessness – of the African-American community for decades.
A civil rights icon for the left and a dangerous radical for the right, Jackson, a close confidant of Martin Luther King, became the voice of millions of blacks who felt disenfranchised, discriminated and devalued.
In 1984 and 1988 he launched presidential campaigns, but had little chance of getting the Democratic nominations. After that, he stepped back from the political frontline, but remained an outspoken liberal activist, leading the Chicago-based Rainbow Push Coalition.
On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Jackson spoke with euronews in the US capital about his memories of August 28, 1963, race relations today in the US and the future of black political power after Obama.
euronews: “Reverend Jackson, thank you so much for being with us today. Let me start by asking you a personal question. What are your memories of that August 28, 1963? How do you remember that day?”
Jackson: “I remember coming here in ’63, I just left jail in Greensboro, North Carolina.. And there was anxiety and fear and hope. The anxiety was, will we make it to Washington and back. The fear was, if you drove a car across state lines with a different tag, something could happen to you. Medgar Evers had been killed on June 12 and the stain of his blood was all in the air. [Washington] DC was under virtual lockdown. The government was saying there could be a riot and at that time the mayor of DC was appointed [not elected].
“They closed all liquor stores for the first time since Prohibition. All police worked 18 hour shifts. They mobilised the military in the five surrounding military bases. This place was under lockdown. And yet in spite of that, out of that sprouts this beautiful flower of people: black and white, standing together, singing together, being inspired together, and our will to freedom and dignity was greater than the resistance to our getting our freedom and dignity.”
euronews: “Fifty years on, what is the state of the American dream that Dr. King had talked about?”
Jackson: “The dream was never static. The dream in ’64 was the end of humiliation. I mean, black soldiers had to sit behind Nazi POWs, prisoners of war. The dream was to end the indignity. You couldn’t stop by a hotel or motel, couldn’t eat at a public restaurant, that was that dream.
“The dream of next year was for legislation to make that illegal. The dream of next year was for the right to vote. The next year the dream was for open housing. The dream was a poor peoples’ campaign, it was to end the war in Vietnam. Now we are free, but we are not equal. And social separation has virtually ended as a matter of law, but the disparities have gotten wider.”
euronews: “How are race relations today in the United States? We do have this controversial debate over voter ID laws, we have seen the Trayvon Martin tragedy, we have this debate over stop-and-frisk and racial profiling in New York City – is there a danger that America is turning back the clock?”
Jackson: “In many ways. Trayvon Martin was killed, an innocent. One hundred and thirty six blacks were killed last year by some sheriff, or some deputy, or some vigilante, 136, not just one! There are two and a half million Americans in prison, over 54 percent are African-American. We see prison labour on the increase, we see prison telephone bills costing 1.5 billion dollars a year, we see companies on the stock exchange owning prisons as an industry, we see pre-trial detention, people in jail for up to five years waiting for trial, worse than Guantanamo.
“So there is an ugliness undercutting our beauty. And there is a real mixed feeling in the country tonight, frankly. On the high note, President Barack [Obama] wins, he is the crown jewel of our success of 55 years of struggle. On the other hand, he is under attack, called non-Christian, non-American, all this ugliness, kind of vile, that is challenging the beauty of this moment.”
euronews: “Many people say that race relations are fine because there is a black president in the White House. Was Obama’s victory a sign of political normalcy or just an accident of history?”
Jackson: “Well, it’s a historic accomplishment, to be sure, because the combination of forces for the good came together and went beyond. Other Americans said the race is about race first and chose someone who has superior qualifications and was able to articulate those.
“The vote made us feel good about ourselves. But there was another element that felt very threatened and they should not have. The south should not feel threatened by our progress. Civil rights have made the new south prosper. I mean, you could not have had the investment of Honda, Mitsubishi, Toyota, all of them have invested in the south, the new professional athletics teams in the south, the Olympics in the south – the new south has been born again because of the civil rights laws. And so the irony is those who would benefit the most become oftentimes the most mean or the most frightened.”
euronews: “Looking beyond Obama, has the African-American community become more powerful? Do you see more Obamas in the future?”
Jackson: “Well, you will see more women, more people of colour who dare dream of running, and they may very well run. When I was running back in ’88, President Barack was a student, and he saw the debate, and he said to me and he said to himself, this can be done.
“So the seeds you plant, you never know when they are going to sprout, when they are going to grow. There are qualified women, Latinos and blacks, there is no shortage of people qualified to be president of the United States. And I think that there is a whole body of people that can at least dream it. If you dream it, you can make it happen.”
euronews: “And finally, what is your biggest concern today? What keeps you up at night?”
Jackson: “Well, I’m perplexed by our proclivity for war, the extreme concentration of wealth, the loss of the middle class because of our trade imbalances and the growth of poverty. The poverty growth in our country now is reaching very dangerous proportions. Too much war, too much hate, too much poverty, we in fact must dream, live above our present predicament and change our priorities.”