The whispers were that Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the most influential, celebrated—and at times controversial—civil rights giants, had lost his fastball. The church and political icon that first came to national prominence in the late 1960s as the youngest member of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s storied inner circle, was diagnosed with the neurological disorder Parkinson’s in 2017. At 77, the Rev. Jackson walks a little slower; his legendary soaring speaking prowess a little less bombastic. But contrary to such talk, the old man is still sharp. So sharp, in fact, that when I interviewed Rev. Jackson in mid-February during his annual Rainbow PUSH Wall Street Project Economic Summit at the Sheraton New York, he caught me off guard.
“We are beginning to learn how to vote,” he said when I asked him about the overall message behind the black-aimed economic event now in its 22nd year. “We’re not as adept as we must be on our economic consciousness. We vote with the ballot politically. But the wise use of our dollars determines the next dimension of our work.”
Indeed, Rev. Jackson is still doing the heavy lifting at a moment in his life when most observers would not blame him for sitting back in the proverbial rocking chair and taking in an incredible legacy. He marched alongside the legendary MLK for the dignity and equal rights of blacks and was there when the peerless leader of non-violence was assassinated that fateful evening in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
By the early ‘70s, Rev. Jackson and his newly formed Operation PUSH was leading the fight for broader employment opportunities for African-Americans across the nation. White Conservatives and even some Democrats glibly labeled him a racial demagogue. Rev. Jackson pushed through the attacks, further raising his historical profile as he negotiated the release of dozens of international hostages in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
In 1984, Run Jesse Run was the euphoric, inspiring mantra as he threw his hat in the ring as the next Leader of the Free World. Standing on the towering shoulders of Shirley Chisholm—the first black woman elected to the United States Congress who would also become the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination—Rev. Jackson made another run for President in 1988, altogether winning a total of 16 state contests while attracting millions of votes. He was now the first viable African-American candidate for the Oval Office. Rev. Jackson, America’s moral compass, even took on President Ronald Reagan’s support for the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa.
But there were also stumbles along with way. Rev. Jackson has at times been called out of touch by a younger hip-hop generation disillusioned with marches and speeches; there was a child out of wedlock; and a family scandal that saw his son and former U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. do prison time for misusing campaign funds in 2013.
And yet Rev. Jackson fought on as his reputation as one of the elder statesmen of the civil rights movement became a more nuanced and fully realized freedom fighter and political powerbroker. He was an early backer of future President Barack Obama and stood beside the brave organizers who shouted out Black Lives Matter.
VIBE sat down with the Rev. Jesse Jackson to discuss the Wall Street Project Economic Summit, blackface, why Congresswoman Maxine Waters should make President Donald Trump very nervous and how the current hip-hop age exemplifies empowerment. This is Black History.
VIBE: The Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Citizenship Education Fund just hosted the 22nd Annual Wall Street Project Economic Summit. Both Congresswoman Maxine Waters and hip-hop mogul Percy “Master P” Miller are among the diverse list of speakers. Can you touch on the striking dichotomy between Master P and Congresswoman Waters and how they fit into your event’s message of economic empowerment?
Rev. Jesse Jackson: They are both consumers. And they both have influenced the market. There’s a [mass main street economic influence and mass political economic] influence. That’s what Maxine and Master P represent. In the last 50 years, we have become much more aware of our political consciousness.
What does Black History Month mean to you since its homogenized commercialization?
It’s a mistake to even limit our history to a month. Black history is a living spirit and is unique to America’s history. Two hundred and forty-four years of slavery is white history…and black history. When the ships came in and out of New York harbor shipping cotton, tobacco and bringing in Africans of international trade we were the first commodity on the commodity exchange. That’s black history and also white history.
When we got the right to vote before being denied the right to vote that determined America’s makeup. So in some sense, blacks getting the right to vote is white history, too, because we now represent more of ourselves. Fifty-five blacks in Congress; 42 Latinos and 20 Asians…that’s because the fundamental right to vote has been achieved. Now we must turn those political achievements into economic contracts. So when Congresswoman Maxine Waters speaks of diversity on Wall Street, she speaks with authority because she now has subpoena power [as the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee].
When Congresswoman Bernice Johnson out of Texas, who is presiding over the [Science, Space, and Technology committee] speaks, the Apples and Googles have to listen to what she has to say. So we are in the most strategically powerful position we have even been in economically.
There have been a string of painful events that have transpired this Black History Month such as the blackface scandal in Virginia. What does it say that the majority of Virginian African-Americans in a poll still support Gov. Ralph Northam after a year-book photo emerged of Northam seemingly in blackface standing next to a classmate dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe?
Our assessment is 35 years ago [Northam was part] of typical southern culture. But when the march took place in Charlottesville against the Robert E. Lee statue, he was on the right side of history. When it came to voter protections [Northam] was there; Medicaid, he was there. So we liked that, but the blackface was embarrassing. On the other hand, look at someone like Cindy Hyde-Smith, the Senator from Mississippi. She joked of having a public lynching party…now.
The Governor of Florida [Ron DeSantis] says no more monkey business [in a race against African-American Democratic challenger Andrew Gillum]…now. The Governor of Georgia manipulates the election and steals it from Stacey Abrams…now. So we must compartmentalize these things and put it all in perspective. We must determine the threshold for what we will accept. We must determine the threshold for racial intolerance, and no one else.
How do you see Black America dealing with and living in the age of Trump?
Well, in the case of the [special 2017 Senate race in Alabama] we beat Roy Moore…we beat [Trump]. In 2018, we won by 9 million votes [to take back the House]…we beat [Trump]. So we are fighting back politically. He has the megaphone, but we are fighting back. We’re not surrendering so that’s the best news to me. On Trump’s watch, we are going to have Maxine [Waters] overseeing the banks. On Trump’s watch, we are voting in record numbers. You either fight back or surrender. And we are fighting back.
Your historical presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 are universally viewed as the bridge to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Currently, there are two black presidential candidates (Kamala Harris and Cory Booker) who are viewed as serious players in the 2020 election. Do you feel that connection that you walked so that they could run?
I think I have been able to serve in that way. I was there fighting for the right to vote in Selma with Dr. King. After Selma, I felt the urge to run for office to remove psychological barriers. I remember one night we were up in New Hampshire. And someone approached me rather patronizing and said, “Reverend, you have been doing pretty well in the civil rights debates, but tomorrow night we are discussing international affairs. We don’t want to embarrass you.” And I told him, “I’m interested in being a part of that. We (African-Americans) came on the boat on international policy. We were breaking down barriers.
When Barack ran, we were able to move from winner takes all to proportionality. That was the key to his winning, not just social media. He won California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. So now that all this has happened more people see that [the Presidency] is possible. There are some people running to get their names placed for national recognition. Some candidates believe they can win and some believe they can be a part of the ticket. But the fact is we now feel free. When I first ran it was considered absurd. You know you can’t win…you are not serious. But we are serious. And we have won…twice.
What has been your proudest moment as a fighter for civil rights?
[I have to say] the time I made my mother rejoice. But there was another time when I was out in Ohio with the late Congressman Lou Stokes. And he wanted to support me ideally [for President], but practically wanted to support Walter Mondale. He was in a [quandary] over what he should do. So a 13-year-old kid walks up to him and says, “Mr. Stokes, can I ask you a question? Can a black person be President?” And tears started to fall from Lou’s eyes. And he said, “Yes, a black person can be President.” He couldn’t say no. That was an emotional moment.
So go back to Master P’s inclusion in the Wall Street Project Economic Summit. Hip-hop has become so vital in this culture. What’s your take on the impact of some of the hip-hop artists like Jay-Z, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Cardi B?
I think every season has its own style and flavor. But what these artists bring to it is the ability to own their product. Some of our great artists didn’t own their masters. Some of our great artists did tours for the record company [and made little money]. They weren’t able to audit the companies that released their records. This new generation of artists has a better sense of business acumen. These are the most advanced artists ever. That’s their empowerment.