Interview – Jesse Jackson: the civil rights legacy, Oxbridge admissions and the future of American politics

On March 7th 1965, 600 peaceful civil rights activists left on a march from their headquarters in Selma, Alabama towards the state capital, Montgomery, fifty miles down the road.  The aim of the march was to protest the death of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of the police and talk to the state governor about the incidents surrounding his death.

Before they had even left the city precinct, however, they were confronted by a wall of state troopers determined to stop their march.  Sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order that morning for all white males in Dallas County over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse to be deputized. This makeshift battalion beat the activists, sprayed them with tear gas, and charged them on horseback until they were forced to retreat.  Seventeen marchers were hospitalized and the day was nicknamed ‘Bloody Sunday’.

In Chicago a young Jesse Jackson watched the events of Bloody Sunday on TV and decided at that moment to postpone his Master’s degree in order to dedicate himself completely to the civil rights movement.  He travelled down to Alabama the next week to take part in the subsequent marches and soon became a leader within the civil rights movement, working closely with Martin Luther King until his death in 1968.

Whilst thinking about his days in the movement, Jackson’s voice takes on an understandable note of pride.  “We changed the laws of legal apartheid, that’s a legacy.  The public accommodations bill, which outlawed segregation in public facilities that’s a piece of legacy.  The right to vote is a piece of legacy.  Open and fair housing is a piece of legacy.

“Then in the 45 years since Dr King was killed, we have never stopped working.  I ran for president twice, we registered voters, we built coalitions and so between ’68 and ’08 we went from the motel in Memphis to the White House.  That is the legacy of my struggle.  It shows that we have only had democracy in America since 1963/1965.

“I tell you back then blacks couldn’t vote, white women couldn’t serve on juries, 18 year olds couldn’t vote, you couldn’t vote bilingually and you couldn’t vote on college campuses.  So all that’s part of the unfolding legacy of our struggle.”

Jackson was front and centre in many aspects of this struggle; as national director of Operation Breadbasket he was in charge of organizing a nationwide boycott of white-owned businesses to encourage them to hire black employees.  He was in the motel when Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and after his death was seen by many to be the new national leader of the civil rights movement.

He is adamant that Obama is continuing the struggle which he has dedicated his life, and defends him strongly against criticism that he has failed to deliver in office, instead calling him the “result of that movement.”

He counts the President’s successes on his fingers: withdrawal from Iraq, constant employment growth since taking office, the rescue of the car industry, Obamacare. “So he got more workers working again, more healthcare coverage, less involvement in Iraq. These are steps in the right direction.”

“I think electing him twice was a big civil rights victory.”

Jackson is, however, not a blind supporter of the President, accusing him of being too accepting of the principles of neoliberal economics, something which, in his opinion, does not smack of progress: “He has a fundamental assumption that a rising tide lifts all boats.  But the big boats are not connected to the small boats, so they are rising but the small boats are not rising.  So the poor are [sic] expanding.  The banks have got more money than they know where to lend it, but they are not obligated to reinvest and spend it.”

“The unfinished business is how we deal with the fundamental issue of the poor.”

Nor is he short of ideas for how this unfinished business might be completed. Endorsing stronger banking regulations, he details: “I would like lending and reinvestment tied to the bail out, so if I bail you out, OK, then go reinvest.”

These ideas are often little short of radical: “In Detroit you have 100,000 vacant homes, and partly because the banks used sub-prime mortgages.  If the banks had to help rebuild those half of those houses with the help of the government, then you would put thousands back to work, save homes and help rebuild the tax base.”

Jackson counts this economic mission as part of the broader mission of the civil rights movement, and in fact it seems there is very little that is not a part of this broad mission –  evident in how he discusses current events: “People stopping the war attacks on Syria was a victory, people didn’t want those attacks going against an uncertain destination. And we won that battle. So in many ways we are still winning battles, but the battles are not over.”

Those battles are being fought, not just in the legislative chambers of government, but also in wider society. “On any given Saturday at the big football games, with audiences black and white supporting players who are black and white… that’s a part of learning to live together.”

It is perhaps not surprising that Jackson has criticisms for the Oxbridge admissions system – an institution few would uphold as perfect, yet which nevertheless received a somewhat slamming indictment from him in his Union address. He explained his stance carefully: “A world class University must represent the world.  It must find ways for the world to be a part of its faculty.”

Coming from a country where affirmative action has been a longstanding though by no means uncontroversial policy, Jackson balks at our total lack of positive discrimination. And yet he refuses to use the term ‘positive discrimination’, believing it to be constructed by the deriders of such efforts, and preferring the term ‘positive access’: “You are trying to give people access, not knock them off the road.  There is enough room on the road for everyone.”

It seems that Jackson perhaps unfairly underrepresents the diversity of Oxford; surprisingly, 22% of Oxford students are of BME (Black or minority ethnic) origin, far more than the percentage of total UK undergraduates – just 13% – who come from these backgrounds. Yet he is strident about the benefits of still greater diversity in an educational environment: “Students here must see the disadvantage of having no black classmates, they leave here they want do business in Africa, in Asia, or Latin America then they should have those experiences, classmates, roommates, and friends during their formative years.  It’s not just that they are locked out but that you are locked in.  We are equally segregated, and we are equally losing from that deal.”

Turning to the future of American politics, Jackson is optimistic about the future of the Democratic party, arguing that the progressive coalition which swept Obama into power looks relatively stable.  He argued: “the interests of the Hispanic vote (a crucial element in this coalition) lie in dealing with immigration reform, in easy access to the vote, in bilingual education, in interest in affordable health, an interest in raising wages.  So the basic needs of the Hispanics and the Democratic party are in sync.”

Meanwhile, when posed with the possibility of Hillary Clinton running to be the first female President for the United States, he remains noncommittal –  simply observing: “She certainly has the qualifications, the question of whether a woman can run a full campaign is disabused since she ran in 2008 and she has been a successful Secretary of State. She has displayed a great service record.

“So if she chose to run she would be very difficult to beat,” he concludes, neutrally.

On the other hand Jackson remains unsurprisingly critical of the Republican party.  “They are subdividing within their own party between those who are more practical, who know that the party can be openly in favour of suppression, or can only be against immigration reform, or can only be against the poor.  So the Republicans are in a corner.”

When asked in turn about the apparent Republican contenders for 2016 – so far most likely to include Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey – he alludes once more to the Republicans’ difficulties: “I don’t know if he [Chris Christie] offers a way out of the current corner. Because at the moment he is an emerging personality.  But the infrastructure of that party is extremely right wing, and there is no guarantee that he can prevail and make the party practical again, it just is hard to say.”

The future for Jackson seems less easy to predict however.  Having taken his position as something of a national treasure the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of domestic politics seems increasingly unlikely.  Furthermore the imprisonment in August 2013 of Jesse Jackson Jr. for fraudulent spending $750,000 of campaign funds seems to have removed the possibility of sitting at the head of a Jackson political dynasty.

But if past events are anything to go by then this extraordinary man, who has pushed minority rights further than almost anyone else and still found time to be crowned High Prince of the Agni people of Côte d’Ivoire, will find something remarkable to achieve.