Jesse Jackson | Interview
Rev. Jesse Jackson looks at the Democratic conventions of '68 and'08.
The tireless activist, founder-president of RainbowPUSH Coalition and first African-American man to run a national presidential campaign recently spoke with us following his trip to assess Haiti’s food crisis.
Time Out Chicago: At the Chicago Seven trial, you said you’d encouraged blacks not to get involved in the ’68 convention because “if blacks got whipped, nobody would pay attention.” Was there less of a black presence at that demonstration?
Jesse Jackson: Yeah, we knew that our struggle in part depended on disciplined and nonviolent direct action. All the seeds for violence had been sown: the mayor’s position, shoot to kill, heavy police protection—all we could see was people being beaten and the message of our agenda being lost in the mayhem.
TOC: But you were there?
Jesse Jackson:Yeah, but marginally so because I did not want to attract more people into what amounted to an ambush.
TOC: What did you experience?
Jesse Jackson: Well, it was a very intense environment, number one. Dr. King was killed April the 4th; Bobby Kennedy was killed June the 5th. The war was raging, and the antiwar sentiment was at a fever pitch. I discouraged people from going downtown because our message that bombs dropped in Vietnam would explode in American cities would be lost in the sticks and in the bullets. And that’s just what happened.
TOC: After that divisive convention, the Democrats lost, a Republican won and an unpopular war continued. Are we headed down a similar path?
Jesse Jackson: Full circle. See, the irony in the confrontation is that the losers are required for the winner to win. The Johnson-Humphrey fight was a playoff game, the Super Bowl was versus Nixon, and we’ve come here again. Now the difficult challenge is that Barack and Hillary will reconcile, but the people who have such high hopes in their particular candidates is the real issue.
TOC: Are we past the point of no return?
Jesse Jackson: Well, you can’t say that, but we’re dangerously close. A significant number of Barack’s supporters say if she wins they will not support her; a significant number of her supporters say if he wins they will not support him. The loser of the primary will determine the winner of the election.
TOC: On Democracy Now you said, “Who is to fight the fight to end the war except young people in the streets of America, if they choose those streets?” Why don’t more young people choose the streets today?
Jesse Jackson:Because they have access to the voting booth. In 1970, a phenomenal thing happened: 18-year-olds got the right to vote. By 1974, a bigger thing happened: Students fought for the right of residency; you can vote where you live. There’s still some street action; there’s an awful lot of poll action.
TOC: How else do you account for the differences in young people’s reactions to Vietnam and Iraq, other than getting the right to vote?
Jesse Jackson: It has to be more than that. Most military funerals are played down. Four thousand Americans have been killed in Iraq; we lost 55,000 in Vietnam. Of course, our media has dumbed-down the impact of the war because our media basically supported the war. But also, when Dr. King took the position against the war, it was considered unpatriotic. Now, antiwar is mainstream.
TOC: Some pundits claim your brand of African-American leadership has given way to Obama’s: not as much about race and social inequity. Do you think that’s true?
Jesse Jackson: No. All that Barack or Hillary does springs from the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s an unbroken continuity.… I ran in ’84 and ’88, expanding the base. Because of those campaigns, the idea that a woman can be on the ticket or a black can run is no longer an issue.
TOC: You did surprisingly well in ’88, getting about 1,200 delegates—
Jesse Jackson: It was surprising for some people, amazing to others. [Laughs] Barack said to me once—he was at Columbia [University] when we debated with Mondale and Hart in ’84, and he watched the debate and said, “You know, this can be done.” We were sowing seeds in ’84.
TOC: Do you ever look at how well Obama is doing and think, If only I were born 20 years later?
Jesse Jackson: No, that’s absurd. I have children his age. I am blessed to be alive to see the fruits of our work. My pain is that Dr. King sowed the seeds and never saw the fruit; that’s my pain. My joy is watching seeds we planted—when Jesse [Jackson Jr.] was sworn into the U.S. Congress by Newt Gingrich, what a joy.
TOC: Your wife supports Clinton while you support Obama. Do you ever try to sway each other?
Jesse Jackson: No, this campaign ain’t wrecked my marriage. [Laughs] Before Barack even announced, many women encouraged Hillary to run. And that’s all right; we can choose sides in the primary. It’s the general election that really matters.