Turning 65, Rev. Jesse Jackson talks about his life, the Democrats, the biggest issues facing America today—and the role he plays in his son’s thriving political career
By David Bernstein
Published June 18, 2007
In October, Rev. Jesse Louis Jackson celebrated two personal milestones: his 65th birthday and his 40th year as a civil rights activist and political firebrand-initially as one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants and later as the leader of his own social movement. In the process, he has become one of the most prominent figures in American politics today.
Born in Greenville, South Carolina, Jackson has called Hyde Park home since he arrived there in 1964 to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary. He now spends much of his time crisscrossing the globe-usually followed by the media spotlight-to advance the causes of blacks, the poor, and the disenfranchised.
Chicago recently caught up with Jackson to talk about his four decades of activism, the major political issues of the day, his proudest accomplishments, and his son’s aspirations to be the next mayor of Chicago.
Q: Over the course of these 40 years or so, you’ve had several different titles: Reverend, of course; civil rights leader, humanitarian, presidential candidate, Rainbow PUSH founder, radio host-you’ve even hosted Saturday Night Live. A: Well, those are descriptions of things I’ve done. I was ordained in ‘68, so Reverend is my title.
Q: Is that what you identify with the most? A: Reverend Jesse Jackson. But because of my work in civil rights and social justice, I am referred to as a civil rights activist. And for my international work, I’m internationally referred to as a human rights activist. Because I ran for the presidential candidacy, I’m a presidential candidate. These are things that I have done. These are my titles.
Q: Outside of politics, you’ve also built up a reputation for negotiating the release of American hostages and prisoners of war. A: Shoshanna Johnson was at my birthday party the other night in L.A.-the first black woman POW early on in this war. She said for the first eight or ten days, [the prisoners] were following their own protocol they had been taught in case they were captured. She said, “I have to admit, after the tenth day, I said, ‘Where’s Jesse Jackson? We’ve followed the protocol now and no one has reached us yet.’” So she was laughing-the soldiers were discussing me over there when they were in captivity.
Q: Tell me about Katrina. You were down there. Tell us your experience down there. A: Well, I was in Venezuela when that storm was moving towards the coast. [President Hugo] Chavez said-we were in a conversation, and he said, “This is the big one.” The next day, it hit. I flew from Caracas to Atlanta-the next day went to New Orleans. [Former congressman and current Louisiana state senator] Cleo Fields was able to get me in because the place was kind of under lockdown at that point. There was no plan. Even though they saw the storm coming, there was no plan for massive rescue, for massive relocation. We did ten missions, in and out; even FEMA said it was too dangerous to move but we kept coming in and out-took 500 students from Xavier out one night at midnight. It was such a horrible sight, people sleeping on the sides of the road and stuff like that. It was astonishing that the president got there almost a week late. No Cabinet member. None. It exposed a lot about President Bush, about our government at that point. But it sent a message around the whole world about our government and matters of how we treat poor people who are black. Even now, under 47 percent of people are back, even now.
Q: Katrina shed a light on some of the conditions that people were living in. There was some hope by people that this would bring new attention to some urban problems. Has it? A: Unfortunately, this government has no urban policy. Every urban city is a Katrina zone, except without the break of a levee.
Q: You’ve been very outspoken also on Iraq and very critical of President Bush. Do you think that George Bush is the worst president you’ve seen in your lifetime? A: Well, he is maybe the most ideological. He does not get very far away from the Confederate ideology-states’ rights. And then his foreign policy-"my way or the highway” arrogance. The Iraq war is a huge debacle because it is a war of choice.
Q: Is that the biggest issue facing our country today? A: It may very well be because it weakens our credibility around the world. Even our adversaries embraced us after 9/11: Cuba, Libya, all the countries rallied to our side. We’ve squandered that now. We chose corrupt Iraq exiles over UN observers. We sought to diminish the [United Nations]. We used our strength to undermine the UN. Now, of course, we need the UN as never before. And we’ve lost lives, 3,000 American lives, and the estimates just keep getting bigger as to how many Iraqi lives have been killed in this process. We lost lives, money-$250 million a day-we’ve lost our honor, and we’ve lost relations. And, I might add, we’re less secure.
Q: What about the Democrats? Do you think that they’ve risen to some of these challenges, or is their plan merely to criticize President Bush? A: Many Democrats, you know, engage in what I call seesaw politics. You have those who believe if the Republicans are down, the Democrats are up; if the Republicans are up, the Democrats must be down. It’s a seesaw. Fact of the matter is, we must have our own remedies and solutions for problems; [we must] gain our own identity opposite of Republicans. Republican failure cannot automatically spell Democratic success. The number of working poor people has expanded. We must, as Roosevelt did, have an answer for that. Fifty-one million Americans now don’t have health insurance. We must be the answer for that. We must have an urban policy. It’s basically been to have first-class jails and second-class schools. Democrats must represent answers to those challenges to be worthy of being followed.
[Editor’s note: Chicago’s interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson was conducted before his son Jesse Jr. announced that he would stay in Congress rather than run for mayor.]
Q: Your son Jesse Jr. has made it clear that he would one day like to be mayor of Chicago. Do you think he would do a better job than our current mayor? A: Now, I don’t want to politicize that issue by giving an answer, because I’ve kept the respectful distance from [my son] and his work. That is to say, that he is a congressman. [He’s] been there for 11 years-has the best voting record of any congressman in America. Hasn’t missed one vote in 11 years, and he has done meaningful things for his district not at all influenced by our relationship, so I respect the necessary distance we must have to do our respective jobs.
Q: Does he come to you for advice? A: Sometimes we share, but for the most part I enjoy watching him grow to meet his responsibilities and obligations.
Q: Do you agree with Jesse Jr. on most issues? A: We share many things in common: we must prioritize investment in education; workers need a livable wage; we must be a coalition and resist racial polarization; ending waste, fraud, and abuse must be a reasonable expectation. In Chicago does waste, fraud, and abuse matter? It’s happened so much, people think it’s part of their furniture.
Q: What about your relationship with Governor Blagojevich, how’s that? A: It’s amiable. First time I got to know him, he went on a trip with me to Yugoslavia [Blagojevich, who was then a congressman, is Serbian]. His commitment to not addressing school funding is hurtful. [If] you make a categorical promise not to change the tax structure, you promise to keep unequal schools. It requires some audacity, some boldness, to take on a failed system of taxation. Property tax is evasive funding-those with the most property value get the best education. Those with the least, get the least education.
Q: Let’s talk about Barack Obama. There seems to be a kind of “draft Obama” movement going on for 2008. Do you think he should run now? A: Well, in order to run, you’ve got to have the stomach for it. You’ve got to have the intensity, and you have to plan for it. [Reverend Jackson ran for president twice, in 1984 and again in 1988.] He [Obama] is incredibly attractive because he’s bright, he’s young, he’s handsome, he has a strong position in the Senate. It’s because he has these properties that the media is teasing him. But there has not been a test yet, in the sense that, if you are not running, you are an attractive noncompetitor. If you’re raising money for the party, you’re an attractive noncompetitor, obviously. At the point at which you decide to run, then you become a competitor, not just a colleague. To run you have to engage in more controversy, which leaders have to do to change things. This guy, [Sen. George] Allen out of Virginia, he used these pejorative statements. If Barack were running, he’d have to take Allen on. If he were to run against Hillary, who would [contributors] give the money to? Her. Who would labor give the money to? Her.
Q: In the 40 years of your public career, you’ve had proud moments and not-so-proud moments. What would you say is your proudest moment? A: I think the choice, ironically, to leave school with my wife’s advice, to work with Dr. King. That was a huge moment. At $37.50 a week without health insurance and two children, it was high risk. We sensed in his work that it was worth the investment. Running for the presidency was a life-altering decision. Bringing Americans home from foreign jails-big moments. And a few years ago when my wife [Jacqueline] went to Puerto Rico to protest the naval occupation of Vieques [used for training in bombardment], and they wanted her to subject herself to bodily cavity searches and she refused to do so. They put her in the hole for ten days; watching her walk out of jail, determined and not scarred, was a big deal. Big deal. And now, I see a generation of young people that I worked with, and they’re maturing in their own right. Watching people whose lives we’ve touched is a big deal.
Q: What about things you might do differently? A: Everything that I’ve done has been in some context, and I’m convinced that we look back like the true judge and ultimately you judge yourself by your cumulative box score. It’s not the home run you hit one inning; it’s not the strikeout the next inning. It is the box score. And our box score-my batting average-has been one I can accept. There is perhaps something I could’ve done better. I spent so much time traveling that I put a disproportionate burden on my wife. But it turned into a blessing. My children, each of them, have done quite well as adults. But I can’t go forward looking backwards.
Q: What about your critics who say that you seem to be in the middle of every big story, whether it is freeing prisoners abroad or Terri Schiavo or Michael Jackson? Critics say you’re a media hound-how do you respond to that? A: Well, they say we chase ambulances. We’re going to chase them where there are no ambulances. Iraq, Cuba, Yugoslavia-there’s no ambulances there. Dr. King was accused of being an opportunist. He said, “I am an opportunist, for justice. Whenever I see a contradiction, I expose it.” This is what we do. Ours is a struggle for the mind of America and its direction, and that is a public fight. Public fights are fought on the stage, under the lights.
Q: How do you think the future of America looks? Are you positive and hopeful or do you feel like we’re going in the wrong direction? A: My optimism will rise with the change of direction. In this direction, we’ve become increasingly isolated in the world. We lost four million jobs the last two years. Cut Pell Grants by $12 billion. Not enforcing civil rights laws. Our foreign policy hurts us. In Iraq, we’re sinking in the sand. It’s a quagmire-can’t stay, can’t leave. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has regrouped. No commitment to urban policy-
Q: What are you optimistic about? A: There’ll be new leadership and new direction. That’s why Democrats must represent new direction, not just the flip side of a bad situation. We need new direction, not just new leadership. Our priorities in the world have changed. We must become who we were after World War II, the nation of help, and not the nation of invasion and occupation.