Jesse Jackson Keeps Pushing

30 years after his first presidential run, Jackson talks Obama, Civil Rights and the black vote.

Joel Bleifuss

Civil rights leader and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. (Photo by Chris Connor/Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, Jesse Jackson made a historic run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Though he didn’t win the primary, his candidacy in 1984 and subsequent run in 1988 spurred a record turnout of African-American voters, united progressives and posed a formidable challenge to a complacent Democratic Party leadership. Now we have a black president, whom Jackson supports, though at times critically. These days, Jackson has been making headlines for going down to Ferguson, Missouri, to join the protests and for his bid to diversify the tech industry, which he says is the next step in the civil rights movement.

'Change comes bottom up, not top down.'

So does Jackson feel that with Obama in the White House, his electoral work is done? In These Times sat down to talk with the 72-year-old civil rights veteran about social change and the role of elections.

Why did you decide to focus on diversifying the tech industry?

There’s an uneven playing field. Blacks don’t have the same access to capital, industry or technology. The Silicon Valley companies — Apple, Google, eBay, Amazon — almost none of these companies have a Black or Latino on their board of directors. We’ve documented the virtual exclusion of Blacks and Latinos from Google’s workforce: 1 to 2 percent for Blacks, and 2 to 3 percent for Latinos. We are being locked out and denied the opportunity to participate in this innovative, world-changing industry.

Your tactics have been to shame the companies and to call on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate them. Would your tactics have been different if Obama was not in power?

No, our demand for inclusion and full participation in the technology industry is a private-sector fight. We are making our demands at shareholder meetings, as shareholders. We are challenging companies to put in place a comprehensive diversity and inclusion program: from their boardrooms to their C-suites, to their workforces and their use of minority firms in their procurement and professional services activity. Yes, the government has a role to play, too, and we want the EEOC and Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs to proactively verify that technology companies are in compliance with their equal opportunity rules and regulations.

Did Obama’s election fulfill what you set out to do in 1984 and 1988?

It is now widely accepted wisdom that the Rainbow voters that we inspired and empowered in 1984 and 1988 — Blacks, Latinos, youth, labor and women — are the winning coalition in contemporary presidential elections. It’s a victory for the Voting Rights Act, part of the 50-year journey for civil and voting rights in America.

You went down to Ferguson during the protests over Michael Brown’s killing. What did you see there?

People feel overwhelmed by their predicament. They have been pummeled into a pulp, without representation in the police force and in city hall. In many cases some precipitous action — often a police killing of a Black youth — arouses their sense of dignity, so people rebel. You’ve seen this same outrage and protest with the killings of Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. And now, with Michael Brown, we’ve hit a critical mass. 

In Ferguson, you have a police force that is 94 percent white, with a 67 percent Black population. People were disenfranchised and locked out. Many had lost that will to fight back. That is all changing. Now one of the issues in Ferguson is door – to-door voter registration. I said, You guys can fight back and you can change your political destiny.” And they said, Nothing’s going to happen here.” So I ask, Would you like to be a juror when Michael’s killer comes to court? Do you know that only registered voters can serve as jurors?” They said, Is that for real?”

I said, If you’re registered to vote, you could have the ability to determine his fate. But you also can elect judges. You can elect city council people. As a matter of fact, you can elect the mayor who hires the police and fire chiefs. You have all that power, but you can run right past it with your frustration. You must not surrender that power.” So the more they heard, the more they begin to swell up.

There’s a long-running debate over the proper balance between electoral work and movement building. Where do you stand?

Movements inspire people and inform people and empower voting. For example, when I ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984, Democrats were not registering blacks in the South. The majority of Democrats in the South are black. The Rainbow Coalition, which was an independent movement, inspired the unregistered to register and informed them of the power of the vote. When that vote was aroused, it changed the whole landscape. Change comes bottom up, not top down. In many ways, our campaigns of 1984 and 1988, were the actual fulfillment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Its promise became a reality.

Today, voter participation is down across the board (though there was an uptick in 2008 and 2012 with Obama’s election, especially in African-American communities). Is the downturn reflective of weak movement-building?

It’s a reflection of people feeling cynical. People feel that their vote does not matter. They feel that they don’t matter. They feel diminished. Look at the streets of Englewood and Lawndale and Austin in Chicago — they look like the streets of East St. Louis, St. Louis, Ferguson, Detroit, Newark and Birmingham. You have second-class schools and first-class jails. They have closed public schools, hospitals, trauma units and banking services. They have foreclosed on tens of thousands of homes and thrown families on to the streets. So in urban America, we have these vast zones of despair — acreages of land where the hard reality is, drugs and guns in, jobs and manufacturing out. We have globalization of jobs but no globalization of workers’ rights. In Chicago we have a Democratic mayor, governor and president. But what difference has it made? That is the conclusion people in urban America are reaching.

In Chicago, teachers union President Karen Lewis is expected to challenge Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the 2015 Democratic nomination. Were Lewis to be elected mayor, that would herald a sea change in Chicago politics. Could this possibility reinspire black voters?

Personality plays a role. Whoever can speak to people’s aspirations becomes an electrifying conduit that will light people up. People know what needs to be done, but they feel too little” to fight. But when there’s a popular awakening, people come together and say, This is not right! I’m working hard, and I’m making less. I lost my home. I lost my job. I lost my family. I’ve got nothing else to lose.”

Might we see a replay of the historic Harold Washington election, in which a progressive coalition came together to elect a Chicago mayor?

The black vote is large enough to elect the mayor. People haven’t recovered from the Emanuel administration’s 50 school closures. That was one of the most devastating blows. Banks were charged with targeting and clustering black and brown families and found guilty of pushing subprime mortgage loans on minority communities, but not a single person was charged with a crime. That compounded the sense of alienation. And it is this alienation that amounts to dry chips, ready to ignite.

You have been active in the Civil Rights Movement for 50 years. What have you learned that the next generation should know?

The difference between the Emmett Till and Medgar Evers cases and the Michael Brown case is that after Till and Evers were murdered, the killers were walking around, fairly well known, for 40 years. We didn’t have the right to vote, the right to serve on juries. All-white juries set them free. But today, Michael’s generation has the right to vote. Those who earned that right to vote had the will to fight back. Some of those who inherited it have taken it for granted. That’s a fundamental difference. Secondly, voting matters. Economic leverages matter. Coalitions matter. And intergenerational relationships matter. You don’t start from point zero — you build up on the last generation’s shoulders.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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