More than a month has passed since the Reverend Jesse Jackson uttered remarks about Senator Barack Obama “talking down to Black people” and “telling n—s how to behave.” The comments, picked up by a microphone during a break for a Fox News interview, prompted critics to dismiss the civil rights activist and two-time U.S. presidential candidate as a relic from the past. In a candid conversation with ESSENCE editors Tatsha Robertson and Cynthia Gordy, Jackson responds to the backlash and explains why he thinks he’s just as relevant as ever.
ESSENCE.COM: Will we see you at the Democratic National Convention?
ESSENCE.COM: Will you be playing any role at the convention?
JACKSON: No, not any particular role. I’ll be there as an Obama supporter. I have spoken at the last six Democratic conventions, so I wanted to certainly make room for more speakers and broader participation.
ESSENCE.COM: Both candidates have spoken at length on issues such as the war and the economy. Are there other issues that you’d like them to focus on more?
JACKSON: Well, I think the war is the premier issue of our time. The war is costing money, almost a trillion dollars. It’s costing lives. The war has alienated America in the world community. On the other hand, it’s not enough to stop investing in the war. Let’s now reinvest in America. We need an urban policy within our cities. Nearly fifty percent of Black men in New York City are unemployed. Bridges are collapsing, levees are being overrun. There must be some real plan to reinvest in America.
ESSENCE.COM: What about the criminal justice system, or social justice issues in general?
JACKSON: Well, that’s a big piece of it. You know, 2.3 million Americans are in jail. Close to 40 percent of them are Black, and nearly 20 percent are Latino. It is devastating to our families, as well as the crack-sentencing disparity.
ESSENCE.COM: Why do you think those issues are not being mentioned as much?
JACKSON: I think that becomes our job, the civil rights community, to keep the issues on the front burner that concern us the most, just like labor puts workers’ rights on the front burner, and Hispanics put on the agenda the road to citizenship, bilingual education and immigrant rights. We must keep on the agenda the issue of education, employment, social justice, and some plan to deal with the disparities of Blacks in infant mortality and short life expectancy. We’re [more susceptible to] home foreclosures, number one in unemployment.
ESSENCE.COM: You make a good point about the job of the civil rights community. But many younger African-Americans have been complaining that the old guard civil rights leaders focus too much on African-Americans as victims rather than moving the race forward. What do you think about this point of view?
JACKSON: This “old guard, new guard” is an unhealthy division. Politics must be inter-generational. You need Barack on the one hand to talk, you need Charlie Rangel, chair of House Ways & Means [Committee], and John Conyers, chair of our House Judiciary [Committee]. In politics you grow by adding and multiplying, not by subtracting and dividing. So “old guard vs. new guard” is not a healthy combination. The reality is that we achieved the right to vote, we achieved freedom, but we didn’t achieve equality, and that is the remaining civil rights work.
ESSENCE.COM: The rapper Nas and writer Kevin Powell, who is running for Congress in Brooklyn, have said that you particularly, and other civil rights leaders, are no longer relevant and need to step aside. How do you remain relevant to this newer generation?
JACKSON: The reality is that if you’re running for Congress, you need the votes of senior citizens. You need the votes of churches. You are not getting in Congress on a youth vote. That’s not the mass that you need to win a congressional seat. You need an intergenerational, multicultural coalition. And that experience cannot be thrown away. In Dr. King’s time, Dr. King was 34, but he reached out to A. Philip Randolph. It took both A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King in tandem to make the March on Washington take place.
ESSENCE.COM: Are you going to reach out to some in the younger generation to make them feel that you are relevant?
JACKSON: All you really can do is continue to serve. Who’s relevant and heroism is a matter of perception. You might take a certain hip-hop magazine—they should not say ESSENCE is not relevant; it’s just different. The divide is not the key to growth. The key to politics is growth, and if there’s growth, everybody wins.
ESSENCE.COM: Earlier on you made an argument about the need to push for social justice. A lot of these tend to get branded as “Black issues,” and some argue that Senator Obama, in particular, must tread carefully in that area, to be representative of all of America. What are your thoughts on that?
JACKSON: That’s what we did in the Rainbow Push Coalition campaign. We focused on family farmers and urban workers; a comprehensive health care plan for everybody; equal access to public education—that is a way to frame the debate. Some issues that are being pushed as “Black issues” are not. Affirmative action, for example, is not a Black issue; it’s a majority issue. Affirmative action is [a part of] Title 9 and affects majority white women. Even the voting rights struggle that has made Barack’s candidacy possible was always broader than just Black. When we went to Selma to vote in 1965, White women couldn’t serve on juries; farmers who couldn’t pay a poll tax couldn’t vote—that was not for Blacks only.
ESSENCE.COM: It’s interesting that you describe your platform as inclusive because oftentimes your presidential runs are framed as having been centered on Black people. And now Senator Obama is heralded as being very different from that—
JACKSON: We won Vermont, Alaska and Michigan because we reached out. What’s different today is not that Blacks have changed, but Whites have changed. Whites who once terrorized us and denied us the right to vote are now voting for us. Many Whites are maturing and becoming less insecure in the voting process. But we’ve been reaching out for a long time.
ESSENCE.COM: We’ve seen you champion African-American issues and fight against injustice. Many people simply want to know, when you mentioned the N-word in your off-air remarks about Obama last month—why? They want you to tell them, as an African-American, why did that happen?
JACKSON: It should not have happened. What was private talk became public controversy, and I am embarrassed by that. There is no virtue in that kind of talk, and it should always be discouraged. My appeal even then was that responsibility is a significant message, but our needs require real government intervention and private sector incentives to address the issues of unemployment, building affordable housing and making education more affordable, which really was my point. It was a very painful period for me to have gone through that. The good news is that it’s behind us now.
ESSENCE.COM: Have you talked to Obama about it?
JACKSON: Yes. As a matter of fact, he sent me a welcome to the convention and made credentials available to me. We’ve gone on to the next stage.
ESSENCE.COM: Your son disagreed with you (on the off-air comments). What do you think about your son’s comments? Is it further evidence of you not reaching a new generation?
JACKSON: Well, Jesse’s a co-chair of the campaign, and he’s also a congressman. He felt that pain of that too. He’s free to express himself, and it does not bother our relationship as father and son at all. He was taught to give his opinion in our household, and he did it in love. He’s tough, he’s smart. He has a future in politics. He didn’t want the impression to be that that my faux pas was his faux pas, because it was not. I respect his right to express himself.
ESSENCE.COM: In Senator Obama’s speech that he gave at a Chicago church this past Father's Day, he urged more Black fathers to be involved in their children’s lives. He received backlash for that—
JACKSON: Well, the message of responsibility should be broadly applied and not appear to be just directed to Blacks. Black men need to be responsible—they also need to be employed.
ESSENCE.COM: So would you say that children without fathers in the home is not that critical an issue in the Black community?
JACKSON: Men across the board must be more responsible. But again, in the context of the Black situation, we have a requirement for governmental intervention. You’ve got a million blacks in jail with three or four kids apiece; that’s a state of emergency. I think that responsibility was always embraced. But we’ve got some real structural inequality and exploitation that must also be addressed; that’s all.
ESSENCE.COM: As Senator Obama moves forward in the campaign, do you have any words of advice for him?
JACKSON: I think we have an outstanding candidate. We have the burden now to fully register and vote. There are still maybe 6 to 8 million Blacks unregistered who should not miss this hour, this opportunity. Now that we have a who, let’s focus on the what. What is an urban policy that can begin a renewed commitment to educate our children and to employ adults and provide public health care? These are the issues he has embraced. We have a candidate who has a good grasp of the issues that matter. But the burden is upon us now to maximize registration and output.