Jesse Jackson talks exclusively to Essence.com about Obama's win, the Clinton strategy and the long road ahead
On Sunday afternoon, while members of the media were analyzing former President Bill Clinton’s comments comparing Barack Obama’s victory in South Carolina with those of the Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Rev. Jackson spoke with blogger Gina McCauley for ESSENCE from New Delhi, India. He’s there participating in events recognizing the sixtieth anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Jackson is proud of his legacy and cautioned the Democratic candidates and their supporters to keep one eye on November as the campaign heats up heading into Super Tuesday, February 5.
Essence.com: In South Carolina, the Democratic campaign took a negative turn with charges and countercharges of injecting race, yet the numbers are indicating that there was a record turnout. Clearly, South Carolina voters weren’t completely turned off by the tone of the race in the final days.
Reverend Jesse Jackson: They were inspired by it.
Essence.com: We’ve gotten used to the whole red state vs. blue state narrative. When you hear that 87,000 more Democrats voted in the Democratic primary than Republicans voted in the Republican primary, do you think we could see a change in the whole concept of what “swing state” means?
J.J.: In ’84 we put on two million new voters. In ’86 we regained the Senate because of the new southern vote. We regained the Senate in North Carolina, in Georgia, in Louisiana, in Florida and in California in ’86. A surge in Black voters in the South is the key to the Senate and the White House.
Essence.com: They were inspired by it? Okay, that’s what I was going to ask you. To what do you attribute the record turnout?
J.J: We have the inspiration that Barack brings to the scene. Hillary, Bill—are well liked in many circles. Edwards is from South Carolina. You have an interesting combination of three people with appeal in that state. This is the first state beyond Iowa and New Hampshire where Blacks had a chance to express their vote in what has been a yearlong campaign. Blacks were courted by the media in ways that they seldom are, and those Blacks wound up being the critical difference in the election.
Essence.com: As somebody who was born in South Carolina, what do you think about the way African-American voters were portrayed by the media leading up to the primary? For example, they started talking about the barbershop and the beauty shop vote. Do you have any problem with the way South Carolina voters were portrayed?
J.J: No. My concern is that while focusing on the color of the vote, they were not focusing on Black issues and substance. For example, student debt—I think student loans are like a billion dollars. The disparity between Black and White student loans is alarming. The great disparities in infant mortality and life expectancy—great disparities.The income disparity… The college enrollment disparities… The largest industry in that state is no longer cotton. It’s the jail-industrial complex. There’s 24 state prisons in South Carolina and only one state college, South Carolina State. So we are free, but not equal. We live in one America under one flag, but there are some structural inequalities. Stop focusing so much on the color of our vote and start focusing on the substance of our situation.
Essence.com: Considering how much attention was given to the Black vote, do you think that African-Americans sufficiently stressed their demands with these candidates? Did we demand enough of them?
J.J: The civil rights agenda must always be kept out front: the civil right to equal opportunity. The civil right to health care, the civil right to adequate housing, the civil right to fair employment. There was this assumption that we’re all free now and it’s over. We’re all free, but we are not equal. Dr. King said that the next big chapter of our struggle was that we’ve won the battles of decency over barbarism, but equality? That was in the coming campaign.
Essence.com: I’ve encountered many people who say we shouldn’t question Senator Obama about what he will do specifically for African-Americans, that we should just get him in the White House and then worry about specific issues. Should we be attempting to nail him down?
J.J: Every issue that came up, he addressed. The issue of affirmative action; he’s for affirmative action. The issue of jail or criminal disparities; he’s addressed that issue. The issue of should every vote count; he’s addressed that issue. I think in this setting, we really have to look at the common ground that includes our interests. For example, in South Carolina, 62 percent of the people who work don’t have health insurance. That affects everybody. The subprime crisis. It affects us disproportionately, but it affects everybody. The Iraq War affects everybody. In Iowa I was talking about family farmers. By the time we got to Chicago, I was talking about urban abandonment. I am about addressing the structural inequalities. The media has some responsibilities to ask the right questions.
Essence.com: Do you think that there is such a thing as a candidate being able to transcend race?
J.J: Of course not. You can’t transcend who you are. That’s very spiritual, isn’t it? The racial issue is too serious to ignore, and it is too immoral to ignore, but it is an opportunity for healing. Racial justice is the key to social justice, and that’s the key to America. America’s moral dilemma is how it relates to matters of racial justice. Racial justice precedes racial reconciliation. Once Barack had to start spending more time in Black churches and fight more openly for the Black vote, it did not run white people away of goodwill. He still got 25 percent of the White vote. When Jimmy Carter ran, he had to tell southern Whites, “If you want me to be president, I have to reach out to Blacks at Ebenezer Church. You’re my ally, but I can’t win with just southern Whites. I need Blacks.” In some sense, Barack’s allies must say that to win, you’re going to need Whites, so you’ve got to build that coalition on what I call common ground issues.
Essence.com: I’m sure you’ve heard the comments Senator Clinton made about Martin Luther King and the remark about Obama and a fairy tale.
J.J: I wrote an article urging both of them to stay away from those edges. For example, it was unfair to attack her on that basis [Senator Clinton stated that Dr. King did not act alone. She said that he needed a politician to get civil rights legislation enacted]. The reality is that that was not an insult to Dr. King. Dr. King campaigned for Lyndon Johnson. Because if Goldwater had won, we wouldn’t have had the Voting Rights Act of ’65. You need a combination of litigation, people like Thurgood Marshall, and demonstrations, [people like] Dr. King. And legislation, [people like] Lyndon Johnson. You need that combination. That was gotcha politics. On the other hand, trying to make Barack somehow a Reaganite also was wrong.
Essence.com: Did you hear President Clinton’s comment yesterday in Columbia, South Carolina, after someone asked about it taking two Clintons to beat Obama, and he answered, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ‘88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.” Many people are taking that as President Clinton’s attempt to tie Obama to you or to inject race back into the discussion.
J.J: We are tied together. Barack is the result of all the struggles, from Selma to South Carolina. They are factors in his ascendancy, which is accurate. Again, I think it’s some more gotcha politics. I did win in ’84 and ’88, and because we ran in ’84, the Democrats regained the Senate in ’86. I just think that we’ve got to be very sensitive to what I call gotcha politics and not take the attention away from [issues like] student loans? The reason I keep going back to that is, kids are going to college now graduating with these $60,000 debts. You know?
Essence.com: Yes I do!
J.J.: Let’s get back to our agenda. Let’s get back to what really matters. I guess that’s my struggle.
Essence.com: I understand that. But Rev. Jackson, there are a whole lot of Black folks who are very upset with the Clintons. They see a pattern. This is Bill Clinton, he knows how to craft words. So are you saying that the press is misinterpreting what President Clinton said?
J.J: I don’t know what he said. I was on my way to India. My point is I know that in November, whoever wins, Clinton and Barack are going to need each other. I saw in 1980 there was such a dog fight between Carter and Kennedy that they could not reconcile at the convention, and that opened the door for Reagan to get through to win. So, however tough this thing gets right up in here, keep one eye on the primary and an even bigger eye on the Super Bowl, which is in November.
Essence.com: It’s interesting that you say that, because I’m a younger voter. I’m a blogger and a lot of bloggers are saying that they are so turned off, and they are so irate about how the Clintons are treating Barack Obama that they absolutely will not vote for her if she wins the nomination.
J.J: That means that they’re going to vote for some anti–civil rights Republicans, who’s going to further stack the Supreme Court. And they’re going to vote for some anti–affirmative action Republicans. So you have to be mature in this process. You have to think this thing through. Politics also comes down to options. In this marathon race, you have to be walking through a storm and thinking at the same time. Barack has my vote. My point is that when it’s over, the two of them and the others who ran must close ranks because you cannot beat the right wing unless you do.
Essence.com: Many of the old lions of the civil rights era have come out in favor of Senator Clinton, and I’m thinking about John Lewis and Andrew Young. They’ve been out front and prominent as well as some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such at Stephanie Tubbs and Charlie Rangel. At times it seems as if Barack Obama was battling both Clintons, and he also seemed to be battling these African-American surrogates. Do you think that Senator Obama amassed enough support from members of the Black political establishment prior to making his run?
J.J: Most Black officials are endorsing Barack. Most of the Black mayors are supporting him, most of the Black Caucus. It’s relationships. Most people met Barack on television. So you have to grow into relationships. Hillary had, at first, more relationships. So I think the more people know him, the more they like him, and the more he’s growing on them. When I ran in ’84, a lot of the Blacks—Andy Young, John Lewis, Mrs. King—supported Mondale. But we kept working and remained respectful of their choices. We were still friends. We just had different points politically. A lot of Blacks who weren’t with me in ’84 were with me in ’88 because I would not let those votes destroy lifelong relationships. We should be that mature about the process.
Essence.com: In ’88 was there a point at which you thought you were going to win it all?
J.J: We won Michigan and we came into New York with the lead. The party panicked with kind of “anybody but Jesse,” and Gore pulled back. I could have won New York in a three-person race, and then it would have been real difficult to stop us. We were intending to expand the civil rights social justice agenda. That was part of our intent.
Essence.com: So were you running to win, or were you running to bring Black issues to the forefront?
J.J: I was running to do both, because I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
Essence.com: Well, then, does it annoy you at all that people are somehow portraying Barack Obama as the first credible Black candidate or the first Black candidate with a chance to win? I know many people in my generation thought, erroneously, that he was the first Black man to win a state primary when you have won eleven.
J.J: That’s the job of ESSENCE and other media—to educate so we will know better. We’ll do better when we know better. We talk about Black history and all of that. In ’64 we were leading a demonstration outside the convention trying to get a seat in Mississippi. The next year we had the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s a nonstop battle. This is the evolution of our struggle. This is not something new. This is something wonderful; it’s not new. This is the evolution of our struggle; we must keep putting it into context.
Essence.com: Will we necessarily be better off as African-Americans just because a Black person is in the White House?
J.J: The pressure to make a president responsive must never stop. It’s never just the president. We elect a president. Not a king. We chose Kennedy over Nixon, but we still had to march on Washington to get a public accommodations bill. We chose Johnson over Goldwater, but we still had to march to Selma to get the voting rights act. It doesn’t matter who the president is, it’s good to have sensitive people in the White House, like Lyndon Johnson was, like Barack Obama would be. It will not negate our need to negate various pressures to affect the Congress and the White House and the courts. It’d be good to have a friend in the White House, but he or she will not be King or Queen. They cannot do anything unilaterally.
Essence.com: I think it’d be harder to pressure him.
J.J: I don’t think so at all. We’ll still be fighting for more Pell grants for education. We’ll still be fighting. We’ll still be fighting for an attorney general that will enforce the law. We’ll still be fighting against foreign policy that leads to unnecessary war. You will not need to pressure him as much because he already has a certain sensitivity.
Essence.com: Do you think that in your lifetime you will see an African- American woman win eleven primaries or caucuses?
J.J: She has to run first. You can’t ask the question that way. You’ll never know what’s possible until you put the pedal to the metal. They have to run. They have to go for it. You can’t guess that. You have to work for it. There are qualified Black women who can do that, to answer that question. There are Black women who are qualified, but you have to take the risks, do the work and take the hits because politics is a contact sport.