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Jesse Jackson challenges "segregated history"

Reverend speaks as part of Black History Month events, sparks debate

Published: Thursday, February 19, 2004

Updated: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 09:09

Nearly one thousand students, faculty and members of the Worcester community gathered in the Hogan Ballroom on Monday to hear the Rev. Jesse Jackson speak about civil rights and the African-American experience. Jackson, who stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 and in 1990 was elected to serve as a U.S. Senator from Washington, D.C. He also served as "Special Envoy of the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa" under President Bill Clinton and has received numerous honors for his civil and human rights work, most notably as the founder of the National Rainbow Coalition. Most recently, he has hosted "Both Sides with Jesse Jackson" on the Cable News Network. Jackson took the stage to applause from the audience. Upon seeing throngs of students straining to hear and see him in the rear of the room, Jackson invited them to the front, where they sat cross-legged on the floor. Jackson began his speech with a brief discourse on the history of the African-American struggle in America, noting that much of the struggle is not represented in history books. "You cannot separate American history from African-American history," he said, referring to this lapse as "the great nadir of American history." Jackson then went on to list several prominent American institutions, from Washington, D.C. to the foundations of Wall Street, that he described as being built upon slavery. "America's first trade policy was a slave trade policy," he said, also saying that "importing Africans and exporting cotton was the original source of American wealth." He said that the Church had blessed the slave trade and noted that this phenomenon was not one limited to the South, as popular history suggests. "We've been enslaved longer than we've been free," said Jackson, noting that the institution of slavery existed in America for 246 years before its demise at the end of the Civil War. Slaves were not allowed to read, write, own land or marry during this period, he said. Further illustrating this point, Jackson posed the question of whether blacks should celebrate the Fourth of July. He suggested that July 4, 1776 need not be celebrated, as even a mention of African-Americans is notably absent from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He then used the example of Frederick Douglass, a Civil War-era orator and abolitionist who refused to give a speech commemorating July 4 in 1852 due to the fact that it ignored his basic humanity. Finally, Jackson said, July 4, 1865 is a date African-Americans may celebrate, as it marked the first time they became a recognized part of the American community. Jackson also spent time discussing his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. He said the movement was born largely out of a desire to see the promises made to African-Americans after emancipation, including the right to vote, to be treated as first-class citizens, to be treated fairly and to have protection from anti-African-American elements, fulfilled by the U.S. government. He noted that fifty years ago to the day, the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education had made segregation illegal. With this decision, said Jackson, "the law changed, but the culture did not change." He suggested that "South Africa learned the apartheid system from us." Mentioning renowned civil-rights events such as the demonstrations following the lynching of Emmett Till, the Montgomery bus boycotts and especially the 1963 March on Washington, which he attended, Jackson further detailed the struggles of African-Americans during this period to finally secure the rights that had been promised them. He had himself once been jailed for trying to use a public library in Alabama, he said. "Being jailed was a badge of honor" to members of the movement, he said. Jackson also described how on the way home from the World War II front, African-American veterans, including his own father, were made to sit behind Nazi POWs on train rides in the South solely on the basis of their color. He went on to say that King had been jailed 26 times during his civil-rights involvement, during many of which he was stabbed or beaten, for, among other things, "the right to use a [public] toilet." "We've paid a big price to be American," he stated. Jackson also likened King to Jesus, citing both as ethnic minorities dreaming of a new world. He commended King's rejection of an "eye for an eye" vision of the world and suggested that because of King's inspiration, "you can be in disgrace and dream of amazing grace." Jackson then described American history as being divided into four stages. The first, he said, was the effort of abolitionists to end slavery. The second, led by King, was the movement to end segregation and claim basic civil rights. The right to vote without impediment was the third, and the current fight for the right to have access to capital marks the fourth stage. He suggested that the first three stages denied this access, reiterating his belief that slave labor allowed for the development of traditional American repositories of wealth. Saying we live in a "rainbow world," Jackson said that the idea of February as Black History Month is not simply a reason to "get angry at white people." He stated his belief that those who know only of their own culture suffer from a "cultural deficit disorder," noting that most of the world's people are not white, male, Christian or affluent. Paying special attention to the fact that most of the nations in the Americas speak Spanish, Jackson said that those who speak only English are "somewhere between backward and retarded." He then challenged those present to reject "segregated history," rejecting the idea that "ethnic studies" should be separated from American studies. Jackson colored his description of social inequity with several sports metaphors, citing the Olympics as an event never afflicted by racial or ethnic tension due to the level playing field it offers. He suggested that those who have long been oppressed by social order do well in athletics because of this equality. Using the analogy of a first down in football, he suggested blacks have had to run 12 years because "they had something to prove," while whites have only had to run eight "because they inherited some yards." He also said, "we didn't know how good baseball could be until we let everybody play." Jackson also made several politically-charged comments. During his discussion of Frederick Douglass' refusal to speak on the Fourth of July in 1852, he said that Douglass had refused to perform "like some Clarence Thomas." The comment drew a mixture of boos and cheers from the crowd. He also chastised the Bush Administration, especially Attorney General John Ashcroft, for not meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus and other civil-rights groups in three years. Discussing the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, Jackson said that Clinton had lost the white vote to his Republican opponents but was carried to victory by the overwhelming support of minorities. Condemning the Supreme Court's actions regarding the Florida vote count in the 2000 presidential contest as disenfranchising minority voters, Jackson said, "We won again in 2000 but the Supreme Court did its usual thing." Again, crowd reaction was mixed. Concluding his formal remarks, Jackson harkened back to Jesus, saying His teachings constituted the definition of character. He used the parable of 'The Good Samaritan' to suggest that our neighbors are those willing to assist others regardless of race or creed, people he said have "the capacity to care beyond oneself." Mentioning the case of Rodney King, a black man who in 1992 was beaten by four white Los Angeles policemen, Jackson suggested that the hero was not King but rather the white photographer who took it upon himself to film the beating rather than ignore it. "The challenge is before us to make America the land of all our dreams," Jackson said in closing. After announcing that there would be a question-and-answer period, Jackson asked all those present who were not registered to vote on campus to stand. He then directed them to the front of the Ballroom, where registration materials were available. He noted at several points throughout his talk that Holy Cross students have the right to vote for officials in the Worcester area and to do so on campus, a right he attributed to the efforts of King. Jackson faced a series of questions from audience members, including one student's inquiry about whether African-Americans should accept their circumstances and assume responsibility, even if doing so meant working harder for success. Jackson echoed sentiments he had expressed in his speech, saying that an even playing field must be fought for: "You cannot say the civil rights era is behind us." Asked about affirmative action, Jackson asserted the programs usefulness, noting that it addresses gender inequality as well as racism. Citing the use of "legacy points" in the college admissions process, Jackson asked if returning Holy Cross to its former status as an all-white, all-male institution would "be a badge of honor." He said that he did not want to be color-blind, but "color-caring and color-compassionate." In response to a question regarding recent controversy surrounding same-sex marriage, Jackson said that while the controversy marks a difficult social transition, people were ultimately entitled to equal protection under the law. He stated that people must not be allowed to make decisions for others. "If you don't like it, don't do it," he said. When Jackson was questioned about his comments last year referring to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as a "slave" of the Bush Administration, he criticized Powell, the war in Iraq and Clarence Thomas '71. "There is a war in Iraq that is based upon a lie...We've killed a lot of people and we're no safer," said Jackson. He described Thomas as "a right-wing conservative who has no base in the black community" and further said, "He is not a hero among those who are oppressed." The comments again drew mixed approval and outrage from the crowd. Several audience members cited questions concerning Jackson's personal actions among the evening's more tense moments. One questioner asked Jackson how he could compare himself to Martin Luther King when he had fathered illegitimate children and supposedly extorted money through false accusations of racism. He replied that King himself had been accused of extortion during the Montgomery bus boycott and said of his questioner, "His struggle does not offend me. In time he will grow." When one audience member accused Jackson of impropriety and extortion in his dealings with companies such as Anheisher-Busch and Coca-Cola, particularly suggesting Jackson had unfairly positioned his sons to bid on an Anheiser-Busch plant, Jackson denied any wrongdoing, saying he had merely sought to open a previously obstructed business opportunity to African-Americans. When the questioner continued to press him, Jackson replied, "I was there, I am the history." He further added that it had been some 20 years between his involvement in the matter and his sons' bid on the Anheiser-Busch plant. Noting his sons' college educations, he said, "If Bush can be president, my kids can sell beer." As Jackson attempted to end the question-and-answer session, cries from the crowd rose up asking him to field one more audience query, and he acquiesced. The question, one at which several audience members later expressed outrage, was: "As a man of God, how do you defend fathering an illegitimate child?" After a moment's pause, Jackson responded, "I thank Him for his grace." He described his child as a blessing, and noted that while he could engage in mean-spirited attacks against the Catholic Church, he would rather work with it. He further said that he was grateful he had chosen the life of his child over abortion. As early as 45 minutes before the scheduled start of Jackson's speech, the Ballroom, adjacent lounge, and hallway overflowed with people. Police and other event staff swarmed the area in an attempt to maintain order. College officials opened Hogan Suite A and the Ballroom balcony to accommodate the crowd. See related sidebar. As efforts to accommodate the crowd continued, Jackson's speech was delayed by 45 minutes. Representatives of the Black Student Union, citing traffic as the cause of the delay, introduced Jackson following an a capella performance of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" by Andre Isaacs '05. Reactions among the Holy Cross community regarding the speech were mixed. "The way some of the questions were direct attacks and the rude shouts of people in the background made me embarrassed to be a part of Holy Cross," said Caitlin Condign '06. She added, "The actions of certain people there were disgraceful to the school." Matt Appleton '06 was more critical of Jackson. "While I found it most admirable that Rev. Jackson registered students to vote, his gross misrepresentations of the American history, especially during the Founding period and the Civil War, was most troubling," he said. He added that Jackson's "inability to respond in anything other than a dismissive manner to legitimate student questions demonstrated a profound lack of respect toward Holy Cross' student body." Jackson's speech was held in honor of Black History Month and was sponsored by the Black Student Union.

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