Love him or hate him, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is an icon of the American civil rights movement. In the 1960s, he marched in Selma, Ala., with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and later worked with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He went on to create the two social-justice organizations that later merged to form his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, which has become renowned for its success at lobbying corporations to adopt diversity initiatives. Over the years, he has repeatedly been a key figure in successful negotiations for the release of Americans imprisoned abroad, including in Cuba, Iraq, Syria, and the former Yugoslavia, and from 1991 to 1997, he served as the shadow senator for Washington, D.C., an unpaid position from which he lobbied for the statehood of the District of Columbia.
In 1999, he drew criticism — as a Baptist minister — for having an extramarital affair that produced a daughter, and he sparked controversy in 2007 for accusing Obama of “acting like he’s white.” The next year, Jackson went even further, suggesting that if he got a hold of the Illinois senator, he would “cut his nuts off.” He definitely seems to have calmed down since then.
This year, Jackson’s busy travel schedule is taking him across the country speaking to young people about what’s at stake in next month’s presidential election, as voters faces a historic choice between Hillary Clinton — who would be the first woman president — and Donald Trump — who would be the first president never to have held a prior position in the government or military.
SF Weekly caught up with Jackson for a wide-ranging conversation that began by reflecting on his own unsuccessful presidential runs in 1984 and 1988.
SFW: What do you consider to be the legacy of your two bids for the presidency?
JJ: I remember one of the highlights of the 1984 season. We were debating [Democratic presidential candidates] Gary Hart and Walter Mondale at Columbia University, and Barack Obama was a student there. I did not know him at that time. [Many years later,] we were talking, and he told me, “I was a student sitting in the audience watching you debate Hart and Mondale in the 1984 primaries.” He said he looked at that debate and said, “This thing can happen!” I found that funny because leaders plant seeds in hopes that they will sprout and grow trees under whose shade you may never sit, but you plant the seeds anyhow. It was forward-looking, and I’m fortunate enough to live long enough to see the seeds sprout and the tree grow and sit under the shade as Barack Obama walked across the stage as the nominee.
SFW: After all your years of civil rights work, what did that experience feel like?
JJ: It was gratifying. I think two things hit me simultaneously. The moment of looking at that screen and thinking of how almost 40 years ago to the day, we were being tear-gassed, and seeing him come walking across that stage was a huge moment of joy. Then I reflected upon those who made that night possible who could not be there, either because they were martyred and dead, or too poor to stand in Chicago in the winner’s circle. I wished for a moment of time that God could allow Dr. King or Medgar Evers to see what they had built, and that’s when the tears began to flow. It was both the moment and the movement at the same time that kind of converged upon me.
SFW: Do you think that voters will see the light in this election?
JJ: I believe they will. Hillary supports the protected right to vote, Trump calls that fraud — that’s a big difference. Hillary supports an expansive and inclusive Supreme Court, Trump has released a list of Supreme Court justices that would take us back. Hillary supports a livable wage, student loan debt reduction, gender equity, background check laws for guns, bans on military grade assault weapons, racial justice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and contract compliance.
When you want to get the intended consequences, approximate the intended consequences. Not voting is not a way to get the intended consequences. Those who denied us the choice to vote hope that we’ll make the choice not to vote. That’s not the right side of history.
SFW: What advice would you offer Hillary Clinton?
JJ: It’s more in offering my services. I’m traveling all over the country registering high school voters that will be 18 by Nov. 8, registering others to vote, and spreading the message about what’s at stake. Sometimes Hillary is a victim of a kind of political caricature. We were in Michigan, and this student told me, “I’m probably going to vote, but I’m not sure I can trust her.” I asked this student if she trusted Hillary to protect her right to vote, fight for livable wages, racial equality, to get a fair and wise Supreme Court, to ease the flow of guns. This young lady said yes to all of them. She’s been watching a lot of TV. That’s the point. You have to kind of counter the trust thing with a host of things that she can be trusted with. Hillary Clinton is trustworthy, and she will deliver. Benghazi, yes, that was a terrible scene by any stretch of the imagination.
The Democrats didn’t politicize or try to demean President Reagan’s integrity when 241 American soldiers were killed in Lebanon. It was an error, a colossal error. These attacks that Benghazi was intentional or gross misjudgment on the part of the secretary is not fair. Same for the Iraq vote.
SFW: What are your thoughts on the public’s reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem?
JJ: It’s a nonviolent form of conscientious protest. He’s trying to make a statement because too many have adjusted to more young Black men in jail than college and Black men being killed by killers who kill with no consequences. [The legendary baseball player] Jackie Robinson and I took a similar position many years ago.
SFW: As we watch so many recent police shootings of unarmed Black people, it feels like it’s getting worse. Right?
JJ: [Ahmad Khan Rahami, an Afghan-American] was trying to engage in an act of terrorism in New Jersey and New York. They took him in alive. A young unarmed Black man [Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla.] was shot and killed. Go figure. The thing is we’ve honored the flag more than it’s honored us.
Critics of the Black Lives Matter movement believe that there should be an equal focus on murder victims of Black-on-Black crimes. What do you say to them?
JJ: I think they are missing the point. All over we’re against people killing people. The permissiveness of this intraracial killing — Whites kill Whites, Blacks kill Blacks, browns kill browns — misses the point that when the police with the authority of state become an executioner rather than an arresting officer, that’s the ultimate crisis in confidence. Don’t Black lives matter? That’s just as much a question as it is a declarative. People fail to understand the context of that point.
SFW: This month marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther Party. What should all Americans today know about them?
JJ: The Black Panthers raised early on the impact of police violence in the Occupied Territories. Police had so much more credibility than the victims until the Black Panthers became the victims. The camera now changes the dynamics. For example, when Fred Hampton was killed in Chicago in December of ’69, … [the state’s attorney, Edward Hanrahan, had led the raid in which he was murdered]. We finally caught onto it later and voted him out of office. What the Panthers didn’t have was the camera. That’s the change in dynamics.
SFW: We’re nearing the end of President Obama’s last term. Do you find yourself surprised by anything that’s happened over the last eight years?
JJ: There are definitely some things that I’m delighted about. There’s been a net job gain every month since he’s taken office, 20 million Americans have health care now that didn’t have it before, and we’ve now reconnected with Cuba. We’re also working more diligently to end the standing wars in the Middle East. I think that the stability of his family says a lot. His mother-in-law raising her grandchildren in the White House and his wife and family — it’s kind of like Moses being raised in Pharaoh’s house. They’ve shown us great discipline, dignity, and a sense of pride. There’s much to be thankful for in the way the Obama family has conducted themselves as first family.