BEFORE President Barack Obama, there was presidential candidate Rev Jesse L Jackson, Sr. Although the Baptist minister had previously worked for Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, many were sceptical of his chances when he wanted to run for US president in 1984.
Observers — including from his Democratic Party — thought he would garner fringe votes at best. But in the Democratic Party’s primaries to select their presidential candidate, Jackson came out third in the run-off, and outlasted five more politically-experienced, white candidates.
It is no surprise that Jackson was voted, in a 2006 poll, the US’s most influential Black leader. But he has been nothing but controversial over the decades, whether as a politician or a civil rights leader. In fact, even as he endorsed Obama’s presidential campaign, he was caught on camera saying that he wanted “to cut [Obama's] nuts off“. Jackson has since apologised for the remark, and was seen shedding tears at Obama’s victory rally.
Jackson was recently in Malaysia on a speaking tour as part of the Bridges — Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace program initiated by the International Peace Foundation. While the local press picked up on his glowing reviews of Malaysia, The Nut Graph decided to pick Jackson’s brain on racism, affirmative action, and his principles as an activist in this exclusive interview.
TNG: Your previous president was George W Bush, and then suddenly the US elected someone with a name like Barack Hussein Obama. What do you think the tipping point was, that Americans finally could elect someone who looked like Obama, and with that name?
Reverend Jesse L Jackson Sr: Because America is maturing, becoming more secure, getting better because laws have changed, behaviour has changed, attitudes are changing. And it’s not just in the political arena — more of us are going to school together than ever before. Barack went to Columbia and Harvard.
More of us live next door to each other. More of us work together, more of us play together. More of us choose [to identify with] region, and it’s not about race. So I see it as the maturing of America.
Barack and Michelle Obama (© Luke Vargas)
Given your experiences in the civil rights movement, do you still think anything could have been done differently? Do you think anything more could have been done in the civil rights movement over the last four or five decades?
Those actions made this action possible. I would say it’s like President Obama ran the last lap in a 54-year race. All the things that preceded it made the outcome possible. And it took a lot of risky work to tear down the walls, the fears, to create the hopes.
Speaking of turning over, I notice your positions have also changed. You were initially against abortion and now you’re okay with it, and you were initially sceptical over gay rights but now you support them, and so on. Do you find yourself revising your positions a lot?
See the grey hair on my head? (Laughs) You live long enough, and sometimes your positions change because conditions change. Your understanding changes. We should not take pride in never changing. Things that are growing [will] change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but [to] grow [you have to] change.
You’ve talked about affirmative action, and the need to have inclusive action. Do you think there’s a risk for some groups that if affirmative action goes on for too long, they might use it as a crutch or an excuse?
You can measure quantitatively the need for affirmative action when you see evidence of negative action. Often those who are privileged [have their privileges] perpetuated by inheritance. [And some people] inherit poverty.
So for example in America today, while we have grown an awful lot — blacks are number one in football, basketball, baseball, track, and tennis… [Blacks] are also number one in infant mortality. We’ve got one of the shortest life expectancies. We don’t have access to capital, industry, and technology.
So the evidence is that the needs should determine the programme. When there’s no need for a programme you shouldn’t have it. But need also determines how long the programme should last.
And that’s when you determine the cut-off, when the needs are finally met?
Need is what makes it necessary, and need is what determines its duration. You see in baseball today, in football and basketball, there’s no need for affirmative action because the playing field is equal, there’s open competition, it’s transparent — and so people accept the outcomes. But when the field is not even, and the rules are not clear, you need some plan.
Martin Luther King, Jr (Public domain)
Is there one legacy from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr that you carry with you to this day?
To build bridges, to make for the human family a place where we can share security.
Initially, Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel peace prize winner, was invited to this series of talks in Malaysia that you are speaking at. But she ended up being uninvited, apparently because of certain pressure, either from Iran, or Malaysia, or both.
There were a lot of criticisms that she is a Muslim feminist, and yet here you are — a religious leader talking about human rights and gender equality. Have you ever felt a conflict between your religious ministry and your human rights activism?
No, my religion makes me affirm human rights. It’s a religion of love, a religion of affirming the worth of every human person. And so, your religion should make you affirm human rights, not reject it. Religion says that we are all God’s children, we are all worthy, and we should not be denied access to life’s options. (Interruptions) I gotta go, buddy.
Thanks so much, Reverend.