by Amanda Van De Barg

Jesse Jackson

Pioneering civil rights, one speech at a time


“People love the martyrs, not the marchers. Martyrs may be idealised but marchers destroy the comfortable, they press us forward, they push us out of our comfort zone,” says Reverend Jesse Jackson, one of America’s foremost civil rights, religious and political figures, and a hero in his own right during the Apartheid struggle

When Rev. Jackson first met Nelson and Winnie Mandela, they formed an everlasting relationship, one based on their shared vision of freedom and prosperity for black people across the globe. From this profoundly personal relationship with the Mandelas, he remembers Winnie as not only Mandela’s counterpart but also as an individual freedom fighter.

“When I met them in 1979, the country, and the world, was pitch dark. Few people knew of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo or Walter Sisulu. Winnie was the light, she was one of the children really fighting the system, and it was Winnie against the world. When Nelson was in prison, we couldn’t see his face; we couldn’t hear his voice. Winnie was the heartbeat. We heard her voice and witnessed her struggle, as her enemies tried to destroy her, the same way they had with Martin Luther King.

“Today, people love Winnie, the martyr, but they resisted Winnie, the marcher. She took the licks—people on the sideline don’t take licks—but she was always on the field of play. Mandela’s heartbeat was Winnie’s heartbeat. She was the rock, she was the strength, the character and the personality that kept us in the national news and she deserves great respect,” he says.

Having already made great strides in fighting racial oppression in his home country, Rev. Jackson was acutely aware of the parallels of the African National Congress’ (ANC) struggle with those faced by similar coalitions in the United States.

“Mandela became the object around which we were motivated. But, when he was inside the prison, we didn’t really know him. In those days, there was no Internet, no network and no social media. When he was released, he fulfilled all we had anticipated and he played his role. For me, as a young civil rights activist, I knew how raw, ugly and violent the Apartheid regime was. They were being jailed; we were being jailed. We were being killed, and they were being massacred. The courts were behaving similarly on both continents,” Rev. Jackson says.

Comparing the parallels between both struggles, Rev. Jackson was first arrested when he was 18, on 16 July 1960, at a civil rights protest at Greenville’s segregated public library. He had joined a march there and to this day, remembers thinking of what had just happened a little while before at Sharpeville.

“What was happening in Africa was being used as a basis to justify occupation and murder against black people in the US. Our country was on the wrong side of this revolution; it, along with Britain and the western powers, propped up the Apartheid regime and tried its best to stamp out the freedom movement. Kissinger and the US labelled the ANC a terrorist organisation and threat to national security,” he explains.

Included in those parallels is the Reverend’s own comparison of Nelson Mandela and Dr King, where he saw similarities in their intellect, courage and high moral authority.

“They were both so embracing of the struggle for others as a way of life, while accepting what happened to themselves with courage, with non-violent intent. Dr King was a brilliant man, an academic and a man of courage who shared the same vision as the likes of Mandela and Oliver Tambo. They all focused on public policy, they focused on segregation and confronted the idea of black inferiority head on. Sometimes, they had to use terror to get there, but they also had to survive terror. In the US, thousands of black people were lynched and yet there were never any indictments,” he says.

Rev. Jackson remembers their first exchange, the day Nelson Mandela was released. “He had followed the movement in the US closely, and greeted me with warmth and name recognition; one of the first things he said was that he had seen the 1984 presidential campaign speech I had made where I had called for sanctions and stood up against Apartheid, and he thanked me,” he recalls.

Three years later, as part of the official US delegation, the Reverend was honoured to celebrate Mandela’s inauguration as President of the new, free South Africa.

“Today, Africans are free but not equal, Americans are free but not equal. Ending Apartheid and ending slavery was a big deal, Mandela becoming President of South Africa, Obama becoming the first African-American President was a big deal, but we have to go deeper. We were enslaved longer than we have been free and we have a long way to go. We have unravelled our injustices in stages, but they remain, in land ownership, in health and life expectancy, in certain aspects of the media and in business,” Rev. Jackson says.

Fighting racial Apartheid, promoting economic freedom

It was not since Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited South Africa in 1966 that a visiting American had caused such a stir among blacks and whites as Rev. Jackson during his 12-day tour of the country.

Arriving on the invitation of South African church groups, and shortly after the death of Steve Biko, his itinerary included speaking engagements in many of the main black centres in the country. He also met with a number of black leaders who had been banned or banished by the government, including Winnie Mandela.

Shortly before his arrival, Rev. Jackson had caused some uproar, following his successful campaign earlier that year to have one of South Africa’s leading white heavyweight boxers, Kallie Knoetze, barred from fighting in the United States. The move against Knoetze, which the State Department successfully upheld in the courts, was part of a broader campaign by him to penalise South Africa for its racial policies, including support for efforts to restrict investment from the US.

During this visit, the Reverend made a meaningful impact on many communities, including some 300 people who had gathered at their community centre to listen to what he had to say.

Bringing with him the promise of hope and self-respect to the people who sat before him, his message was clear: “Segregation is wrong, segregation is a lie; segregation challenges. God’s right to make people of different colours,” he declared.

Following his return to the US, he intensified his efforts to mobilise opposition to the “terrorist state” of South Africa, working towards reshaping US foreign policy on the country. From the outset, he strongly opposed the then-President Ronald Reagan’s policy of constructive engagement with the Apartheid regime and worked tirelessly to mobilise public opposition to the country’s stance.

Reverend Jackson entered the 1984 Presidential race with the anti-Apartheid struggle at the centre of his foreign policy agenda and campaign platform and, in January 1985, he met with Pope John Paul II, asking the Pontiff to visit South Africa and hasten the much sought-after change in the country.

“I was running for President and I said, ‘Let’s end Apartheid’, but nobody wanted to touch the issue. The ANC was on the terrorist list but, eventually, we managed to take it to another level. The government eventually did apply sanctions, and I’m not sure people appreciate just how big this was. The US government were partners with both Britain and South Africa, so this really was a big step,” he says.

That same year, Rev. Jackson joined Oliver Tambo, Bishop Trevor Huddleston, Ken Livingstone and others at the 120 000-strong demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square to protest Apartheid in South Africa and call on the South African government to free Nelson Mandela. He later met with the then-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, appealing to her to drop Britain’s support for Apartheid.

“At that time, the rally was the largest in the long history of protests in Britain against South Africa’s racial policies and was organised by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which was founded in Britain in 1959. It was a proud and exciting moment as the world watched Oliver Tambo, the President of the African National Congress at that time, as well as British opposition politicians, labour union officials and community leaders, denounce the Apartheid regime. At the top of our agenda was the call for harsh economic measures, including an end to foreign loans and investment against South Africa by western governments, because we believed that it was the only way to end Apartheid without widespread violence,” Rev. Jackson says.

He also engaged and lobbied the Soviet Union leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to cut all diplomatic ties with South Africa, and called on Harvard and other universities to divest from the country.

In 1986, at the invitation of several African governments, Rev. Jackson led a delegation of activists, business representatives and academics to eight African countries, where the focus of the trip was to mobilise opposition to the Apartheid regime.

“I could see for myself what was happening, as the separation laws of 1896 in America were the same laws in South Africa and were put in place by the same people. We had no choice but to use our moral authority, marching feet and willingness to go to jail to end Apartheid. We went to jail every day for a year but it needed to be done in order to arouse public consciousness and put pressure on the US government to put sanctions on South Africa,” he says.

Apartheid lives on

While the end of political Apartheid, where people were separated by race, has been achieved, economic Apartheid and a lack of access to economic opportunities persist. This is the message the civil rights activist drove home during his most recent visit to South Africa, where he attended Winnie Mandela’s funeral.

“Both here and in the US, black people have reached the fourth stage of the struggle: democratising the economy,” he says.

The anti-Apartheid activist had been invited to the Gordon Institute of Business (GIBS) in Johannesburg to deliver a talk on “black excellence”, where he placed much emphasis on how to slowly roll back the legacy of Apartheid, which has manifested itself today in economic inequality.

“Black people got freer; white people got richer. Our task ahead involves the same tools used to fight political Apartheid to fight economic Apartheid. If you look at major corporations, from the car companies, banks, travel and news industries, they are all supported by the black majority. To fight this resource Apartheid, we must use our consumer strength. From race Apartheid to resource Apartheid, the black majority has less and less. It’s as if there is a black ocean and at the centre—a white island. There are no more sanctions, and the banks and international investment goes straight to the white island, and it benefits only the white minority,” he says.

Rev. Jackson is proposing a new way of thinking about economic transformation—and he’s taking the fight to the private sector. One solution offered by him is share-scheme agreements. Adopted in the US, they have proven successful in getting black professionals on the boards of top companies.

Arguing his case for the democratisation of the private sector, his approach is markedly different from one most commonly discussed in SA—nationalisation.

“Nationalisation places economic power in the hands of the governing elite, when it should belong to the people,” Rev. Jackson says.

He also says that black South Africans should get to know local companies, know their boards, know their training schemes and use their buying power to force them to transform.

“There also has to be fair land distribution, but then have the science to cultivate it. Ethical practices and joint-ventures are key to the land appropriation issue. South African’s need to figure out ways to democratise the economy. Being angry won’t get you there, being hateful won’t get you there. This country must not go back with hate but go forward with hope and healing. Build resources, not race bridges. And lastly, leverage your money as you leverage your votes,” he says.

That said, the Reverend is excited about the progress made in South Africa so far. “Black people can get to Nelson Mandela Square if they choose to, and not just with their broom and mop. They can travel in and out of the country, freely, and they now benefit from new freedoms, new chances for human development. But we must focus on this new agenda, where we address this post-colonial resource Apartheid, so that we may see our share of investment, as well as more international trade,” he explains.

During his recent visit, Rev. Jackson was able to spend some time with President Cyril Ramaphosa, and he believes that there is a new hope for the people of South Africa.

“South Africans are right to be excited about Cyril. He is a man who has never left the belly of the beast, he has great experience behind him and at heart, he is also a businessman. I think he is a man who is very connected to Nelson Mandela, and he has certainly paid his dues,” he says.

A global presence

Rev. Jackson’s passion for civil rights was rooted in his DNA from his earliest days. The founder and President of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, he has become known as one of America’s foremost civil rights, religious and political figures.

During his career spanning almost five decades, he has played a pivotal role in virtually every movement for empowerment, peace, civil rights, gender equality, and economic and social justice, and in August 2000, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, by President Bill Clinton.

In his home country, the Reverend has been called the “Conscience of the Nation” and “the Great Unifier,” challenging America to be inclusive and establishing just and humane priorities for the benefit of all. He has built his reputation on bringing people together on common ground across lines of race, culture, class, gender and belief.

Born on 8 October 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina, he is the son of Helen Burns and her married next-door neighbour, Noah Robinson. His neighbours and classmates teased Rev. Jackson for being “a nobody who had no daddy”. As a result, he developed both a strong desire to succeed and an understanding of the oppressed. With advice from his grandmother, he overcame his childhood problems, finishing tenth in his high school class. He earned a football scholarship to attend the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he was eager to get away from the prejudice and segregation of the South.

However, he would soon discover both open and hidden discrimination at the university and in other parts of the city. Rev. Jackson returned to the South and enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (A&T) in Greensboro, North Carolina, an institution for African American students, where he was elected student body president. He graduated in 1964 with a degree in sociology and economics.

He began his theological studies at Chicago Theological Seminary but deferred his studies when he started working full-time in the civil rights movement with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. He was ordained on 30 June 1968, by Rev. Clay Evans and earned his Master of Divinity degree from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2000.

The activist

Five years after his arrest in 1960 in his native South Carolina, when he and others entered a segregated public library, Rev. Jackson joined King in the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, marches.

His world, however, would change dramatically on the night of 4 April 1968, when King died of an assassin’s bullets on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Rev. Jackson was with him at the time of the shooting.

As the towering leader at the centre of the civil rights movement, King had been a dominant presence in the life of the young activist, still in his 20s. In the years that followed, Jackson would come into his own, becoming a familiar public face and persuasive orator, fighting for voting rights, equal job and business opportunities for African-Americans and an end to other racial injustices.

In December 1971, Rev. Jackson founded Operation PUSH in Chicago, IL. The goals of Operation PUSH were economic empowerment and expanding educational, business and employment opportunities for the disadvantaged and people of colour.

In 1984, he would go on to found the National Rainbow Coalition, a social justice organisation based in Washington, D.C., devoted to political empowerment, education and changing public policy. In September 1996, the Rainbow Coalition and Operation PUSH merged to form the Rainbow PUSH Coalition to continue the work of both organisations and to maximise resources.

For his work in human and civil rights and non-violent social change, Rev. Jackson has received more than 40 honorary doctorate degrees and frequently lectures at major colleges and universities including Howard, Yale, Princeton, Morehouse, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and Hampton. He was made an Honorary Fellow of Regent’s Park College at Oxford University in the UK in 2007 and received an Honorary Fellowship from Edge Hill University in Liverpool, England. In 2010, Rev. Jackson was inducted into England’s prestigious Cambridge Union Society, and in April 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

In October 1997, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton and the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, as “Special Envoy of the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa”. In this official position, he travelled to several countries on the African continent and met with such national leaders as then-President Nelson Mandela, His Excellency, Daniel T. Arap Moi of Kenya and President Frederick J.T. Chiluba of Zambia.

He is also known for his fight for national healthcare, a war on drugs and direct peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, and advancing democracy in Haiti, where his advocacy on these and other issues has helped bring the American public to a new level of consciousness.

The Politician

In 1984, Rev. Jackson entered the presidential arena as an improbable candidate for the Democratic nomination. As a black civil rights activist who thundered against racial injustice and poverty, he quickly earned a reputation as a man who never sugar-coated his words while addressing an overwhelmingly white electorate.

As a man who had never run for public office, he successfully mobilised tremendous support with the passion of his words and leaning on his experience as a Minister, he made the campaign trail itself his pulpit. He called his base a “rainbow coalition” as he won the backing of progressives, blacks, Hispanics, blue-collar workers and struggling farmers.

Taking aim at poverty and racism, Jackson called for increased federal funding for social programmes, cutting the defence budget and reversing President Ronald Reagan-era tax cuts.

Despite the scepticism that greeted his bid, Jackson won more than three million votes. Though he came in a distant third, Jackson was credited with enrolling as many as two million Democratic voters.

His 1988 campaign won seven million votes and helped boost hundreds of state and local elected officials into office. Additionally, he earned historic victories, coming in first or second in 46 out of 54 primary contests. His clear progressive agenda and his ability to build an unprecedented coalition inspired millions to join the political process.

In 1991, he was elected Senator of Washington, D.C., advocating for the statehood for the nation’s capital and advancing the “rainbow” agenda at the national and international levels. Since then, he has continued to promote voter registration and lead get-out-the-vote campaigns, believing that everyone should be encouraged to be a responsible, informed and active voter.

As a highly respected and trusted world leader, Rev. Jackson has also acted many times as an international diplomat in sensitive situations. In 1984, Reverend Jackson secured the release of the captured Navy Lieutenant, Robert Goodman, from Syria and the release of 48 Cuban and Cuban-American prisoners in Cuba.

He was the first American to bring home citizens from the UK, France and other countries held as “human shields” by Saddam Hussein in Kuwait and Iraq in 1990 and in 1999, he successfully negotiated the release of U.S. soldiers held hostage in Kosovo. Rev. Jackson also helped negotiate the release of four journalists working on a documentary for Britain’s Channel 4 network held in Liberia and has travelled extensively in the Middle East and Asia.

In 2003, Rev. Jackson keynoted the rally held in London’s Hyde Park where over one million people protested the expected invasion of Iraq by the United States.

Still making his mark

A hallmark of Rev. Jackson’s work has been his commitment to the youth. He has visited thousands of high schools, colleges, universities and correctional facilities encouraging excellence, inspiring hope and challenging young people to study diligently and stay drug-free.

In 2014, Jackson quietly and without fanfare walked up to a memorial on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, where black 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by a white city police officer. He was greeted warmly by people living nearby and those viewing the memorial.

Jackson also joined protesters as they marched through the streets of the St. Louis suburb, demanding justice on Brown’s behalf and a stop to unfair treatment of blacks by the Ferguson officers.

This is just one of the many demonstrations Rev. Jackson has participated in over the decades—from flashing the peace sign at an anti-Iraq war rally in London, joining the striking Red Cross, grocery and airline workers on picket lines in cities across the nation to getting arrested for protesting at a plant where workers’ jobs were being relocated to China.

But, like his mentor, Dr King, and other civil rights leaders, he has maintained the belief that change can be achieved through non-violence.

Just last year, he led a protest in the small town of Flint, Michigan, where a lead-tainted water crisis started when a state-appointed manager in 2014 switched the city’s service to the Flint River from Detroit’s system. The river water was not adequately treated, causing lead to leach from ageing pipes into Flint homes. Tests later showed some children had high lead levels.

As a consistent and vigorous supporter of the labour movement in the U.S. and around the world, he is also known as someone who has walked more picket lines and spoken at more labour rallies than any other national leader. He has worked with unions to organise workers, protect workers’ rights, and mediate labour disputes. In 1996, he travelled to Asia to investigate the treatment of workers in the Japanese automobile industry and athletic apparel factories in Indonesia.

The Reverend has received numerous honours for his work in human and civil rights and non-violent social change and in 1991, the U.S. Post Office put his likeness on a pictorial postal cancellation—he is only the second living person to receive such an honour.

A family man, he met his wife, Jacqueline, at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College as the civil rights movement began gaining momentum. They were soon married and had five children—three sons and two daughters—together. 

Amanda Van De Barg

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Issue 83


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