Rev. Jesse Jackson

Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks in the Lenhart Grand Ballroom Jan. 25. Behind him is Tanasio Loudermill, a 12-year-old from Toledo who Jackson invited to join him onstage. Loudermill is the president of the NAACP’s Junior Youth Council.

U.S. needs to rethink priorities: Jackson

He didn’t endorse a candidate in the growing field of Democratic presidential contenders but, addressing a capacity crowd in BGSU’s Lenhart Grand Ballroom Jan. 25, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for “a new direction” for America.

The longtime civil rights activist said it would be premature for him to back a candidate. But noting the diversity already represented by Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson—the first Hispanic White House hopeful—he said the campaign “will be full of very talented people” and “hopefully a race that will inspire more education and participation.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson
Rev. Jesse Jackson

“I’m not inclined to run,” Jackson said, responding to a question from a ballroom audience member about whether he would seek the presidency a third time. What he is inclined to do, he continued, is promote voter registration—as he did with BGSU students during his presentation—and talk about “things that matter.”

Leading that list of important issues are education and health care, he said. “It’s a matter of priorities,” Jackson asserted during a pre-speech press conference, saying it’s “easy to get into war but not easy to get into school.”

While the wealthiest Americans are getting tax cuts—and some corporations don’t pay taxes—the middle class is getting job and benefit cuts, he said. With spending for the war in Iraq thrown in, people’s ability to make a living is going down and, for college students and their families, the cost of tuition is up, he added.

The focus should be on ending the war and reinvesting in America, according to Jackson, who said a multinational United Nations force is needed now in Iraq instead of “more Americans with targets on their backs.” Diverting $1 billion of the money spent on the war each month to education and health care in Ohio alone would produce change “in a meaningful way,” he noted.

“Some say there’s too much noise in Washington; I say there’s not enough,” he said, stipulating that what’s needed are more people singing “the right tune” about, for instance, job safety and health benefits for coal miners.

Terming the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 “a metaphor for abandoning urban America,” he also pointed out that it wasn’t mentioned either by President Bush in last week’s State of Union Address or by Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as part of the plan for action in the first 100 hours of Democratic control of Congress.

“Our main fight is to even the playing field,” Jackson told his listeners in the ballroom. He said Sunday’s first-ever match-up of African-American head coaches in the Super Bowl—Lovie Smith of Chicago and Tony Dungy of Indianapolis—is “a really big deal,” brought about by National Football League requirements for interviewing minority candidates for head coaching vacancies. In that case, he explained, the playing field is level, with public rules and clear goals, and the larger aim is to extend that equal access to other areas.

Rev. Jesse Jackson
BGSU’s Gospel Choir helps Rev. Jesse Jackson deliver a message of commitment and dedication at his BGSU address.

“We are a great and blessed nation, but we must learn a great lesson—live together,” said Jackson, founder of the Rainbow Coalition and People United to Save Humanity, now merged into the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

He said he hears some leaders speaking out for “English only” in the U.S., but the fact remains that many of their neighbors speak other languages. “English is a great language. Jesus didn’t speak it, however,” he added to applause from the audience. The language should be used to communicate, not divide, he urged.

Jackson entered public life in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the former assistant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to campus to headline a celebration of the late civil rights leader’s legacy. That legacy, he said, entails acting with the courage of one’s convictions.

On his final birthday, Jan. 15, 1968, King met with a multiracial, multicultural group to discuss a march to Washington, D.C., to call for an end both to poverty and the Vietnam War, Jackson recalled. Two and a half months later, on the Saturday before he went to Memphis—where he was assassinated on April 4—King had gone three or four nights without sleep and was suffering from migraine headaches. He said he had thought about quitting the movement after 13 years to become president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, but decided he couldn’t because “those who paid the ultimate price (in the struggle for civil rights) wouldn’t accept me,” Jackson remembered.

“When he was killed, I was determined not to let one bullet kill our movement.”

January 29, 2007