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Jesse Jackson speaks about Obama and the possibility of a black president

Posted by Media Outrage on January 29, 2008

Jesse Jackson

Jesse Jackson spoke to Essence about the very close campaign battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the major victory that Obama won in South Carolina and the power of the black voter’s voice.

Essence.com: In South Carolina, the Democratic campaign took a negative turn with charges and countercharges of injecting race, yet the numbers are indicating that there was a record turnout. Clearly, South Carolina voters weren’t completely turned off by the tone of the race in the final days.

Reverend Jesse Jackson: They were inspired by it.

Essence.com: They were inspired by it? Okay, that’s what I was going to ask you. To what do you attribute the record turnout?

J.J: We have the inspiration that Barack brings to the scene. Hillary, Bill—are well liked in many circles. Edwards is from South Carolina. You have an interesting combination of three people with appeal in that state. This is the first state beyond Iowa and New Hampshire where Blacks had a chance to express their vote in what has been a yearlong campaign. Blacks were courted by the media in ways that they seldom are, and those Blacks wound up being the critical difference in the election.

Essence.com: As somebody who was born in South Carolina, what do you think about the way African-American voters were portrayed by the media leading up to the primary? For example, they started talking about the barbershop and the beauty shop vote. Do you have any problem with the way South Carolina voters were portrayed?

J.J: No. My concern is that while focusing on the color of the vote, they were not focusing on Black issues and substance. For example, student debt—I think student loans are like a billion dollars. The disparity between Black and White student loans is alarming. The great disparities in infant mortality and life expectancy—great disparities.The income disparity… The college enrollment disparities… The largest industry in that state is no longer cotton. It’s the jail-industrial complex. There’s 24 state prisons in South Carolina and only one state college, South Carolina State. So we are free, but not equal. We live in one America under one flag, but there are some structural inequalities. Stop focusing so much on the color of our vote and start focusing on the substance of our situation.

Essence.com: Considering how much attention was given to the Black vote, do you think that African-Americans sufficiently stressed their demands with these candidates? Did we demand enough of them?

J.J: The civil rights agenda must always be kept out front: the civil right to equal opportunity. The civil right to health care, the civil right to adequate housing, the civil right to fair employment. There was this assumption that we’re all free now and it’s over. We’re all free, but we are not equal. Dr. King said that the next big chapter of our struggle was that we’ve won the battles of decency over barbarism, but equality? That was in the coming campaign.

Essence.com: I’ve encountered many people who say we shouldn’t question Senator Obama about what he will do specifically for African-Americans, that we should just get him in the White House and then worry about specific issues. Should we be attempting to nail him down?

J.J: Every issue that came up, he addressed. The issue of affirmative action; he’s for affirmative action. The issue of jail or criminal disparities; he’s addressed that issue. The issue of should every vote count; he’s addressed that issue. I think in this setting, we really have to look at the common ground that includes our interests. For example, in South Carolina, 62 percent of the people who work don’t have health insurance. That affects everybody. The subprime crisis. It affects us disproportionately, but it affects everybody. The Iraq War affects everybody. In Iowa I was talking about family farmers. By the time we got to Chicago, I was talking about urban abandonment. I am about addressing the structural inequalities. The media has some responsibilities to ask the right questions.

Essence.com: I’m sure you’ve heard the comments Senator Clinton made about Martin Luther King and the remark about Obama and a fairy tale.

J.J: I wrote an article urging both of them to stay away from those edges. For example, it was unfair to attack her on that basis [Senator Clinton stated that Dr. King did not act alone. She said that he needed a politician to get civil rights legislation enacted]. The reality is that that was not an insult to Dr. King. Dr. King campaigned for Lyndon Johnson. Because if Goldwater had won, we wouldn’t have had the Voting Rights Act of ’65. You need a combination of litigation, people like Thurgood Marshall, and demonstrations, [people like] Dr. King. And legislation, [people like] Lyndon Johnson. You need that combination. That was gotcha politics. On the other hand, trying to make Barack somehow a Reaganite also was wrong.

Essence.com: It’s interesting that you say that, because I’m a younger voter. I’m a blogger and a lot of bloggers are saying that they are so turned off, and they are so irate about how the Clintons are treating Barack Obama that they absolutely will not vote for her if she wins the nomination.

J.J: That means that they’re going to vote for some anti–civil rights Republicans, who’s going to further stack the Supreme Court. And they’re going to vote for some anti–affirmative action Republicans. So you have to be mature in this process. You have to think this thing through. Politics also comes down to options. In this marathon race, you have to be walking through a storm and thinking at the same time. Barack has my vote. My point is that when it’s over, the two of them and the others who ran must close ranks because you cannot beat the right wing unless you do.

Essence.com: Well, then, does it annoy you at all that people are somehow portraying Barack Obama as the first credible Black candidate or the first Black candidate with a chance to win? I know many people in my generation thought, erroneously, that he was the first Black man to win a state primary when you have won eleven.

J.J: That’s the job of ESSENCE and other media—to educate so we will know better. We’ll do better when we know better. We talk about Black history and all of that. In ’64 we were leading a demonstration outside the convention trying to get a seat in Mississippi. The next year we had the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s a nonstop battle. This is the evolution of our struggle. This is not something new. This is something wonderful; it’s not new. This is the evolution of our struggle; we must keep putting it into context.

Essence.com: Will we necessarily be better off as African-Americans just because a Black person is in the White House?

J.J: The pressure to make a president responsive must never stop. It’s never just the president. We elect a president. Not a king. We chose Kennedy over Nixon, but we still had to march on Washington to get a public accommodations bill. We chose Johnson over Goldwater, but we still had to march to Selma to get the voting rights act. It doesn’t matter who the president is, it’s good to have sensitive people in the White House, like Lyndon Johnson was, like Barack Obama would be. It will not negate our need to negate various pressures to affect the Congress and the White House and the courts. It’d be good to have a friend in the White House, but he or she will not be King or Queen. They cannot do anything unilaterally.

For the rest of the interview visit Essence

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