The following remarks were delivered by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson on August 2 at the Rainbow PUSH Saturday Forum. They appear here as part of the ongoing Moral Compass series, focusing on the spoken word.
I want to thank all of you who are here today, and those listening and viewing around the nation and the world, for your prayers and expressions of support, and even your criticism. It is challenging but also often helpful. We must see the value of healthy critiques. We are accountable to each other.
But through all of this, while I went on my sojurn to the desert, I thank you. I fasted and prayed and reflected. I went to the valley in a real search for for my assignment and to renew the health and strength of my soul. I want to be morally and physically fit for this battle. I want my preaching and my living to be closely connected. Too often the preaching is higher than the living. The Gospel must not be compromised.
This is a magic moment in American history. I’ve been blessed to be a part of a great era. I was jailed in 1960 for trying to use a public library. I was jailed in 1963 going to the March on Washington for trying to use a public facility. I think about our journey from slave ships to championships, from 1948 to 2008–what a journey.
Jackie Robinson broke into the ranks of the white major leagues in 1947, before there was a NBA or NFL as we know them today. He, along with Jesse Owens and his victory in Berlin, and Joe Louis in his defeat of Max Schmeling, carried so much of our weight on their shoulders. They changed the cultural expectations. Our Samsons beat their Goliaths. We rejoiced and named our children after them.
Then the 1954 court triumph that ended legal apartheid, followed by ten years of test cases in Montgomery, Little Rock and all across the South, culminating in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Then the shift from seeking equal protection under the law to seeking empowerment. A blow was landed by Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. Then the battle for the right to vote and the Voting Rights Act. White women couldn’t serve on juries. Farmers who couldn’t pay poll taxes couldn’t vote–Selma. Eighteen-year-olds got the right to vote in 1970–Selma. In 1974, student residency, you can vote where you go to school–Selma. 1975, bilingual voting–Selma. 1990, the Disabilities Act–Selma. All of these victories were rooted in that defining moment in Selma, Alabama.
The 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns sought to break down barriers and democratized the primary system by changing the rules so delegates were elected on a proportional basis, not winner-take-all. The campaigns generated a multitude of newly registered rainbow voters.
Now, with the barriers down, we are running the last lap of this race with a brilliant anchorman, Barack Obama–so able, intellectually, morally and spiritually, to bring the baton home. This is a magic moment.
August 28, 1955:
Emmett Till was lynched.
August 28, 1963:
Dr. King addressed the March on Washington.
August 28, 2008:
Barack receives the nomination.
This is a magic moment, one of those high peak moments for America and the world.
July 4, 1776:
Independence from Britain.
The Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery.
The Supreme Court Decision that ended legal apartheid.
August 28, 1963:
Dr. King addressed the March on Washington.
August 28, 2008:
We reach the political promised land Dr. King saw from the mountaintop.
On this journey we have faced trauma, and sometimes experienced errors of judgment, taste and tone along the way. Yet, we play with our scars. I’ve had to reflect upon my traumatizing ordeal with sincerity and contrition. My private speech became public controversy. I addressed the hurt and the affected. I was not satisfied with my apology and response, so I went to the desert to see if there was any gap between my heart and my lips. It was a soul-searching journey. I wanted to examine my painful and errant language–whether private or public. I speak to you this way because I love you with a passion and pain, and with a pleasure and commitment that is immeasurable, to the death and beyond.
I find my deepest joy in lifting people up, whether in stress or distress. In a moment away from the high mark, I let you down. It hurts. The pain sticks to my bones. My soul cries out for understanding. There is an ongoing struggle to make a more perfect union and a more peaceful world. I want to address the wound in my soul, not just my words.
My investment in this struggle is not seasonal; it is a life’s work.
As I enter this phase of our struggle and reflect upon my contributions and involvement, I want to be a productive finisher. I want it to be said that I kept the faith. I fought a good fight. I finished my course.
I have operated in two traditions. They merge, but sometimes there is tension between them–the political and the prophetic. The allegiances are sometimes different. Where is accountability? One to God, one to voters. They coexist, often with great inner tension.
It is not my conflict with traditions that sent me to the desert. I have given much to our community and our nation, but a healed soul is required to serve.
David, a popular and talented politician with great favor from God and among the masses, was the chief politician of his day. Nathan, a supporter of David, had access to him. He loved David; but his allegiance was to his higher calling. He therefore found himself raising uncomfortable questions and concerns, not because of competition or jealousy but out of love for his mission.
Dr. King would often say: Vanity asks the question, Is it popular? Politics asks the question: Will it win? Conscience asks the question: Is it right? Ultimately, a matter may be neither politic nor popular. “Is it right?” is the haunting question.
Conscience often swims upstream. It is deep in your bosom, covered up by your clothes and appearance. It is a tough negotiator. It will wake you up when all of your allies and enemies are asleep.
I went to the desert to talk to God, Dr. King and myself. I tried to hear God’s still and small voice. I felt I had fallen short of what would make heaven happy. I often asked God in prayer to search my heart because he knows my ways, my weaknesses, my strengths and my struggle. I said to him, allow me to do your assignment, your will, and gain favor with you. If you find anything within me that should not be, any hatred, jealousy, malice, evil, or ungodly intent, remove it and make me better and more fit for the Kingdom. Keep me humble and sincere and grounded. Give me a tough mind and a tender heart. You alone know the thorns in my flesh and the wounds of my heart. Only pure hearts can see you.
In the presence of God you want 20-20 vision, and you will only see if your heart is pure. You want bold action, a pure heart and vision. For my heart to be pure, I must deal with the sins that stand between me and God. If a snake bites you, you put on a tourniquet to stop the poison from spreading to the heart. Issues of life flow from the heart. Consistent with that, perfect love casts out fear. Fear of stature. Fear of sickness. Fear of death. Fear of jobs. Fear of foes. Fear of money. Or the loss of those things.
I want to be fearless. Dr. Tillich would suggest that where love and power and justice meet, the new world we seek must begin in us. And we must start talking with God.
I talked with Dr. King. A certain sense of joy filled my soul when I was reminded of a scripture, Revelation 2:5, that says, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, repent and do the first works.” I kept turning that thought over and over in my mind–“remember your first works.” The reason I packed my wife and young child up in 1964 and moved to Chicago was to be a voice for the voiceless, to fend for the poor, and somehow help the locked out get in.
He said, remember the moral mandate to defend the poor, deliver the needy and assist the fatherless and motherless. He said, I told you at our last staff meeting it would be tough. You wanted this leadership challenge, and now you are into it. I observed closely our last staff meeting when he was in agony–before we went to Memphis. I wondered why God would allow me to be a witness in that meeting. I saw the agony, but I could not appreciate it fully at that time.
He said, I thought of quitting because I was under so much pressure. Nonviolence is under attack. There was such division in our ranks. And then I started to fast and pray to the point of death, just to convene our family. And then I decided to get up and go on to Memphis.
I saw him, in agony, turn a minus into a plus as we had done before. It was so much like the three steps of Jesus in Gethesemane. One, let this cup pass from me. Two, as he prayed the others slept. Three, not my will but Thy will be done. I’m going to a higher calling.
As I talked with Dr. King and asked him what to do, he said: What is left to be done? Where did I leave you? I left you in an island of poverty in an ocean of plenty. I left you in a valley of dried bones. We won our rights but we had to redeem the soul of America. That meant a real focus on the least of these. I left you in a valley to observe the impact of poverty; to observe intergenerational poverty and joblessness, where there are middle-class workers–police and teachers and firemen and social workers and lawyers and judges–monitoring the poor. Where they have payday lenders rather than banks. Predators rather than protection. Where workers live without insurance.
Where airport security workers–who can’t strike, in the name of homeland security–have to go forty to fifty miles a day round trip to work and can’t afford to pay for the gas to get there.
Neighborhoods of fast-food restaurants, jobs without benefits, $4 for a gallon of gas and for a gallon of milk. Houses with lead paint. Children brain-damaged.
First-class jails that employ the middle class, and second-class schools. Second-class schools are the feeder system to the jails. They need each other.
In Chicago’s school system, there are 500,000 students. Seven of ten boys, and only 6,000 of 500,000, finish four years of college. A multibillion-dollar system, 46,000 employees, 26,000 teachrers, where janitors often make more than teachers. There are police officers rather than truant officers in the schools. Secure teachers but insecure students. And teachers who are often forced to teach outside of their subject area.
In this valley, plants are closing and jobs are leaving. Education is funded on a diminishing tax base. Government and the private sector are let off the hook.
I’ve been anointed to preach the gospel to the poor, Dr. King reminded me, and to the broken-hearted, and to set the captives free. In this valley, drugs are an industry, poor pushers or mules go to jail, while the rich go to college. Funeral homes are a growth industry.
Here Wal-Marts and big-box stores are given free land and cheap labor, and the poor are forced to argue that something is better than nothing.
We addressed the Middle East peace process, European security, but we must also address the poverty in Haiti or the Ickes housing project or the Delta. Haiti, where 70 percent of the population makes a dollar a day or less. Kids often walk five miles one way just to get one meal. Many eat mud pies.
Dr. King said, what’s left to be done is largely unpopular, and it’s risky. To fight for the poor you must first fight their monitors, their overseers, their predators, their subprime lenders, and their drug and gun suppliers. If the poor got a return on their vote, their dollars, their work, they would end poverty.
They make governors and Presidents, and mayors and officials. But they give their power away.
While in the desert I recalled going to South Africa in 1979 for the first time. While I walked the streets of Soweto, the overseers, with their whips and guns, were from the community.
In the valley there are broken educational systems with buildings in need of repair, and a need for equal, high-quality public funding. People are surrendering–some drop out, some never show up. Ezekiel raised the question: Can these bones live?
Preaching alone is not enough. Ezekiel tried preaching and praying and singing. He finally surrendered. This issue of the poverty zone was bigger than the scope of his preaching. He was dealing with individuals, not with the structure of the valley,
That’s why Paul said the issue is not merely about the soul of individuals and personalities but powers and principalities: wickedness in high places.
Ezekiel stepped outside of the valley and went round about. He observed and studied the cause and effect of why the bones were dry. If at the top of the hill the water is cut off, the jobs are cut off, the airport is cut off, industry is cut off, first-class school funding is cut off, decent housing is cut off, tourism is cut off, trade skills are cut off, and parks and recreation are cut off. Help is cut, promises are made and hope is dashed. That’s why the bones are dry.
You find yourself forever trying to put a size-ten foot in a size-eight shoe and think you can pray past the corns.
Often the rich are rich because the poor are poor. It is not that they are smarter and work harder, but they are protected by inheritance–intergenerational inheritance laws.
In that valley they trade life for life, eye for an eye, and conclude that a bullet is just a hot sensation, but then I sleep. Oh, a few get out–Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters, Oprah Winfrey, Lebron James, Kobe Bryantt–very talented ones. But what about the rest of them, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego?
Dr. King said to me: We must challenge the structure to work. We must demonstrate. Ghetto monitors resist mass action. Why demonstrate? Demonstrate to get attention, he argued, you can only ride a man’s back if he is still lying down.
The biggest sins of the poor are feeling that nothing better is worth working for, and to adjust. We used to sing a song, “One thing I did wrong, let segregation stay too long. Hold on.”
The poor are oppressed and trade off temporary convenience for long-term solutions. They have been taught that sacrifice is too risky. They adjust. Dr. King contended that we must be permanently maladjusted. This principle was the essence of the struggle in Birmingham–a massive few days of sacrifice that changed the entire Southern culture.
Even when we are on the isle of poverty, like John, we still have the right to see beyond our pain and predicament, a new heaven and a new earth, the old one passing away. The oppressor adjusts to privilege. The oppressed adjust to pain. And both get mad when you force them to change.
Dr. King, like Jesus, died unpopular. He became popular when they resurrected him–the power that bullets could not stop, jail cells could not contain.
The rich say, “I lose money if there is change.” The poor say, “It’s risky; I may lose what I have.” It’s hard to convince the poor they are giants with grasshopper complexes. That is the burden of preaching.
And they are locked in this perverse marriage. There is a tension between satisfying the lust of the rich and privileged, and the pain of the poor. But ultimately, lion and lamb, black and white, rich and poor must lie together to reach peace in the valley.
As I come through this valley, I urge you to join me in this reassessment, and in our actions. This is a high moment for our politics. We must vote like never before. We’ve been blessed to have a “who” in Barack Obama. But there is the “what,” the unfinished business of eliminating structural inequality: a criminal justice system for profiit, with 2.2 million Americans, 1 million of whom are black, incarcerated. Blacks are number one in infant mortality, unemployment, and have shorter life expectancy.
As we seek the Olympic Games, the budget for an Olympic education system is not on the agenda. I challenge you today: We must reclaim our children. Join with us in embracing our seven-point educational plan for parents and students:
1. Take my child to school
2. Meet my child’s teacher
3. Exchange phone numbers with my child’s teacher
4. Turn off the TV three hours a night so my child may study
5. Pick up my child’s report card each grading period
6. Take my child to church, temple or synagogue
7. Fight for equal and adequate education funding
We’ve lost $90 billion in home equity for blacks and $70 billion for Latinos. We must restructure loans and not repossess homes. And our banks are collapsing.
In this journey, I want to be more fit for the fight. So I fast and I pray. I don’t want to let you down.
We must at once fight for political change and honor our prophetic moral tradition, which is often un-political. Jail visits will give you bad press. Addressing the criminal justice collapse is swimming upstream. Equal, adequate education for all children is swimming upstream. Building an airport rather than a gambling boat in the south suburbs is swimming upstream.
And yet, I urge bold action to see the big picture relating to the entrenched struggle against structural injustice. My soul cries out for relief and remedy for the poor, the downtrodden and the disinherited. I’ve been anointed to preach the Gospel. We must drive out predators, the guns, liquor and the drugs. The government must reinvest in America along with private sector incentives. We must develop new forms of energy.
I’ve seen a lot. I’ve heard a lot. But there is more to be seen; there is more pain to be felt. But the Bible suggests that we heal by his stripes. Our appetites may change but the formula for healing does not. Your stars come from his scars.
“If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then God will forgive their sins, and they will hear from heaven, and there will be healing in the land.”