New Internationalist

Jesse Jackson on regrets, rejoicing and racism

Issue 438

The Baptist minister and US civil rights activist talks to Rowenna Davis about regrets, rejoicing and racism.

How has racism changed since you first became an activist?

I was born into segregation in the South and I couldn’t borrow library books, or skate on the same ice rink as white people, or vote in national elections. We won that battle. My parents fought in World War Two but they weren’t treated as equals, and we won that battle. We are a better nation because of it. We won the battle against apartheid in South Africa. All this gives me hope – but the battle is not over. We still have gross inequalities. Police profiling means that black and Asian people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched. Banks are still profiling and hype up lending fees because of the zip code you live in. We have to fight racism wherever it exists, be it the police, healthcare or in the banks.

You were born to a 16 year-old single mum. In the UK the current government might classify you as part of broken Britain. Did your family ever feel broken?

Yes. But we have to work hard to overcome the brokenness. We all need strong families, and that means we need jobs for our parents to go into and education for our children. Sometimes you need to rely on extended families. I am where I am because I had a grandmother who looked after me, teachers who cared and had high expectations of me – people knew how to bring me up but not teach down to me. It’s often said it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a strong and healthy village to raise all children well.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? You have been criticized for being anti-choice.

Define ‘feminism’. I respect the rights of women and I advocate for their human rights. Women have the right to self-determination – it’s wrong to say I’m against freedom to choose. I wouldn’t oppose reductions in the [abortion] time limit or repealing women’s rights. It [reproduction] is a choice women must make.

What’s your biggest regret? Do you wish you’d made the Presidential nomination?

One of my most painful moments was honestly the night that I watched Barack Obama be announced the winner – and knowing that [Martin Luther] King wasn’t there to witness it. Thank God, Mandela did get to see it. When I cried it wasn’t just for the moment, it was for the journey too. I was sad that all those who fought and paid their due couldn’t be there too. As for personal decisions I’ve made? You always wish that you used your time more wisely, but you have to live life to the full and hope you don’t regret. I wasn’t nominated as President even though I ran, but I accept that the role I played was an asset in climbing that particular mountaintop and I rejoice in that.

What do you think of Obama’s record in office? What else should he be focusing on?

He has a great record. He stopped the haemorrhaging of 750,000 jobs after the financial crisis and his election brought hope to people around the world. He provided healthcare to those who were sick and couldn’t afford it, and hope to those who wanted to give up. We are blessed to have him as the leader of the free world. Should he be doing things differently? No Ma’am.

Photo by: Cliff under a CC Licence
Photo by: Cliff under a CC Licence

What is your relationship like with God?

One of prayer and faith. God is the spirit and God is love and I lean on his understanding. God is everywhere, his love is boundless and his love is my mission. He offers direction and inspiration. Acting out the word of God is heading in his direction. I am in no doubt that I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am without him.

Jesse Jackson was talking to the New Internationalist with Christian Aid at the launch of his new campaign StopWatch, which aims to clamp down on police powers to stop and search and racial profiling in the UK. For more information, visit www.runnymedetrust.org and www.christianaid.org.uk.

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