Reverend Jesse Jackson
The Fight for Equality
Egalitarianism is an idea that has haunted humanity throughout history.
It's one of the most noble causes that human beings can aspire to.
Here, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, himself a great equality campaigner
and activist, and a former presidential candidate runner for the
Democratic Party tells the story of the fight for equality in the USA.
It was an idea that has fascinated, troubled and provoked people for
thousands of years. It's known to a lot of us as egalitarianism, but to
you and I it's just equality.
I'm Reverend Jesse Jackson, I've been campaigning against inequality,
in America and abroad, for more than forty years. I was born in 1941, a
child of a seventeen year old single mother, in one of the poor
neighbourhoods of Greenville, South Carolina. Sometimes, today, racial
inequality can be subtle; there was nothing subtle about it then. Racial
equality was something a black child could only dream of. It wasn't until
years later that I realised I could make it a reality.
My lifelong fight for equality has been inspired by, more than
anything else, the words and teachings of one man. 2,000 years ago, when
the Roman Empire was at the height of it's power, he dared to say that
equality was our birthright That man was Jesus.
The United States was founded by men who professed the noble ideals of
equality. On July 4th 1776, at the end of a long struggle, the future
president, Thomas Jefferson, declared America's independence with a
promise that astonished the world. For the first time in history, a nation
promised equality for all. It seemed that the Christian ideal might
actually become a reality.
The American Declaration of Independence is fundamental to the identity
of every citizen of this great country. Just like every other American, as
a child I learned it in school. We hold these truths to be self-evident
and all men are created equal. The founding principle of a nation, the
promise it made was truly unprecedented.
Well there was a problem with Jefferson's great promise. Even when that
promise of equality was written it did not include women, Africans or
native Americans. In fact, for all their noble words, many of our founding
fathers, including Jefferson himself, were busy profiting from one of the
most depraved events in human history; the transatlantic slave trade.
Like many African-Americans today, I can trace my roots back to Africa
via the slave trade. It was the blood and sweat of thousands of African
slaves that made America a great and prosperous nation.
It would take a long, bloody battle, which would shake this nation to
it's core, before African-Americans could begin to claim their equal
In 1861, America was torn apart by a cruel war between the northern
and southern states. The beginning of the war was about state's rights,
about land and power, but turned into a moral battle about ending
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation
Proclamation, promising all slaves freedom. It was both a moral and
political move to undermine the slave-owning southern states. More than
80,000 black soldiers, many of them escaped slaves from the south,
fought alongside their Yankee brothers to defend the union. Within a
year, the south was defeated and, at last, four million
African-Americans were able to walk free.
After 246 years of legal slavery and brutal exploitation, the
promises were made for full citizenship, the right to marry for the
first time, for the right to an education and the right to own land. All
of these promises were made for the new and glorious, perfect union.
It seemed as though the promise of equality was going to be, at last,
a reality, but that victory was hollow.
The America I knew, as a child, just seven years later was not a
place where African-Americans were free and equal citizens. Instead a
long and bitter struggle lay ahead.
When it came time for me to go to school, I had to go to the school
across town. A school that was so overcrowded that we had one book for
every four of us. Often we would use desks four years after white kids
had used them and books once they'd been marked up. So everything about
that system talked degradation, it talked inferiority. So in many ways
one had to unlearn the laws of apartheid, unlearn the law of
Ku Klux Klan
We suffered discrimination across the board and some white were
intent of keeping it that way. It was a dangerous time to be black.
Since the 1860's, sinister vigilante groups of white supremacists had
taken the law into their own hands. Even in my lifetime, I remember the
grisly attacks of the KKK, the Ku Klux Klan, against black men, women
and children across America. Most lynchings took place at the church on
Sunday. Most pictures you would see of lynch mob scenes are men in their
straw hats and women in their bonnets watching some black man hanging
from a tree.
These acts of brutality were supposed to keep African-Americans
trapped in fear and oppression, but one horrific act was to change
In August 1955, a young black kid named Emmett Till travelled south
from Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. He was 14 years old. One
day a local white woman claimed he had whistled at her, it was never
proved to be true, but the accusation was enough to seal Emmett Till's
fate. A gang of white men came to where he was staying and took him
away, after torturing him, they lynched him and dumped his body in the
His mother, to her lasting credit, went south to recover his body and
brought it back to Chicago. Because his body was so defaced by the
beatings and the bludgeoning, The stabs and the shooting that, in spite
of this, she put him in an open-faced casket. She wanted the world to
see what they'd done to her son.
More than 100,000 saw that body lying there in that condition. Those
who saw it were never the same again.
When his killers were brought to trial, an all-white jury allowed
them to walk free. Emmett Till was denied justice, but his death would
inspire a brave act of defiance that would change the course of our
Just three months later, a 42 year old black woman was arrested in
Montgomery, Alabama. Her crime was refusing to move when a bus driver
ordered her to give up her seat for a white passenger. That woman was
Rosa Parks. Her action inspired the black residents of Montgomery to
organise a mass protest at her arrest. They boycotted the local buses,
walking up to 20 miles instead. Their leader was a young, charismatic
preacher named Martin Luther King Junior. For a year they suffered
violence and intimidation, but in the end they won, in the courts and in
the streets. Montgomery buses were officially desegregated.
Rosa Parks' act of defiance galvanised a generation. We've finally
discovered that through peaceful mass protest ordinary black men and
women could fight inequality and win. By the time I went to college at
the age of 19, the protest against segregation had been mounting across
the south. African-Americans everywhere were refusing to accept
Following an incident at my local library, I mounted my first
protest. I was now involved in the civil rights movement and soon I
would be at the heart of it. It culminated in, perhaps, the most
extraordinary demonstration of the 20th century.
When we all marched together in Washington on August the 28th 1963
there was a great sense of readiness for change, and a great sense of
abounding hope in the atmosphere. It was exactly 100 years since Lincoln
had proclaimed the end of slavery and nearly half a million of us had
gathered to demand equal rights for all Americans.
Dr Martin Luther King Junior was now the acknowledged leader of the
movement. When he spoke that day, he electrified the nation and moved
the world. What most people remember is the "I have a dream" speech, but
that was not the substance, not the thesis, of the speech. He really
spoke about the broken promises.
That speech was a turning point in our struggle. Within a year, we
won an historic victory. Segregation was forbidden and voter
discrimination was outlawed by the Federal Government. But some whites
were not prepared to accept our equality and their reaction was far from
peaceful. They burned our churches, bombed our homes and ransacked our
businesses. Eventually the storm of hatred and violence came to rest on
Dr King himself.
In April of 1968 I had travelled to Memphis, Tennessee with Dr King
to organise a march supporting workers against poverty. At 6pm that
evening we were on our way to dinner at the local minister's house. I
was talking with Dr King as we stood on the balcony of the motel where
he was staying. A shot rang out, It hit Dr King and killed him.
Dr King always said that legal equality was not enough, he'd already
begun to talk about the next age in our struggle. Now it was up to us to
carry on his work.
Over the centuries, the economic and social system had been built for
the benefit of the whites. That meant that even with legal equality
there remained a huge gulf between the opportunities open to blacks and
whites. You can get out of slavery, secure the right to vote and still
starve to death unless you get access to capital, industry and
technology. I believe what you had to do was work from the bottom to
Based in Chicago, operation Breadbasket helped to build small black
businesses and create new job opportunities. In the 70's our campaign
went national as we tackled the big corporations. Through boycotts and
our power as consumers we took on some of the biggest corporations in
the world. Coca Cola had been in business for nearly a hundred years,
and of the hundreds of franchises not one of them was black owned. We
launched a boycott campaign called "Don't Choke on Coke".
Within weeks, sales plummeted; the campaign was so successful Coca Cola
placed millions in minority element businesses. Gradually, more and more
multinationals signed up to fairer business policies.
It was time to turn to the corridors of power. In 1984 I lost a
campaign to become the Democratic Party's presidential candidate.
Nowadays, it doesn't seem quite so extraordinary for an African-American
to run for power, but back then no black person had ever run such a
major campaign for the country's highest political office. Two and a
half million people voted for our campaign, many of them new voters; I
came third. Four years later, I ran again and came second with nearly
seven million votes.
Our success gave hope to others around the world that they too could
achieve their birthright. In apartheid South Africa, ordinary black men
and women fought back against the brutal white regime. After nearly
thirty years, that regime finally acknowledged it's days of minority
rule were over.
Just when it started to look as if the new millennium might bring in
a new era of civil rights, tragedy began to unfold in America itself. A
backlash by the rich and powerful was unleashed; the democratic rule of
the people was overruled. In 2000 the right wing looked at ways to
suppress the black vote. Thousands of voters who should have been
counted were denied a voice; most of these were poor, black or Latino.
In Florida, a conspiracy to exclude minority voters helped swing the
election for George W. Bush.
There is one event that should remind everybody of how deep-seated
inequality in America still is. In August of 2005, hurricane Katrina
swept across New Orleans leaving a trail of chaos and death on it's
wake. Those who escaped the storm were mostly the wealthy and white. The
poor, mostly black and Latino were left to fend for themselves.
- Chris Crowe
||Jesse Jackson: A
Biography - Roger Bruns
in America - John White
CREDITS: All of the above information came from the UK Channel 5
"Big Ideas" documentary series