<br />Pushing forward on unfinished business!

newsroom@tri-statedefender.com | 4/4/2012, 11 p.m.

The media – radio, print, television and any platforms or outlets through which African Americans have a voice – must be used to deal with the myriad issues confronting the community, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told The New Tri-State Defender President and Publisher, Bernal E. Smith II. (Photo by Larry Perry)

On Tuesday (April 3), the Rev. Jesse Jackson requested a one-on-one discussion with The New Tri-State Defender President and Publisher, Bernal E. Smith II, to discuss his work and the work of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition here in Memphis and around the country to bring about legislative, economic and educational growth, particularly for African Americans. After a long day of meetings and speaking engagements and finally a Rainbow PUSH Steering Committee meeting, Rev. Jackson sat down with President Smith to share his plans and answer questions, including some submitted by our TSD Facebook page fans.

Bernal E. Smith II: Rev. Jackson, I appreciate the opportunity to meet and more importantly to share with our readers your vision and the important work of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition here in Memphis and around the country. Can you share with me key points of the effort and particularly those relating to economic growth and empowerment?

Rev. Jesse Jackson: What we are trying to do, what we are going to do…Rainbow PUSH Coalition, is establish a tri-state unified alliance to work on policy issues and economic empowerment. We have these three states next to each other with rich soil and poor people. We are connecting our Arkansas, Mississippi Delta and Tennessee allies to convene our state legislators, ministers and other leaders to deal with voter ID challenges, stand-your-ground laws and establish an agenda to fight the far right wing agenda that is having a tremendously negative impact in our communities. The corporations are not giving us our share of advertising, legal business, professional services and other areas where they spend money. We are also putting together a team to pursue more business/economic opportunities to accrue to minority businesses and particularly black-owned business. We will share more about this initiative as we move forward.

B.E.S. II:  Memphis, like many urban communities around the country, (is) in the midst of a great transition in public education and some turmoil in what that change looks like. As you travel the country, what are the major strategies that you see to make sure that there are fair and equal opportunities for high quality public education?

Rev. Jackson: One issue is to fight for equal funding; another issue is to stop the disproportionate suspension of black males, which is driving them into truancy and other issues. Let us not forget that when Trayvon Martin was first suspended from school he was suspended for an un-chargeable criminal offense, something that should have been dealt with within the school. They put him out of school, then he goes to Sanford, then he’s profiled and then he is killed….It started with a school suspension….

I want you to read today’s Chicago Sun Times; there is an article that references the inequity in school discipline policies and approaches. In that article, it is stated that in just (the) last school year students in Chicago lost a total of nearly 307,000 days of school due to out-of-school suspensions. What’s worse is 76 percent are African American. What do they do? Where do they go? We’ve got to take that on. A major challenge to academic performance particularly amongst African- American students is driven by suspension, expulsion and truancy, things that keep our children out of schools and in many instances criminalizes them creating a school to prison pipeline.  

B.E.S. II: As a board member of a charter school (MAHS) here in Memphis and a former member of the Disproportionate Minority Contact committee working to reduce the referrals of African-American students from schools into the juvenile justice system, I know well that challenge. I recall when I was in high school at Whitehaven, there was maybe one time that the police ever had to come to our school, maybe.  

The Rev. Jesse Jackson addresses administrators and students at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. At the table (left) are Dean Marie Chisholm-Burns, first African American to lead the nationally ranked UTHSC College of Pharmacy, and (center) UTHSC Chancellor Steve J. Schwab, MD. (Courtesy photo)

Rev. Jackson:  I was saying similarly the other day; I do not remember a single expulsion or suspension when I was in school. Maybe a few guys got into something crazy, but the principal called their parents and/or their pastor, but there were no out-of-school suspensions. Now, truant officers are police. A truant officer used to be someone that would go to the child’s home and figure out what happened. Nowadays there is no truant officer, just the police.

B.E.S. II: You are right and it starts the criminalization of our kids at an early age.

Rev. Jackson:  You are absolutely right, our children are being criminalized for things that were once dealt with sensibly that kept them in school and on the path of learning.

B.E.S. II: Transitioning to another critical issue, what are the broader strategies to ensure a high level of voter registration and turnout, combat voter suppression and oppressive voter laws?

Rev. Jackson: First of all there are 450 seniors at Whitehaven High School that we registered to vote this week. Those students will walk across the stage with a diploma in one hand and a voter’s registration card in the other. This is doable, all the high school students preparing for the next phase of life should register, and all those in college who want lower tuition and more affordable access to college should register and vote. Another block of support for all voter issues should be our churches. They must prioritize voter disenfranchisement, voter ID issues and voting as major issues on which they work and educate. Then the media – radio, print, television any platforms or outlets through which we have a voice – must be used to deal with these issues.

B.E.S. II: Speaking of media, I always say we live in what I call a celebrity culture, where fame and celebrity are powerful drivers of and influencers on popular culture. One of the things we saw during 2008 was the engagement of celebrities and hip-hop stars to ignite and excite young people to get involved with the voting process. It seems that as we have begun this election year in 2012 there is an absence of the stars, the Puffy’s, Jay-Z’s etc., and the energy that was generated to motivate young people to the polls. Why do you think that is and how do we get that back?

Rev. Jackson: The President (Barack Obama) at that time represented and generated unprecedented hope in the eyes of so many. But now it has to be his strategy and priority to revive that same hope by addressing people’s real needs. Black kids need more than good advice, they need jobs. We need to revive the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to deal with continued injustice in this country. A rising tide will lift some but not all boats, some of us are not in boats but barely treading water. We must do the best we can, but the burden is on the President and the DNC (Democratic National Committee). They have the most resources. They must utilize those resources to motivate the base to action.  

B.E.S. II: So, how important do you think it is, given the climate of the country, to get President Obama re-elected? And do you think he will get re-elected?

Rev. Jackson:  Well, two things he has going for him. One is the Republican right wing has been so self-destructive. The right wing agenda has alienated a lot of people. That’s one thing.  The other one is that we were losing 800,000 jobs a month when he took office, now jobs are growing in some sectors. The automotive industry was gone, it is now back. The health care plan to help millions is in place, it’s under attack but is in place.  So the foundation is there, but convincing people – the base and independents – that their vote will have returns is the priority and something we all must work on. I know that if the right wing gets back in with a return to state’s rights, we’ll be set back a half century. If they get to appoint two Supreme Court justices, our lifetime will never see the end result of that and it certainly won’t be positive for the masses of the people. We may see it on the current health care issue, we just don’t know yet.  

B.E.S. II: Speaking of health care, if it’s stricken down, where do we go relative to providing health care to millions?

Rev. Jackson: It means it creates (a) condition where many people will die. People without jobs or the ability to buy increasingly costly health insurance, which is driven up by the fact that there are so many people who can’t pay for the services, will be forced to go without and suffer because of it. Ultimately we have to determine if we value the lives of all people or just those with money. If we do value all, we will find a way to provide health care coverage to them.

B.E.S. II: The tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin has sparked national discussion, debate and action. Is there any update on the case and potential arrest of (George) Zimmerman (who says he fatally shot Martin in self-defense)?  

Rev. Jackson:  Zimmerman being arrested is a limited goal. For example, with Rosa Parks the bus driver stops the bus and says police arrest her. If we had gotten the bus driver and the police officer arrested, it wouldn’t have mattered to change the condition that created the situation. It was state law that allowed them to do what they did and it is the Stand-Your-Ground law that allowed Zimmerman to do what he did without arrest.

Twenty-five states have stand-your-ground law. In Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi there is a stand-your-ground law and we have to fight it. We have to fight to ban assault weapons and access to those kinds of high-powered weapons in the streets. We have to fight to end voter suppression laws. At least those three things have to be high priority. Stop voter suppression laws, stop stand-your-ground laws and revive the ban on assault weapons.  

B.E.S. II: So the triumph that will be born out of the tragedy in Florida is the legislative change or bigger than that?

Rev. Jackson:  It’s the way people are aware and how they respond. There’s a case in Chicago where a man was shot 28 times by police and he is about to be sentenced. There is another case in Chicago where an autistic kid was shot and killed by police. You’ve got Diallo in New York and Trayvon in Florida. So the hope is that it will arouse a new energy, a new fight for justice for the Trayvon in your town and for justice overall and certainly against violence. That means blacks will become less tolerant of crime, violent crime and certain for black-on-black crime.  We must take a different position on violence overall and this issue has at least caused us to look at that issue in a new light.  

B.E.S. II: In some instances Trayvon has been called a modern-day Emmett Till, sparking a national consciousness and debate. Given the outcry and action that has been borne out of this situation, is it possible to create a sustainable movement for change from this?

Rev. Jackson:  If our goals are clear, yes. If our goal is to turn this anger into massive demonstration and actionable change, yes. If you have your voter’s registration card underneath your “hoodie” headed to the polls, it’s a big deal; if not, you’re just hoodwinked. What Dr. King knew, and what he taught us is that it wasn’t the moment; it was the movement. The moment is but a minute, it becomes a fad, but the movement is where sustainable change takes place.  It took us nine years to get from the back to the front of the bus. It took us ten years to go from the front of the bus to the right to vote. So it’s not the sensation of the moment but the effort over the long haul.  

B.E.S. II: You bring up a point that brings up generational issues. We live in a generation that looks for immediate results – a fast food, microwave generation if you will. If I don’t feel or see the change today or tomorrow, I’m disheartened and the effort is not sustained. How do we adjust to or deal with that?

Rev. Jackson:  Well, in some ways I understand that. Obviously we have to keep fighting, but when you see that the banks got immediate change, the insurance companies got immediate change, the automotive industry got immediate change. The people need and deserve immediate change. They need an infusion of jobs and targeted job training now. We need good public transportation and access to jobs now. So a key to sustainable social change is immediate change and equity in economic opportunities for low-income and middle-income families to get back on track again, otherwise there is a growing social unrest.

B.E.S. II: As a pioneer and international leader, what are your words of advice for the next generation of African-American leaders?  

Rev. Jackson:  Maintain the gains and keep pushing forward. Maintain the gains of the past and keep pushing forward. Stem the tide of backwards movement and thought, then focus on maintaining the gains that we’ve achieved and keep pushing forward to complete unfinished business!