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Jesse Jackson: Black student activism paved the way for Obama

by Jordan Green

The Rev. Jesse Jackson told students and staff at Winston-Salem State University on April 10 that the struggles of the civil rights movement made a new day in American politics possible, exemplified by the Democratic primary contest currently unfolding between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

“We saw a marvelous election in Mississippi,” said the two-time presidential candidate, contrasting the March 11 primary with the violent reaction to civil rights efforts in the 1960s. “Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton engaged in a primary. It used to be known as a whites-only election. In this election, whites voted for a black man. Men voted for a woman. That’s the new America we’ve created.”

Jackson spoke at the university during installation exercises for Chancellor Donald J. Reaves. The topic of the speech was the role and relevance of historically black colleges and universities.

Reaves said historically black colleges and universities have produced 50 percent of all African-American teachers and have contributed significantly to the creation and maintenance of the black middle class. In 1972, he noted, 80 percent of black students enrolled in North Carolina’s university system attended one of five historically black colleges or universities – a share that is now down to 57 percent. He added that historically black colleges and universities face federal budget cuts, and their appeal has declined among black students who enjoy wider educational options since segregation was dismantled about 40 years ago.

Senior Jeromy Bailey, who spoke before Jackson, put it bluntly: “The very existence of HBCUs is being questioned.”

Jackson emphatically credited his success to his experience at a historically black college and university, the rival NC A&T State University in Greensboro. It was there in 1963, during mass demonstrations against segregated public accommodations, that Jackson was catapulted into a position of leadership in the student civil rights movement before going on to become one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants. Jackson said his acceptance to the University of Illinois, a Big 10 school, to play football might have seemed like the realization of a dream, but he actually found more opportunity when he transferred to A&T.

“Everything about the culture said there was nothing beyond football that a black could do,” he said of Illinois. “I came to A&T, on the other hand, and there was nothing I couldn’t do…. There were black physicists and engineers.”

Jackson suggested the special role of historically black colleges and universities, which now accept students of all races, is recognizing the potential of black students who might get lost in the mix at a larger school.

“When I came from Illinois I was not eligible for student loans,” he said. “There’s always subjective latitude for someone you care about and are sensitive to and see the twinkle of possibility in. These schools are the best at educating students for the broad society, not to live on one side of town, but to become mayors and city council persons.”

Jackson said the black struggle of the 1960s for the right to vote redounded with benefits for other groups that had until then not been able to fully participate in American democracy. For example, he said, white women couldn’t serve on juries and poor white farmers couldn’t vote in Alabama in the 1960s before civil rights activists challenged exclusion. Jackson recalled that as a student protest leader at A&T he coordinated with students from Winston-Salem State University.

“Our historically black colleges and universities became the agents of change for a whole society,” he said. Those efforts rippled across the political spectrum, extending access to other previously disenfranchised groups, Jackson said. He ticked off a series of years that saw voting rights expand: 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18; 1974, when college students were allowed to vote and run for office in their places of residence; 1975, when bilingual ballots were approved for precincts where sizeable numbers of non-English speakers live; and 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act ensured access to the polls for people with vision, hearing and other limitations.

Jackson’s career in electoral politics, which saw him fall short of the Democratic nomination for president in 1984 and 1988, hinged on that theme. Alongside Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and New York Mayor David Dinkins, Jackson championed a multicultural political movement based on the premise that the agenda of black America could be joined with those of other constituencies for mutual advancement. He returned to that theme in Winston-Salem, suggesting that racism has held back whites alongside blacks. “Most poor people are not black; they’re white,” Jackson said. “Most poor people are not on welfare; they work every day.”

He framed the contrast between Obama’s successful post-racial politics and his own frustrated multiculturalism as a matter of time and progress, part of a succession of milestones such as the desegregation of the armed forces in the 1950s and breaking of the color barrier in baseball at about the same time. “America’s twenty years more mature,” he said. “We’re more ready now.”

The United States was not ready for a black president in 1988, he suggested.

“We talked to poor farmers in Iowa,” Jackson recalled. “They said, ‘We like what you’re saying, but we’re not ready yet.’ We kissed babies and took pictures together. Those babies are now twenty years old and they’re voting for Barack.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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