Selma on my mind

Jesse Jackson returns to Florida to rally his troops. Can a reference to a landmark civil rights event be far behind?

Published November 30, 2000 12:04AM (EST)

Freelance civil rights statesman Jesse Jackson was in Florida on Tuesday, leading a protest against what he called widespread racist behavior that suppressed minority voting on Election Day. It's a return trip to Florida for Jackson, who was fresh on the scene Nov. 8 with allegations of voter intimidation and tales of disenfranchisement in which voters were needlessly turned away from polls.

"I marched in Selma 35 years ago for the right to vote, to count," Jackson told protesters in West Palm Beach. "We've marched too much, bled too profusely and died too young. We must not surrender."

Proof of any systematic racist plot to suppress the vote hasn't materialized. But that won't necessarily keep Jackson from invoking Selma, Ala., and the historic march to nearby Montgomery, Ala., organized by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 to increase black voter registration. He likes to refer to Selma. A lot. In fact, he nearly named his son "Selma."

But is he a little loose in his use of the landmark civil rights event? Here are some other references he's made to Selma in recent years. You be the judge:

Questioning the commitment of white women to affirmative action on CNN's "Both Sides" in March 1995, Jackson said: "Thirty years ago, basically blacks marched across the bridge in Selma, or tried to, and were beaten back by horses, and the feeling is that many blacks paid big dues, died in this war for change, but there has been a relative silence by white women in this debate of affirmative action."

Protesting against the lack of racial diversity in Academy Award nominations in Los Angeles in March 1996, he said: "Hollywood in the '90s is as racist as Selma in the '60s."

Protesting against a California anti-affirmative-action proposition in San Francisco in August 1997, he said: "You may have missed Selma and Washington and Birmingham, but your time has come."

At an anti-police brutality protest in New York in April 1999, he said: "This is not just a New York struggle. The Selma march was not just about Selma, and the fight for criminal justice is not just about New York. This is about the soul of America."

Regarding the ongoing civil strife in Sierra Leone, Jackson wrote in Newsweek in June 1999: "If Americans could see the carnage in Sierra Leone, they would be upset ... when there were pictures of marchers being terrorized and brutalized in Selma, blacks, whites, Jews and Gentiles responded."

About the suspension of six black high school students after a football game brawl in Decatur, Ill., in November 1999, he said: "Just as Birmingham was about affording public accommodations for all Americans; in Selma, the right to vote, here is the right for a quality education for all of our youth."

Protesting a proposed landfill on the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights trail in Alabama in September, he said: "If the old America was born in Philadelphia, the new America was born somewhere between Selma and Montgomery."

At a get-out-the-vote rally at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., on Nov. 3, he said: "You don't have to march from Selma to Montgomery, you don't have to face dogs, you don't have to face a governor blocking school doors. Just wake up early in the morning and let's take a break for hope and healing."

Additional reporting by Mahvish Jafri.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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