Jesse Jackson led a delegation to Selma, Alabama, as a graduate student at Chicago Theological Seminary. He marched, moving America to the rhythm of his footsteps and the thousands who organized and participated in Bloody Sunday, to win the franchise for himself, his mother and his people, but also to give credibility and legitimacy to American democracy. No country can claim the qualifier of free as long as it enslaves, stratifies, or subjugates one group of citizens for such a trivial distinction as skin pigmentation.
In the 1980s, Jackson’s historic runs for the presidency democratized the Democratic Party, allowing for proportional allocation of state delegates. The impetus to Jackson’s people-powered campaigns was the success of a “Southern Crusade” for voter registration throughout the Southern United States. From Georgia to California, Jackson spoke everywhere from old chapels losing their paint at the end of gravel roads to elegant banquet halls. With unique rhetorical brilliance and thunderous delivery, his charismatic leadership inspired 2 million Americans, mostly black and poor, to register to vote. At the time, it was the most effective voter registration drive in the history of the country.
Donald Trump, a man who became president precisely to prevent the full multicultural integration of American politics, recently announced the establishment of a commission to study and fight “voter fraud” — an imaginary problem that the right wing uses to smuggle voter suppression tactics in through the customs of law and public opinion.
Jackson, armed with the dexterity of his massive intellect and 50 years of leadership on voting rights, will convene a commission to combat President Trump’s exercise in deception against democratic progress. The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Jackson’s international human rights organization, will assemble historians, activists, journalists and average voters to scrutinize voter suppression, and issue a report to inform the resistance against it.
Among Jackson’s many impressive qualities is his energy. At 76, he continues to work seven days a week, travel extensively, and weaponize the stature of his name to aid and animate causes ranging from fights against racial employment discrimination in Chicago neighborhoods to advocating for the governor of South Carolina — the place of his birth — to accept funds for the expansion of Medicaid.
When he entered his surprisingly modest Chicago office last week, I was waiting for him. He had just flown back home from Washington, D.C., and looked tired, sporting a rare five o’clock shadow. Wearing a black suit with flashy blue Nike sneakers, his 6’3” frame still shows evidence of his years as a college football player. He sat down, his replenishing energy starting to pick up the pace of his delivery with each word, and he ordered me to “start rolling.” Before I could even begin to utter the first words of my first question, he was in the middle of a self-styled Jackson soliloquy.
"The big American contradiction is that many leaders want democracy for the power it gives them, not the opportunities it gives to other people," said Jackson. "Leaders often allow enough democracy for them to justify being in power, but not enough for them to distribute power to other people. That’s how we could have a Declaration of Independence with a call for democracy that would allow democracy and slavery to coexist. Anyone who is interested in democracy for power, and not participation and protection, will allow democracy and segregation, or democracy and voter suppression, to coexist. That is a fundamental flaw — not in democracy, but in those who would use it for their manipulative purposes."
Jackson paused, unable to find the remote on his television playing CNN in the corner of the room, and stood up to turn it off. He then asked that I open his office door, so that he would not feel “claustrophobic.” I considered inquiring into the connection between the failures of America’s foundation and the flaws in America’s current situation, but in a seemingly telepathic interruption, he continued his lecture on the function of power and promise of freedom.
“Let’s apply that elementary truth to modern times. The 6 million Americans who deserve reentry -- they’ve been to prison -- and should become full citizens again, but their basic rights are denied; in Florida it is 1.5 million voters where Hillary Clinton lost by 120,000," he said. "The case in North Carolina -- another battleground -- they moved over 100 precincts from campus locations, school unions, to several miles down the road. That subtle, but significant move, along with other trickery, was so brazen that North Carolina Republican officials bragged that they suppressed the black vote by 8 to 9 percent, which would have more than made the difference in Clinton’s favor.”
As Jackson advanced his argument, he held out his hand, much like Elvis hitting a high note, and shook it ever so slightly, fingers curled. A faint grin took hold of his expression, as he punctuated his point with a sports metaphor. Athletics are second only to Biblical theology for figurative connections in Jackson’s acrobatic oratory.
“It is as if Golden State beats Cleveland in the big game, and the next day the head coach brags about how the entire competition was distorted by unfair enforcement of rules, or a bribed referee. There is no excitement or value left. There is no there there,” he said.
Jackson connects ex-felon disenfranchisement — an obvious holdover from Jim Crow — along with complicating ballot access in North Carolina, an admitted tactic of lowering turnout among university students and black voters throughout the state, with a suspicious discovery in Detroit.
“In that city alone there is the mystery of around 70,000 votes without the top ticket marked,” Jackson explained. “So, in a year without a gubernatorial race, we are to believe that 70,000 Detroit residents showed up but did not cast a vote for president. Michigan is a state Trump won by 11,000 votes.”
Wisconsin is also a subject of Jackson’s investigation. A recent report found that a restrictive voter identification law in that state suppressed 200,000 votes. Fewer than 23,000 votes separated Clinton from Trump when news agencies called the former Democratic stronghold for the Republican nominee.
Major mass media is largely mute on the violation of voter rights, and the dishonest strategy Republicans are using to overcome demographic limitations of their electorate in critical states, preferring to chase the Ian Fleming story of Putin-directed sabotage. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party exposes a streak of pathetic cowardice running through its operational procedure when it too chooses to meekly watch while GOP tacticians abuse their voters.
“Voting is an access card to democracy, or it is a powerball,” Jackson offered. “The most important person on the basketball court,” he said in a continuation of his NBA Finals comparison, “is the referee. Citizens needs to focus on what they are voting for, rather than just who. The fundamental question of democracy -- voting rights -- is the rulebook.”
“We now live under the rulebook of Jeff Sessions. We live under the rules of not Selma, but Shelby, so that the Voting Rights Act is now undercut,” Jackson said referencing the 2013 Supreme Court Case, Shelby County v. Holder, which returned autonomy of voter administration to former Jim Crow states that, under the guidelines of the Civil Rights Act, enforced voter laws with federal supervision. The Shelby decision made certain maneuvers, such as the North Carolina trickery, possible.
Jackson’s voice became deeper, and began to elongate the enunciation of his words as if a pulpit had suddenly appeared in front of his body: “Without understanding the rules, it is possible for people to rule you into an unfavorable condition.”
I remember once hearing an elderly relative lament that Jackson, leading PUSH in the 1970s, through mass protest, shut down a job her husband and other members of a construction crew were set to work. During the decade, Jackson’s aim was to integrate the economy of Chicago, where business owners, even in predominantly black neighborhoods, often refused to hire black workers, trade unions would not admit black workers, and municipal government would not award contracts to black companies. Jackson’s victory — the opening of thousands of jobs for African-Americans — earned him the designation, to quote one historian, of “apostle of economics.”
The frustrations of my relative were easy to understand. Her husband, an ordinary laborer, did not create policy, but the villain in the American drama was not Jackson. It was the racist class of economic and political leadership responsible for the rules of black conditions.
Power, outside the circumstances of a monopoly, is not property solely under the ownership of one deed holder. Access for some not does not preclude opportunity for others. Many white Americans, unwilling to interrogate their own advantages, consistently miss the communal promise of democracy, and believe and behave as if equal opportunity for blacks is an assault against whites.
Voting, Jackson proposes, as the foundation of self-governance and self-determination, is where the conflict between power and participation that he identified at the top of our conversation emerges as most vibrant and visible.
“Whenever we fought for the right to vote,” Jackson confessed, “we were naïve about the anti-vote science of, in fact, fraud -- fraud as in voter suppression. So, we gain the right to vote in 1965, and suddenly the voter registration is in some Klansman’s house all the way out in the country, or you can’t register without a job, and all that foolishness."
"In ’65, we got the right to vote and we were excited, but we did not understand gerrymandering, annexation and other preventive measures," he added. "We did not understand the influence of big money in electoral politics.”
The black freedom quest for equal access to the ballot, Jackson explained, was the hammer blow to the door blocking entry for many Americans’ ability to participate in the political process. From the Voting Rights Act came the allowance of white women to serve on juries, Latinos and others to vote bilingually, and college campuses to establish their own polling stations.
Ralph Ellison warned that history functions as a boomerang. As the object seemed to move forward into friendlier skies, it suddenly shot back with concussive force. Voting, as unlikely as it would seem, has become more difficult in many states. When I asked Jackson to account for the discrepancy between Western European nations, where voting is made easy, and America, which often constructs an obstacle course on the road to the ballot box, he was quick to navigate a struggle he knows all too well as a man whose life illustrates the intersection of biography and history.
“There were three barriers here. One barrier, clearly, was race, because so many Southern states had more African slaves than slavemasters. So, the right to vote meant that slaves would take over, and in fact, many did during Reconstruction. That is what triggered the violent era of lynching, to kill and intimidate blacks out of voting. Also, in many key states, Native Americans could not vote, because there was a white supremacist effort to block them. Class was another barrier. There were more field hands than landowners," he said. "That’s why we vote on Tuesday, because the field hands couldn’t get the time off to vote, but the landowner could get to the ballot to support his interest. Also, in the white male supremacy philosophy, women were historically seen as soft on war and soft on control.”
Jackson paused, and said, “Now, what do I mean by that?”
“In the Civil War, it was Julia Ward Howe who organized a women’s peace movement against the war. Mother’s Day was not about red roses and greetings cards for mothers. It was a women’s day — mother’s call — for peace. There was such hostility toward that from men, calling women all kinds of names. So, women were traditionally more in favor of peace, and more inclined toward ending slavery. Frederick Douglass joined the Women’s Abolition Movement. So, women were seen as anti-established white male supremacy, which meant their suffrage threatened the anti-democratic ethos.”
The only constancy one can discover through all the beauty and brutality of American history is the collision between the two forces Jackson identifies as central to the war theater over universal franchisement. Identity politics, no matter how much historically illiterate conservatives and obtuse but well-intentioned liberals might want to protest, provides the thematic energy circulating through the American story — a story worth telling only if it traces the steady enlargement of freedom and enhancement of opportunity. The American project means nothing if it is not the multiplication of possible identities that can make claim on American citizenship and leadership.
Jesse Jackson is an important author of that story, and he uses his own crucible as testimonial evidence when I ask him to confront the apathy and cynicism of Americans who feel that voting, or traditional politics more broadly, changes nothing.
“I understand the frustration. Someone living in Englewood,” Jackson said in reference to one of Chicago’s most poverty-stricken and crime-ridden neighborhoods, “thinks, ‘I voted for 20 years, and there’s still vacant lots -- still drugs in, guns in, jobs out,’ but change always does take place. I was arrested trying to use a public library. I was arrested trying to use a downtown theater. I was arrested trying to integrate the school board of Chicago. I was arrested with my sons trying to free [Nelson] Mandela. I was arrested trying to get black workers hired to work garbage trucks. So, if you look at what we’ve got in 50 years -- right to vote, EEOC, contract compliance, Medicaid, Affordable Health Care, Environmental Protection Agency -- there’s a whole range of changes that have come our way, but you only appreciate your water when your well runs dry.”
Transitioning into yet another one of his roles -- that of preacher -- he cites the biblical command “count your blessings” as empowerment to beleaguered citizens who worry about the prospect of justice. “You have eyes to see, ears to hear, legs to walk,” he explained. “Once you count all that you have, you run out of numbers. We’ve gone from the bridge in Selma to the White House.”
To consider the blessings of American life, many of them made possible by what Jackson calls “third rail” movements outside the Democratic and Republican Parties — “the train doesn’t move without heat from the third rail” — is to make the fight against contemporary crises of injustice seem much more manageable.
Jackson proposes as repair to a dysfunctional electoral system public financing and a rule prohibiting candidates from raising money from sources outside of their states or districts, depending on if they are seeking statewide office. “A major victory,” as Jackson calls it, is about to take place in Illinois when the state legislature votes for automatic voter registration at the age 18 with a veto-proof majority.
The results of the Rainbow/PUSH commission on voter suppression will likely reveal not a triumph, but a crime — a violation of that which is elemental to the American experiment in self-governance. As Jackson could attest better than most, it is not the first violation, and it certainly will not be the last.
The prideful agency of his famous slogan — “I am somebody” — if transformed into internal inspiration for spiritual combat against morally contemptible rules and rule makers, could actualize his other slogan, “keep hope alive.”