Jesse Jackson reminds us of the true meaning of Thanksgiving

"In the spirit of Thanksgiving, you must think about feeding somebody besides yourself"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published November 22, 2018 5:08PM (EST)

Rev. Jesse Jackson   (AP/Rich Fury)
Rev. Jesse Jackson (AP/Rich Fury)

As many of us pile our family tables with all of the traditional Thanksgiving fixings — the turkey and the pumpkin pie, the cranberry sauce and the gravy, and all of the vegetables that few people actually eat — there are millions in this country who will go hungry. While we profess gratitude for our food, they have no food to be grateful for.

Jesse Jackson, the man whose 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns kept progressive ideals alive during the doldrums of Ronald Reagan's presidency by championing New Deal liberalism on economic issues, insisting on humanitarianism in foreign policy and prioritizing social justice for women and racial minorities with a campaign that inspired millions of young people and revitalized a left-wing that had been left moribund by years of political neglect has some advice on how to handle the holidays during the Trump era.

"As families gather during the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, many of them — myself included — have relatives with diametrically opposite political views, relatives who voted for Trump, relatives who are even to the right of Trump," I recently asked Jackson. "How do we function in that situation? How do people remember to love their kin while at the same time not loving the political opinion espoused by their kin? And I suppose I’m asking this of you as much as a reverend as I am as a political figure."

At a time when bigotry against a myriad of marginalized communities appears to be accelerating, how do those who embrace the ideals of the Rainbow Coalition literally break bread with those who believe an avowed racist needed to become president to Make America Great Again? In his answer, Jackson centered the poor.

"I remember that Thanksgiving is not about a food festival and farmers. It is a national holiday, proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln, to thank God for saving the Union, ending the Civil War and a prayer to end slavery. It's national, it's not annual food farming festival. You know what I’m saying? It’s a national holiday by executive order. It’s there for that reason. It has political dimensions of Thanksgiving. That you can’t look at 13 million children who are hungry. You can’t just eat supper and argue about your opinion about who’s in power. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, you must think about feeding somebody besides yourself."

He added, "And that’s a program against hunger and malnutrition."

That is why I hope progressives who celebrate Thanksgiving this year keep the feast itself in mind as they try to talk to their conservative relatives. The food isn't just a farm festival, as Jackson pointed out, but a literal reminder of what we have that others do not. By mentioning this to those relatives who deplore our political beliefs, we make it possible to bring those ideas beyond the realm of immediate partisan politics and into the transcendent. We tie the meaning of this holiday directly into one of the core issues that defines left-wing ideology.

Jesse Jackson was right when he preached this message thirty years ago, and his spiritual successors are right when they do so today.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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