Missionary of peace

Options Magazine, 11 May 2009

A handshake symbolises many things: a greeting or to say goodbye, a partnership or
a sign of respect, even an apology or forgiveness...it’s a gesture layered with various meanings. In the case of Reverend Jesse L Jackson Sr however, a handshake has meant the freedom of some prisoners of war. It is something he has been doing since the 1980s in his efforts as a social justice activist.

When American naval aviator Lt Robert Goodman was shot down over Lebanon and captured in 1983, Jackson travelled to Syria to personally appeal to Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to secure Goodman’s release. In 1984, Jackson travelled to Havana to meet Cuban President Fidel Castro to negotiate the release of 22 Americans being held by Castro’s government. During the Kosovo War, Jackson travelled to Belgrade in 1999 to meet then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, where he secured the release of three US prisoners of war. In the same year, he brokered a ceasefire in war-ravaged Sierra Leone.

With us, Jackson’s handshake is warm, friendly and welcoming. He stands at a towering 6ft 4in, but quite honestly, we had imagined him taller and bigger.

Perhaps it is because of all the stories we’ve read of his efforts as the founder of the Rainbow?PUSH Coalition and of his time spent with the great Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps, it is because we’ve watched too much American TV that we expected his build to match his larger-than-life personality.

We meet him at Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur’s executive lounge on the 33rd Floor, where he is meeting the media before delivering his keynote speech, “Building a culture of peace and development in the globalised world”, at the Multimedia University in Cyberjaya as part of the Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace, a programme facilitated by The International Peace Foundation.

We catch him taking in the view of Kuala Lumpur afforded by the lounge’s large glass window.

How’s the view, we ask.

“I’m impressed,” he says before helping us to our seats. Before we can begin, Jackson begins by moving our chairs closer to him. “It’s more comfortable this way.”

Jackson is without a doubt a skilled orator — dynamic, colourful, persuasive, On TV, he is always seen as foreboding and fired up. Right now, in front of us, he is surprisingly soft; his southern drawl is ever so charming, but our untrained ears forced us to listen more intently to catch certain words.

His speech is rhythmic; his phrases, always catchy. Throughout the interview, we are delivered a few. “We need to see a nation through a door and not a keyhole. “We must be measured by our characters. We have the same needs. Our foreign policies should not be foreign to our values.” “Religion should free us... not imprison us.” And best of all, “We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to end killing in our lifetime,”

Can we get an “Amen”?

We recall one of his most memorable quotes that people still use today: “If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.” These kinds of mantras that Jackson is famous for have helped many people believe in themselves. Jackson, after all, is a great believer in the power of the people can achieve.

Calmly accepting what happens and not trying to change things is a concept he is unfamiliar with.

He is in the midst of organizing a delegation to Iran where Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi has been sentenced to eight years in prison by Iran’s Revolutionary Court on charges of espionage. Visas have been applied for and Jackson hopes that his delegation will get the necessary approval to undertake the mission to Tehran.

Jackson was born Jesse Louis Burns on Oct 18, 1941, in Greenville, South Carolina. His mother, Helen Burns, was only 17 at the time, and she raised him on her own. Young Jesse found a father figure in Charles Jackson, whom his mother married when he was three. He took on the name Jackson when he was 15.

Segregation was prevalent where Jackson grew up.

“In South Africa, there was racial apartheid. They leant apartheid from South Carolina. South Carolina was slave state, the state where the first shot was fired in the civil war. But with that confederate environment were homes, churches, schools, with love and security, and the will to fight. Africa Americans could not be policemen firemen. African-Americans could not use public facilities or visit the zoo. All the things that make up the broad part of society we could not partake in,” he says solemnly.

As a teenager, Jackson turned out be a bright student and a good athlete. In fact, he was so good that he was offered a contract by the Chicago White Sox but declined because a white player was given so much more money. It said that, at the same time, he also turned down an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois as he was told that as a black student, he could not expect to play quarterback.

He speaks of a time in 1960, when he and his classmates were inspired by their local pastor who gone to Alabama to join demonstrations led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Never having been allowed to use the Greenville public library, which was for “Whites Only”, Jackson and his classmates were finally “determined to do so, and so we did.” So on July 16, 1960, Jackson and his classmates were arrested for trying to use the public library, on account of their race.

What’s remarkable is that already he displayed an admirable amount of pride and dignity as a young man.

Jackson says, “My father (Charles) was drafted and served the army in both world wars. He would fight in the wars for his country and come home with comments that Nazi prisoners of war had more rights than the black soldiers did. He fought fascists abroad while racism was prevailing at home. The sense of dignity in my household was the effect of that.”

Jackson ended up attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, an institution with a mostly black student body in Greensboro, and moving on to the Chicago Theological Seminary for his graduate work.

So why theology?

He says, “I was inclined to law school at one point because I was impressed by lawyers who handled civil rights cases. And they would go into court, be prepared and confront the judges and win the big cases. Then I met Dr Samuel (DeWitt) Proctor who told me that based on my interests, the seminary would offer me a broader education. In theology is law, culture, history and science.

In theology, you were dealing with everything from life to death and after death. It was the right decision to make because the struggle to break down barriers to make the world better is my life.”

It was at the seminary that he would read the works of Paul Tillich and other theologians as well as the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. It was here that he was counselled by Proctor to model his career path after King’s and to subscribe to the same civil rights platform of non-violent protest within the context of religious and moral values. And it was here that he joined the Congress of Racial
Equality (CORE) and soon after, ended up leading it.

According to his self-titled 2005 biography authored by Roger Bruns, it was here that the civil rights activist within him emerged, and he and his troops “staged ‘watch-ins’ at theatres, ‘eat-ins’ at restaurants and ‘wade-ins’ at swimming pools”.

Jackson deferred his studies arid joined Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965. He was named head of the Chicago branch of Operation Breadbasket, a programme to persuade American businesses to hire blacks and to get companies to sell products made by blacks. He helped found the Chicago Freedom Movement in 1966 to press for integrated schools and open housing. King took him under his wing and Jackson was right beside him up until the day he was assassinated in 1968. And while Jackson was seen as the natural successor to King, the protégé could never quite garner the same full support from the black community as his mentor.

That of course did not deter Jackson, who was finally ordained a Baptist minister in 1968. He continued to focus his efforts on Chicago and in 1971, established PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), which would continue to work for the improvement of African- Americans.

While Jackson’s efforts were focused on African-Americans, it was not reserved for them. He soon established himself as a social justice activist, solidifying his reputation when he travelled to Syria in 1983 to personally appeal for the release of captured American naval aviator Lt Robert Goodman, who had been shot down over Lebanon. It was then that Jackson became increasingly active on the political scene and sought the Democratic nomination for president of the US in 1984.

His bid for presidential nomination was backed by the Rainbow Coalition, an organisation he founded that was named for the groups of colour, working poor, homosexuals and white progressives it represented. He ran a strong race but lost to former US vice-president Walter Mondale. He ran again in 1988 and although he was once again unsuccessful, no one could argue his presence at the Democratic national convention.

In retrospect, Jackson says it was a “defining moment” in his life. “On July 16, 1960, I was jailed for using the public library. Then on July 17, 1984, I was speaking at the democratic convention in San Francisco, 24 years and to the day. That was the day (in 1960) I started my struggle to pull down walls and build bridges. And I’ve never stopped.”

Since then, Jackson has acquired many nicknames, including “the Great Unifier” arid “Conscience of the Nation”. The latter, many of his critics argue, is questionable or undeserving. Yes, there have been a number of controversies on his part but perhaps many forget that he is still human, flaws and all.

However, Jackson stands out as an individual because his efforts for most part of his life has been for the greater good, breaking down barriers in his homeland and in other parts of the globe, in the hope of a better tomorrow for everyone regardless of race, colour and creed. And that, no one can take away from him.

The Declaration of Independence is the US’ most cherished symbol of liberty. It declared “certain unalienable rights”, including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. That document, which envisioned equality for all citizens of the US, was drafted in 1776.

More than 180 years later, African- Americans were still not afforded these rights and the uprising began to crescendo in the late 1950s.

Then in 1963, on Aug 28, Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and evoking the name of Lincoln in a speech, now entitled “I Have A Dream”, he addressed the participants and supporters of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC. This speech was credited with mobilizing supporters for desegregation and prompted the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Jackson says, “That speech wasn’t about a dream, but about a broken promise. Didn’t you promise us full citizenship? Didn’t you promise to end slavery? The US Supreme Court, after 58 years, ruled that apartheid — or American segregation was illegal. For the next 54 years, the many marches and martyrs and jail cells, the protests and sacrifices produced a result born of suffering, character and faith.

“And so really after 54 years of struggle, tearing down legal walls, cultural walls, racial walls and gender walls, we were able to build a bridge this year... when Barack (Obama) crossed the bridge and became president. Barack is an intergenerational link, the evolution of our struggle, from raw segregation and terrorism to a more mature America today... America is more mature, it is less fearing of women and people of colour.

“We got the right to vote in 1965. There was a time when blacks couldn’t vote: white women couldn’t sit on juries either. Those of 18 years couldn’t vote either. You couldn’t vote bilingually either. It took overcoming a lot of harriers to get to this moment. I think in these years, Americans have learnt to live together. More of us go to school than ever before. We work in places together we never worked before. We live in neighbourhoods together we never lived before. We pull for the same athletic teams. We now live in a more global society.

“At the Olympics in Beijing, we pulled for the uniform colour not skin colour. Whether it’s a ball team from New York or a hall team from Georgia, we’re looking at uniform colour and not skin colour. In the past, we had to learn how to survive apart; we have now learnt how to live and propose together.

”Far as they’ve come. Jackson still feels unsatisfied with the progress thus far.

Even with that layer of progress, the disparities abound. Inequality between the rich and the poor has grown in America and throughout the world. Structural inequality. Africa-Americans and Latinos have higher infant immortality rates and shorter life expectancy. In home foreclosures we were targeted and clustered into subprime loans even when we qualified for prime loans, for example. There are 2.3 million Americans in prison, and a million are black. We are more likely to be jailed and for longer prison time. Sometimes it’s less crime with more time, but sometimes stereotyping,” he says. “We’re making progress, hut there’s a lot more work to he done. There are definable areas like unemployment, access to capital, industry, technology, land ownership... substantial and obvious.”

Jackson muses, “In my lifetime I have seen some great barriers come down. The Civil Rights Act in 1964 ended legal segregation in public places... we won that battle. The right to vote .. we won that battle. Ended the Vietnam war that was a travesty — we won that battle. Although we seem not to have learnt lessons from that experience, so that battle hasn’t truly been won.

Bringing amnesty back to Haiti... we won that battle before Bush pulled the cord on that. Free Mandela movement, women in the Supreme Court, woman speaker in the house, woman secretary of state... all these are battles that we have won in the last 40 years and so while there is mentionable progress, there is unfinished business. Now we need to enforce a more global view. We must view the world through a door and not through a nationalistic keyhole.
“When some people found out I was here, they called me and said, ‘Jesse, saw you on television. Malaysia’s dangerous over there. And Thailand too.’ I said, ‘Well, you saw me on a television made in Malaysia. That cell phone you’re talking on? Made in Malaysia.’ And so, we are each other’s neighbours. Now, it’s good to be in Southeast Asia as trading partners and not as warring adversaries. Now, how we work out trade relations — that’s taking place around a boardroom table and not on a battlefield.’

We then ask about America’s role in the global movement towards peace. It is then that we see an ever so subtle furrowing of his brows.

“America has in many ways - against the rule of our government ——- served the role. The movement to end slavery didn’t come from the government, it came from the enslaved. The move for women to have the right to vote didn’t come from the government, it came from women. What makes America great, in part, is the right to fight for our rights. The labour movement was not led by the government, it was resisted by the government. Workers fought because they had the right to fight. The civil rights that we have came because of our fight to get it in.” he says.

“We’ve seen a continuous set of walls being torn down and bridges built. As we now look at globalisation, we’ve seen what happened in globalisation of capital without global oversight. Suppose in the Olympics in Beijing, we didn’t have referees and umpires, it would’ve been chaotic. Suppose you have a World Cup soccer match without a referee and depend on the teams to self-regulate, it wouldn’t work. Our global economy, they tried to self-regulate without global oversight. Greed and corruption abound in the whole global economic system. And so, if we globalize capital, we must also globalise human rights, and workers’ rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, environmental protection.”

If all that Hollywood has been selling us is to be believed, then America is indeed a country built on dreams. Jackson is a great believer of dreams, but what he sells us is the courage to dream boldly. What he has taught us through his story is that dreams don’t come through on their own; they need to be coupled with will and inner strength.

“Even if you’re down, you can dream up,” he tells us with a smile. “There’s a power in dreaming. People can terrorise your environment, reduce your will. [Back when we were fighting segregation] there was something within us that told us we deserved to be free. Something outside said that we didn’t. You always need to keep your inner strength and outer vision.”

When Jackson is not coining catch-phrases and positive mantras masses, he quotes King amid because it is their principles t his own in his efforts to human rights.

“Dr King and Mahatma Gandhi taught us to keep our eyes on the prize, focus on the moral centre and fight and non-violently for what is right rather than what is expedient, then we can truly change the world,” he says. “We live in one of those change moments.

“Every generation has its struggle. Today’s struggle isn’t about hut equality. Freedom is a prerequisite to equality. It’s a free world we have today, but less equal. If we’re going to have trade, it has to be fair trade. We need equality of access to goods, services and resources.

“Science has dwarfed distance. Because you can move so quickly. Push a button and you can send your thoughts halfway around the world. In that essence, the risk we run is that our technology might outdistance our sense of it inanity and our sense of morality so that in the push-button high-tech text-messaging world, those who have access to the technology and inside track of information simply leave those behind even further behind. So now we have extreme poverty and extreme wealth in a developed society. The reaction to that is terror. Economic terror which leads to physical terror. We must end the conditions that make people become so estranged that they are willing to self-demolish and take others with them. We must make life liveable for all people.”

At this time, we are interrupted by a member of the International Peace Foundation who tells us that our time is up.

Jackson smiles encouragingly and says, “They can’t stop you.”

Power to the people? With his grace, we push our luck for a few extra minutes with the Rev and ask him who Jesse L Jackson is when he’s at home.

He laughs and says, “I’m in Malaysia looking for a copy of The Edge.” He claps his hands in delight that we are laughing along at his joke.

“One of the things I try to do at home exercise. For a long time, I did Stairmaster and the treadmill. Lately, though, I’ve become a great devotee of Bikram yoga. I always thought that yoga was a lot of chanting, a passive, religious ceremony. But Bikram yoga, as you know, is your 105F hot-room, 90 minutes of stretching and exercise. Ever done it? You ought to try it. I find it quite relaxing at the same time. Jess Jr asked me to go for a long time. It’s really about breathing, a lot of stretching and detoxifying. It’s a challenging 90 minutes.

Apart from yoga, Jackson finds solace in music (“soothing to the soul”) and traveling.

“One has to come to Malaysia and Indonesia to appreciate just how the world is now,” he says, adding that when he was making his mission trips to bring wrongly imprisoned Americans home, “if possible, I always took my children with me. When Mandela came out of jail, my son Jesse Jr was there, He was one of the first young Americans to shake Mandela’s hand. When I was bringing Americans home from Cuba, Syria, Yugoslavia and Liberia, I always had them with me if possible, to see more.”

His children with wife Jacqueline Lavinia Brown (since 1963) are Santita Jackson, Jesse L Jackson Jr., Jonathan Luther Jackson, Yusef Dubois Jackson and Jacqueline Lavinia Jackson.

“Jesse Louis is a congressman, Yusef is a lawyer and an entrepreneur, Jonathan is an MBA and he’s in business, Santita is working as a radio and TV producer and a singer and has her own television talk show and Jacqueline’s still doing her PhD... so they’re on their way,” he says proudly.

With that, we part ways, and not before giving each other the universal symbol of friendship and respect — the handshake.