Common ground is not racially bound, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a discussion of his life, legacy and the work of his friend and fellow civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. at Friday’s 10:45 a.m. morning lecture in the Amphitheater on Aug. 17.
He was joined in conversation by the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, in a crossover of Week Eight’s theme, “The Forgotten: History and Memory in the 21st Century,” and the week’s interfaith theme, “Not to Be Forgotten: A Remembrance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
“We move along in just trying to remember — I think, which is a very important thing — the role that King played in the life of all of us, of all of the things that Jesse and I and others have gone through,” Campbell said. “We take a look now at what’s before us today and what we learned from yesterday and how we will behave in a country much in need of what it is that these people of the past have given to us.”
Campbell is an ordained Christian Church and American Baptist Church minister. She presided as the first female associate executive director of the Greater Cleveland Council of Churches; the first female executive director of the U.S. office of the World Council of Churches; the first ordained female general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA; and the first female director of religion at Chautauqua Institution from 2000 to 2013.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and Chautauqua’s senior pastor, moderated the conversation. He opened by offering condolences to Jackson for the death of soulful, musical icon Aretha Franklin, who passed Thursday. Jackson and Franklin were longtime friends.
Franklin, the daughter of Baptist minister and civil rights activist C. L. Franklin, was around Jackson and the civil rights movement often, campaigning and fundraising for Jackson and his cause. Jackson visited her on her deathbed, to which he said: “I had the chance to feel the warmth of her hand one more time and to kiss her forehead. It was hard to let go.”
Robinson asked, in a week honoring civil rights activists, specifically King, is his work ever romanticized? He turned to Jackson, who worked closely with King directing Operation Breadbasket.
“Sometimes we become sentimental, and we over-conceptualized him,” Jackson said. “Next year will be the 400th year since African-Americans came here enslaved. We didn’t come as immigrants looking for a better life; we did not come as refugees in desperation. … Segregation was more violent than slavery. … Dr. King emerges out of that context.”
Campbell recalled King’s time in Cleveland, where he met with various congregations across the city campaigning against poverty and discrimination, while fighting to elect the first African-American mayor. At a meeting, King said he visited every black congregation in the area, but had yet to visit a white congregation. Campbell, being “young and naive,” invited King to her church.
Her decision was met with passive resistance; members went as far as to propose renovating the chapel during King’s scheduled visit.
“But the church had in it many more people who wanted him there than people who were fearful to have him there,” Campbell said. “They were the courageous ones. … The troublemakers became more so — more noise — but the people determined to have him also increased.”
By the time of King’s sermon, thousands of people surrounded the church — that church was never the same again, she said.
“One of the concerns Dr. King had was that we have been taught to learn the lesson well of how to survive apart — never been taught how to live together, which is our challenge,” Jackson added. “Racism, after all, is unscientific. It is well-taught. It’s a social order. Someone has to unteach a lesson learned well. The question is, will the church be a teacher or an extension of the bad lesson?”
Robinson went on to ask how King and Jackson always found the strength to preach hope, despite the seemingly hopeless circumstances.
Jackson described a wall; on one side, ignorance, fear, hatred and violence. On the other side, the people. It is not those who are evil who control the people, he said, but rather those in power over the wall. King’s philosophy: to pull the wall down takes strength, Jackson said.
He marked the immense growth in dismantling the wall, from African-American chief executive officers to redefined football rivalries, while also acknowledging politicians’ efforts to reverse this growth.
“There is a trend now to turn that back,” Jackson said. “Trump can turn the clock back, but he cannot turn time back. We ain’t going back.”
Robinson looked to current movements, like Black Lives Matter, asking how they relate to previous movements.
“Black Lives Matter is a hashtag of the old movements that matter,” Jackson said. “The abolitionists were saying ‘black lives matter’ and the anti-segregationist was saying ‘black lives matter.’ Those who were saying ‘make lynching a federal crime — by the way, lynching is not yet a federal crime, lynching is not yet a federal crime, lynching is not yet a federal crime’ — said ‘black lives matter.’ … Black Lives Matter is a hashtag; it’s the same matter of equal protection under the law.”
Robinson interjected; why is “all lives matter” a bad response, he asked.
“It’s insufficient,” Campbell said.
For Jackson, it’s agreed that “all lives matter,” but the reality is that discrimination against people of color is real and institutionalized — that “blacks were being killed without consequences.”
He related this to football; “Whenever the playing in field is even … and the rules are public and the goals are clear, the referees are fair and the score is transparent, we can accept the outcome.” But in reality, one team — white people — has the upper hand, running half as much for the same first down as a systematically disadvantaged team.
“Something about true and transparency has power, … fairness matters” Jackson said. “Hillary beat Trump by 3 million (votes), and she’s not the winner? It ain’t transparent. It ain’t fair. A ‘one person, one vote’ democracy and you win by 3 million and lose?”
Relating to institutionalized racism, Robinson gestured to the mostly-white audience and asked how people can be “white allies.”
Jackson said to “move from racial battleground to common ground” on affordable, universal health care and to equalize public education because “schools cost less than jails.”
“If the ballplayers can figure it out, surely we can figure it out,” he said. “When the young African-American male put children in the classroom, the president puts them in cages, and those in the church are silent where the cages are — that breaks the rhythm of transparency and fairness. Lebron (James) put children in classrooms, Trump put them in cages and the silence of the church is betrayal.”
Campbell looked out to the audience.
“My friends, we have power,” she told them. “We can make a difference. It is not just a matter of what could be done, what should be done, who else can do it — the fact of the matter is, I look out across all of this space, I know within these rooms and within the people sitting here, there is the possibility, maybe even the probability … that perhaps today we can take one another’s hands and say, ‘Our best selves call us today to something that will guide us into a nation that is more fair, that is more clear about who we are and where we want to be.’ ”
Jackson interjected by reiterating the Golden Rule: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
“The difference between us is not scientific, it is social,” he said.
Robinson closed the lecture by asking if Jackson were to write a letter to the clergy, similar to King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” what would it say?
Jackson said King’s 1963 letter denouncing the church’s intolerance toward injustice planted a seed, which culminated in Alabama’s 2017 special election, where white and black people alike voted a Democrat into office.
“You can’t plant the seed today and say ‘grow,’ ” Jackson said. “Seeds have to germinate, so the people of Alabama are learning to live together.”
Robinson turned to the audience for questions; one attendee asked what King would have thought of Barack Obama’s presidency. From the Affordable Care Act, the Paris climate agreement and bringing the country out of the recession, Jackson said King would have been impressed.
To close, an audience member asked if multiculturalism prevents a common familial culture.
Before answering, Jackson listed off the handles, numbers and contact information for himself and his organization Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a multiracial, multi-issue, progress organization fighting for social change.
“We need not be of one color to have common values,” he said. “I would argue (that) we must move from racial battlegrounds to economic common ground to moral higher ground. If we make that transition, then we’ll make transitions based not upon race, (but) based upon reason. Do we want children in cages or not? Do we want to feed the hungry or not? Do you want to educate children or not? Affordable health care or not? … We must be bond by common values.”
After a standing ovation and roaring applause, Amp attendees rushed to the floor in front of the stage as Jackson shook hands and led attendees, Campbell and Robinson in prayer:
“Let us bow our heads in prayer and join hands. Join our hands and bow our heads in prayer. We pray especially today for the sick; if Aretha had had no insurance, she would have been dead 10 years ago. We pray to God for the health care of all of his children. We pray to learn to live together as brothers and sisters and not die apart as fools. For grieving families everywhere, we pray. For those who died in our cities, we pray for them. Those in the coal mines of Appalachia, we pray for them. We pray for each one of us to have a more perfect union, a better nation and a more fit nation. So touch our hearts. We fall down sometimes. We make mistakes. We get up again, same as the sinners get back up again. We fall down and get back up again because the ground is no place for a champion, and nothing is too hard for you, and so see us through. In late years I’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and yet I thank God for saving my life and for sustaining my will to work. One thing I’m sure about is once I was young, but now I’m old. I have never seen you foresake the righteous. Bless us, bless Chautauqua — let this little place be the center of the universe. Let the joy from this place flow to the streets of our nation. Amen.”