Reflections on 50 Years of Struggle
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, August 24, 2013.
What a blessing it was to have been here 50 years ago as one of the host of witnesses, excited and fresh from jail in Greensboro, North Carolina. To hear the collective voices of Walter Reuther from labor; the booming voice of A. Phillip Randolph; Floyd McKissick, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, Mahalia Jackson, Dr. King, Bayard Rustin and to stand with Dorothy Height, Walter Fauntroy, Jackie Robinson, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays and so many others.
I had been to jail twice, once in South Carolina and once in North Carolina. Thank God for allowing me to be a part of an increasingly small group of witnesses who have been long-distance runners. We changed the South and the nation. Across these years we’ve connected Mason and Dixon. We couldn’t have had the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina and the Atlanta Falcons in Georgia behind the cotton curtain. We couldn’t have had LSU in Baton Rouge and Alabama in Tuscaloosa playing in the big game; or the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia; nor could we have had the auto industry – Toyota, Hyundai and BMW – in the South. Southern Governors tried to block those New South opportunities. Our movement tore down walls and built bridges. Ironically, many who tore down the walls lay beneath the rubble while those who resisted now benefit from the new bridges. And yet we’d do it all again. It’s by grace, not by gratitude and false praise that we go forward with hope and not backwards with fear.
It was important to support the living dream that was addressing the challenges of its day. The dream of 1963 was not the dream of 1968. In 1963 we addressed the barbarism of that day. From Texas to Florida up to Maryland, we couldn’t use a single toilet. We couldn’t swim in the city swimming pool or skate at the skating rink. We couldn’t buy ice cream at the Howard Johnson or rent a room at the Holiday Inn. There was not a Black juror in the South. Only registered voters can serve as jurors. DC was under military lockdown with an appointed Mayor. The dream that day was to address the segregation, barbarism and racial animus.
The dream in 1964 was for a Public Accommodations Bill – make barbarism illegal. The powerful words expressed by Dr. King reflected the historical longings of those who for too long had been locked out. Black soldiers had to sit behind Nazis on trains and military bases. The American flag flew gently above them in the breeze. The dream lifted us from the stench of the blood of Medgar Evers; the smell of southern jail cells; they sentenced us to penitentiaries in Louisiana; they burned the buses of freedom riders in Alabama; they bombed babies in Birmingham; they conducted a terrorist attack on President John F. Kennedy. It was this blood and these martyrs that gave urgency and content to the dream of 1964 – the need for a Public Accommodations Law.
After the 1964 challenge of the Mississippi Freedom Party, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, and the Bloody Sunday of March 7, triggered by the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson, the killing Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney, the shooting of Ms. Viola Liuzzo, the beating death of Rev. James Reeb, the state police trampling of John Lewis, Rev. Hosea Williams and Mrs. Amelia Boynton – the dream of 1965 was a Voting Rights Law.
The dream of 1966 was open and fair housing in Chicago. We were met with violent resistance.
The dream of 1967 – the Poor Peoples’ Campaign – believed that there should be a foundation of education, health care, affordable housing and a job below which no American should fall. With great reluctance, Dr. King challenged the Democratic Party, the White House and the Congress he had helped to elect. He argued that we should not shift our policy of a War on Poverty at home to a war abroad in Vietnam. He felt that such a course of finding more security in bombs abroad than bread at home would lead to spiritual death. Bombs dropped abroad would explode in America’s cities. This act of courage put him in isolation from the mainstream, but he said, “I will speak and I will be heard.”
I was blessed to be with him, to watch and listen to him in the moment of ecstasy in 1963; and in the morning of agony in 1968. He felt the air was leaving the balloon of his dream. He felt that our propensity for the arrogance of war was undermining our moral authority in the world. After having met for several days, I was with him in Atlanta when he agonized in our last staff meeting with Dr. Abernathy, Andy and his wife and Mrs. King. He said, “We’re building a resurrection city of tents, shanties and shacks in Washington in front of the Lincoln Memorial where we once spoke of a dream. But today I feel like I’m fighting a nightmare.” He said, “For nearly a week I’ve wrestled with a migraine headache. I thought maybe this is all I can do in 13 years. Maybe I should leave now and head up Morehouse College and write books and travel. Maybe I should stop.” Andy said, “Please don’t talk that way.” He said, “Don’t say peace, peace when there is no peace. Let me talk.” Then he said, “But I can’t quit. If I turn back, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass never quit and they would not accept me if I quit.
“There is disunity in our leadership, going in different directions. While our leadership is different, we are still friends. Maybe if I fast to the point of death, they will come to my bedside and we could reconcile. And then he broke out of his depression. We’re going to turn a minus into a plus. We’re going on to Washington. We’re going to stop by Memphis. We’re going back to the Lincoln Memorial. Maybe we’ll engage in an act of civil disobedience, disrupt traffic in Washington. We must engage in radical sacrifice. It may be the end of us. We must end poverty, racism, militarism and unbridled capitalism.”
His three moods were very much like Jesus’ three moods.
1. Let this cup pass from me.
2. As he prayed, his disciples slept
3. Not my will, but thine be done.
In the last 50 years we’ve seen mountains high and valleys low. We’ve seen the right to vote and its fruits. We’ve occupied offices that we used to not be able to get an appointment in. We’re now Congressman, Mayors and state officials. We’ve had our high moments. The return of Aristide to Haiti; the freedom of Mandela; and the election of President Obama, the crown jewel of our political effort.
And yet today, with all of our vast wealth, military mis-adventurism continues; our subsidy of the wealthy continues; the attack on public education continues; the attack on public transportation continues; attacks on the public post office continue; attacks on small business continue; the largest jail industrial complex in the world continues and is expanding; private prisons with $1.5 billion per year in profits; pre-trial detention up to 5 years; prison labor is expanding; Corrections Corporation of America is on the stock market; just locking up Americans for sport and profit continues. There’s too much hate, too much violence, too many drugs, too many guns in the land. Our dreams are under attack.
Our challenge today may be to create discomfort in houses of power around the nation – in love and non-violence with an appeal for mercy and understanding. There are too many poor people in a nation so wealthy. Today we are free, but not equal. We have closed the separation gap between races, but we’ve expanded the disparity gap between those who live in surplus and those who live in poverty. Free but not equal.
The unfinished business will require both courage and risk. It will require sacrifice. We must dream above the clouds of doubt and fear and cynicism. We still can dream of the constitutional right to vote and an end to the manipulation of voting in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and around to Texas. We still can dream of a new Civil Rights Commission, the conscience of our nation’s government, coming back to life again. We still can dream of picking up the baton of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign and reviving the War on Poverty.
Today, beyond inspiration, we must have a voting rights amendment and appropriations to wipe out poverty and not the poor. The 50 million in poverty and the near poor are unbankable. Their dreams are being squashed. Their hopes dashed. Public housing closed and private housing foreclosed. Facing race profiles and “Stop and Frisk” laws in New York and Stand Your Ground laws and bullets in Florida. There are 31 cities where black male joblessness is above 40% and in 6 cities it’s above 50%.
The march in 1963 was not merely a cultural celebration. It was on the cutting edge of change and the challenges of that day. Thus all of the great marches had a clear political agenda challenging the powers that be and the power that wants to be – to seek relief from misery, anxiety and fear. This season of activity must be no less. All that we fought for is under attack again. We won bloody battles on the fields between 1861 and 1865. The courts took them away with the stroke of a pen in 1896. During this 50-year season, we’ve won bloody battles, but with the stroke of a pen this Supreme Court intends to take it all back – and we won’t go back. We must have a political agenda that is designed to change the legal parameters and discourse of our nation. So it was then. So it must be now. Too many people have been pushed outside the tent of protection. We must end the proliferation of war. We need expansion at home over violence and fear. Revive the War on Poverty with appropriations and allow Dr. King to rejoice in Heaven on his special day.
James Earl Ray, with a bullet, killed the dreamer. We must not kill the legacy of the dreamer and the prophet with mere celebrations and reflections. We too must remain on the cutting edge of today’s challenges. While we may pause to look in the rear view mirror, our challenge is to look out of the windshield. This search for our progress and a more perfect union is real.
We have unfinished business. We want those who are inspired by him to follow him, not just admire him. To admire him is to quote his poetry. To follow him is to pick up the baton that was blown out of his hand. To follow him is to see the Federal budget as a moral document. When the Congress is reconvened and the State of the Union is proclaimed, clearly in this season of too much violence, if we can have the constitutional right to carry guns surely we can have the constitutional right to vote – the very foundation of our democracy.
To follow him is to fulfill his mission. So keep dreaming – student loan debt forgiveness. Keep dreaming – restore public housing and end private housing schemes while bailing out banks. Clearly if we can bailout Wall Street banks, AIG ($175 billion) and the auto industry, we cannot leave Detroit and Birmingham bankrupt and blowing in the wind.
Keep dreaming and use that vote, use those marching feet. When President Obama takes the economy from 4 million jobs down to above the plus zone – stand with him and march for more. And when the President tries to provide health care for all Americans – stand with him. When he bails out our industrial base and gives them a chance to recover – stand with him. When he ends the war in Iraq – stand with him.
Keep dreaming. Stop the “Stop and Frisk” policy and racial profiling because racial profiling is unconstitutional. We should go to higher ground. Instead of “Stop and Frisk,” start “Stop and Employ.” Ask him, “Hey brother do you have a job’? Stop and provide health care, stop and provide head start, stop and build high-speed rail and the cars to go on them; stop and regain trust between the police and the people. Stop and love somebody. We’ve tried loveless justice. It’s too brittle. We’ve tried just love. It’s too sentimental. Dr. King studied Paul Tillich and he was right. We need love, power and justice. But most of all we are not our brothers and sisters “keepers.” We are our brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters. And we want to do unto them, as we would have them do unto us. Those who obtain mercy must be merciful. It’s not merely the color we seek to change, but direction and character. The new vision that we seek – John said it best on the Isle of Patmos in the pit – he saw a new heaven and a new earth. The old one passed away and he promised to wipe aware our tears.
But above all stand with a conscience. Vanity will ask the question, “Is it possible?” Politics will ask the question, “Can we win? But conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” If the principle is right, it may never be popular or politic, but it will prevail. Stand through it all, because there’s hope. Stand on those dreams. You’ve come too far to turn back now. Say to the White House and the Congress, partner with us. Let’s make Dr. King happy again. Make him happy by permanently protecting our right to vote with a Voting Rights Amendment added to the Constitution. Give him the joy of reviving the War on Poverty. Make him happy. Give him the joy of ending more and more high tech wars, of reducing budgets for schools and trauma units. Make him happy.
I know it gets dark sometimes. But this land is our land. We the people – with the help of God – Jew and Gentile, Muslim and Christian, male and female, gay and straight, black, white, red, yellow and brown can heal this land. I know it’s dark sometimes, but the morning cometh. Keep dreaming. Keep healing.
If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will forgive their sins and heal their land.
Keep hope alive.
Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow PUSH.
This is the complete prepared text of Jesse Jackson’s remarks at the March on Washington commemoration.