ROCHESTER — Civil-rights activist and two-time Democratic presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson came prepared for his Feb. 13 visit to Rochester with a litany of statistics that he said showed how New York’s government has failed its residents.
During his Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address at the University of Rochester (the speech had been postponed from late January), he challenged students to press New York to fight poverty and injustice.
Jackson, 65, the former president of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and the founder and president of the National Rainbow Coalition, worked with King during the civil-rights movement. He said admiration for King is a recent trend; during the 1960s, King was seen as too revolutionary.
“Dr. King was the most hated man in America,” Jackson said during a press conference prior to his speech. “Most whites had learned to hate him, and most blacks had learned to fear him.”
At times speaking in terms that were racially charged, Jackson issued a call for action on social-justice issues ranging from a disproportionate rate of incarceration of young black men, to failing schools, to millions of Americans living without health insurance, to urban poverty and affordable housing.
“New York has a 10.4 percent poverty rate, while the national average is 8 percent,” Jackson said.
Though he ran for president in 1984 and 1988, Jackson confirmed during his speech that he is not interested in running in 2008. Jackson also declined to endorse a particular candidate, but concluded his evening talk by singling out about a dozen people and convincing them to register to vote on registration forms he provided.
Jackson contrasted escalating college-tuition costs in the United States with rates in India and Pakistan, where he said students are paid to study to be doctors.
“They produce smart doctors, and we produce smart bombs,” Jackson said during the press conference. “It’s a matter of priorities.”
Jackson said funding has been cut from Pell grants and used to fund the Iraq War and defense spending.
“The incentive is to go to war and not to go to school,” Jackson said.
Jackson also spoke about the politics of incarceration, which he contended is racially motivated. He said 10 upstate New York counties make a majority of their revenues off of industrial jail complexes. Most of those in prison are nonviolent offenders there on drug charges, he said.
“There are more young black and brown men in prison than in college,” he said.
Hearkening back to his friend Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson contended King’s legacy has been co-opted to make it more palatable. For example, King’s “I have a dream” speech, which was given during the 1963 March on Washington, was more about broken promises than about dreams, Jackson said. Speaking 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, King said although all citizens were promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, black Americans in the 1960s were still captive to segregation, poverty, discrimination and exile from society.
Over the past four decades, the nation has come a long way, Jackson said, noting that this gives him hope.
“There is no weapon stronger than hope,” Jackson said. “Faith is the substance, but hope is the weapon.”
Jackson said one of the reasons Black History Month is necessary is that he believes the African-American perspective is still not taught enough in U.S. history classes. He cited examples of President Abraham Lincoln’s creation of the holiday of Thanksgiving to thank God for the end of the Civil War, giving it abolitionist roots, and the fact that Wall Street was built on a slave burial ground.
“We should all learn America’s history,” Jackson said.
Jackson advised students to beware of wasting time and to continue fighting for social change. He noted that King had finished college at 19, seminary at 22 and his doctorate at 26, received the Nobel Peace Prize at 35 and was killed at 39. Throughout it, Jackson said, King’s house was bombed, he was stabbed and there was an effort to frame him as a Communist. That history should force students today to take action, Jackson said.
“Students have an obligation because of the bruises and beatings that came out of the struggle, to make this a more perfect union,” he said.
Anthony Plonczynski of Rochester, a master’s degree student at the University or Rochester’s Warner School, said Jackson’s comments about African-American history were a revelation to him.
Another student said he was drawn to Jackson’s call to action.
“He talked about a new dream, and how we can extend the dream of Martin Luther King,” said Carl Chancy, a recent graduate and a member of Omega Psi Phi, an African-American fraternity at the university.