On Thursday evening, renowned civil rights activist and political figure the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to a small audience in Randolph Hall about the ongoing need for civic defiance and political participation. The speech was a part of Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition campaign, an effort seeking to register 100,000 new voters across the state of South Carolina in the months leading up to the February primary and the general election in November. Rev. Jackson has gained prominence over the past several decades through his ties to Martin Luther King Jr., his campaigns for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and ’88, and his ongoing activism in the fields of civil rights, gender equity and social justice. He was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.
“We’re in a very critical season of struggle,” intoned Jackson before giving a brief history of slavery and its role in Charleston’s history. He pointed to the Charleston Nine as an example of a people choosing “redemption over retaliation.” Jackson stressed the necessity of mercy and peace, but also noted that every act of great change requires an act of defiance. “To be an abolitionist was an act of defiance, to fight segregation, to support women’s vote, to support workers’ rights, was an act of defiance,” he remarked. Jackson pointed to the tendency to value martyrs over “marchers”, highlighting the need not only for extraordinary events but also small, consistent acts of defiance to bring about social change.
Rev. Jackson spent a large portion of his address talking about “the New South.” He spoke about the recent hot button issue of the Confederate flag and reminded critics of its removal from that the statehouse that “your grandfather didn’t die for that flag. He died for the first Confederate flag. That was the second Confederate flag, the flag of segregation.” Jackson said the removal of the flag was a step in the direction of defiance over compliance, in the “tug of war over the soul of America.” Companies like Boeing and Continental Tire have invested heavily in the South in recent years and Jackson argued that continued economic development hinges on racial harmony. “We must move from racial battleground to economic common ground,” he asserted, “and then to moral high ground.”
Jackson closed by encouraging students to register to vote where they attend school, not where their parents live. “We have opted out of activity” and that is lethal to progress, he said. His main policy areas of concern, which he encouraged students to get involved in, were access to voting, healthcare, education, gender equality, corporate justice, and ending for-profit prisons.