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Playboy Interview: Jesse Jackson
  • October 13, 2011 : 20:10
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Playboy: During the 1968 teachers' strike in New York City, there was evidence of deep-rooted black hostility toward Jews. Is anti-Semitism consistent with your claim of black moral supremacy?

Jackson: In the first place, there were really few examples of black anti-Semitism, and these examples were blown out of all proportion by the teachers' union, which benefited by the dissemination of fear. More significantly, though, I don't think you can characterize blacks as anti-Semites. We have never been obsessed with the Jew as Christ killer. But our relationship with the Jew has changed as the black movement has changed. When blacks began to confront the Southern white power structure, most of which was WASP Baptist and Methodist, Jews gave us great support, both financial and moral, and a real kinship developed. But once the movement moved North and the problem was defined not just in terms of social segregation but in terms of economic colonialism, the Jew began to be revealed as landlord and shop owner. Of course, he is more conspicuous than the Protestant, because his name is likely to identify his ethnic background. And he is also more sensitive: It is much easier to embarrass or humiliate a Jew than either a Protestant or a Catholic, because, unlike the others, the Jew immediately identifies with suffering.

As blacks have emerged, the Jew has been there as teacher and shopkeeper, and there has been an inevitable friction. But I think the mood of the blacks is more one of anti-colonialism than of anti-Semitism. For blacks cannot afford to be anti-people; no matter who the people are, they must be anti-evil. I think the Jews who are most concerned about anti-Semitism, however, should keep in mind that blacks have not exploited Jews at all. We have not owned anything in the Jewish community -- no clothing stores, banks, food stores. The Jewish community, like most others, has a left and a right wing -- some who operate in a tradition of justice and others who violate that tradition. Rather than develop a persecution complex, perhaps it ought to expend some of the energy it spends complaining about black anti-Semitism on the Jewish merchants who are known to be exploiters and tend to pull the reputation of the Jewish community down.

Playboy: Jews, along with Irish, Italian and other immigrant groups, are often held up as an example that the blacks, if they were industrious enough, could emulate. The premise is that those groups were poor and lived in ghettos but were able to overcome that experience and join the American mainstream. Why hasn't that happened to blacks?

Jackson: First, those groups came here voluntarily and were always free. We came here involuntarily and are still not wholly free. The other immigrant groups are white and could lose their identity and merge with the majority when it was necessary; with a few technical skills or a decent education, it was a simple matter for them to bypass prejudice. Their families were not destroyed and their sense of historical continuity was preserved. Most importantly, they did not suffer the tremendous color stigma of the white man.

Historically, there was a conspiracy to hold us down. We were enslaved, then locked into plantations, as we are now locked into ghettos. When America finally released our physical bonds in 1865, it was as if we had been in jail for 200 years and were let out without a road map or a dime to go to the city. There was no attempt to help us overcome the psychological or economic hardships of slavery. Many blacks didn't survive; and of those who did, most had to pervert their natures -- become invisible men, as Ralph Ellison wrote, become hidden, for it was too dangerous to assert one's real identity, one's manhood. No other ethnic group was faced by a hostile white society that wanted to castrate it both physically and psychologically.

Playboy: Then today's black militance is a quest to resurrect that manhood.

Jackson: One thing that I have to say right off is that there's nothing to be learned from the white man's idea of manhood. An American is identified by his weapon, by what he controls. American men are obsessed; they are gratified by making money they can't even spend, which is a kind of emptiness of the soul. Real manhood should be defined by the ability to help and to heal, by an extension of the mind, by knowledge exerting its power over ignorance. Real manhood comes from helping others be free, by breaking the bonds of slavery.

Playboy: Do you mean that metaphorically?

Jackson: Only partly. Many of us have internalized slavery and behave like slaves, responding to the slavemaster when he calls. In some communities, we must fight our own people because they maintain the slave institutions. They are still in awe of Pharaoh and are afraid to confront him. That is a form of slavery. The slave psychology works on a subtle level that warps the black mind. It has been drummed into blacks that whites are the creators and producers and thinkers. Blacks whom we might have respected were taken from us. George Washington Carver's image is one of a docile creature - an old man in a laboratory, bowing to a white child. The fact is that he developed over 300 elements from the peanut and almost singlehandedly revived the Southern economy. A black man, Daniel Hale Williams, was the first open-heart surgeon. There are many, many other examples, but the point is that blacks never knew about them. It was easy to preserve the image of the dull-witted, slow-talking and -thinking black bumbler. There is still a need among blacks for white validation of their efforts. If Tommie Smith and John Carlos had a race tomorrow and both broke their records for the 220-meter dash, and the race were held on a black campus, where all the judges were black, black people wouldn't believe it - and neither would whites. But if it were a white track meet, there'd be no problem. As for our churches, they gave up their soul - and I mean that in both senses - to copy white church styles. That's why at Operation Breadbasket meetings, which are deeply based in religion, we have a band and a gospel choir and consciously try to capture the rhythm of our people.

Playboy: Is the slave psychology the reason for your own fieriness and emotionalism when you address a black congregation?

Jackson: Certainly. I am seeking converts -- not necessarily to religion, although there's that, too. But I want to make my people realize their own selfhood. I begin each service with a chant that says, "I am somebody." It also says, "I may be poor and I may be on welfare, but I am somebody." Because black people have to learn that they have rights just because they're alive. They've got to stop putting themselves down because of an induced inferiority complex. The slave psychology was apparent when Dr. King came out against the Vietnam war. He had all the credentials you could ask for: Nobel Prize winner, an international leader, a scholar and a Ph.D. But blacks said he had a lot of audacity; he's a preacher and should confine himself to civil rights. But when Robert Kennedy and Senator McGovern took the same position, then it was all right. And after Memphis, when SCLC's James Bevel expressed Dr. King's contempt for capital punishment, he was scorned by the black community. He said Dr. King would have wanted James Earl Ray rehabilitated, would have said to fight hatred but spare the hater. Bevel also pointed out the irony of trying to obtain justice by sacrificing a two-bit waiter for a billion-dollar black prophet. But blacks said he was crazy. Then Ted Kennedy said that Sirhan's life should be spared because his brother Robert was against capital punishment. The black community immediately cited Teddy as a great man of justice who didn't become vindictive in the face of personal tragedy. This is a painful indication of our self-contempt. We must stop looking to whites to validate our worth; we must look within for beauty and strength and courage.

Playboy: Your own self-confidence, as contrasted with Dr. King's humility, seems to be of formidable dimensions, and you've been accused of messianic impulses. Do you see yourself as the next great national black leader?

Jackson: First of all, Dr. King was not humble; he was forthright and audacious. He was killed for challenging white power. As for me, I am confident of my abilities as a social analyst, but I have no illusions of grandeur. My job is to proclaim liberty, to preach unity, to bind up broken hearts. I am just taking care of my assignment. Besides, anyone in public life in this violent society who would make such long-range plans is a fool.

Playboy: You certainly expose yourself to the risk of assassination as much as any man. Do you think that you may be subconsciously seeking martyrdom?

Jackson: I want to live. I've got no hang-up with that. But a man must be willing to die for justice. Death is an inescapable reality, and men die daily, but good deeds live forever. An assassin believes that you can kill the dream by killing the dreamer; that is an error.

Playboy: Would you have any special message to leave with black people if you were killed?

Jackson: Yes. Don't send flowers. Don't come around with your tears. Picket. Go to P.T.A. meetings. Fight for higher wages. If I die tonight and you wake up tomorrow, make the most of it.

Playboy: You've been quite sick a few times this year, once with a form of anemia, and also with some very debilitating viruses. Yet you hardly let up on your activities, rarely sleep and constantly drive yourself toward exhaustion. Why?

Jackson: Because I have a sense of urgency about what has to be done. It is not the thought of death so much as it is the crying need for justice. Perhaps both facts motivate me simultaneously. I do feel that I have to fulfill my work in an appointed time. I would like to sleep, but ideas come to me in the night and wake me. I think I'm drawing my stamina from a spiritual source that has been allotted to me; for that reason, I have no choice but to keep on driving. You can't devote the energy necessary to confront Pharaoh unless you are spiritually consumed by the need for liberation. But that is social consciousness, not a messianic need to be worshiped. There are some aspects of glory attached to having the privilege to lead, but none of the agony ever gets publicity, because television cameras don't record people tossing and turning in their beds at night.

Playboy: Inasmuch as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is basically a religious group, it's understandable that religion plays a large role in your life. But what appeal can the church have for a cynical 20-year-old kid from the ghetto?

Jackson: The black church is relevant because it has provided a home for our rebellion. It has cherished our people. The white church, on the other hand, worships worship, not Christ nor love nor brotherhood. God is very sick here; the God of justice and liberty is almost nonexistent. Christianity is universal, but the American flag flies higher than the cross in American churches; and when wartime comes, universal love goes out the window. If Americans had a true God consciousness, they could not leave the church on Sunday and shield their eyes from the hungry.

But there is extraordinary relevance in the actual teaching of Christ. If you love people, you will not destroy them in war; if you love deeply, you will distribute the goods of the earth that the Father provided, so that people will be fed and housed. That is the Jesus I identify with. His was a program for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and giving company to the lonely.

Playboy: In the past, some critics have regarded Christianity as an impediment to black liberation; blacks were supposed to have been content to get their reward in heaven. Did you consciously evolve this activist approach to Christianity?

Jackson: My religious philosophy can be summed up in an old Southern story about two farmers. One farmer was most concerned about his duty to God. He attended church every day and worked his fields in the afternoon. His neighbor never attended church and never paid any attention to religious rituals. The first farmer was just eking out a living; the second farmer was getting twice the harvest from a lot the same size. Finally, the first farmer said to the second, "Brother, I don't understand. I've been working this land and doing my duty for God and asking His help. I go to church each day. Yet I can't get ahead at all. You never take care of your religious obligations, yet you're getting all the bounty. What am I doing wrong?" The second farmer answered, "I don't know what you're talking to God all the time for. He doesn't know anything about farming. This place didn't produce anything when He had it all to Himself." That's the whole thing. God made it but man has to go out and do it.

Playboy: In our interview with Dr. King four years ago, he said the aims of SCLC were removing the barriers of segregation, disseminating the creative philosophy of nonviolence and total integration of the Negro into American life. How much have things changed since then?

Jackson: Four years ago, SCLC was a Southern movement primarily concerned with social segregation. Blacks were defined as less than human and were not allowed to participate in public. We were "boys" and our goal was to be recognized as men. That drive was aimed at creating a moral consciousness, and one of our slogans was "Save the soul of America." I think that one of the reasons for impatience among blacks today, and the reason for the appeal of violence, is that we never before knew just how awful the secrets locked in America's soul really were. We didn't know then that America would bomb a people to pieces and side with the oppressors in order to preserve her financial investments. We didn't know then that the Northern liberal had better manners than Bull Connor but that his institutions were no less thoroughly racist. And we didn't know then that the capitalists who slandered us with cries of "Communist" were living high off the government hog, while we were starving in the streets.

This education of ours has led to a change of mood. Our first concern now is not white America's soul; it is black America's body. We are justified in our impatience, because that body is hungry. When Moses had his illumination and realized that he could confront Pharaoh, the Bible says that Moses had to take his shoes off, because now he was on holy ground and the bushes were burning. Actually, the bushes were not burning; Moses was burning. His eyes were aflame -- the skin had come off them. Black people today are burning; the skin is off their eyes. The movement is now in a resistance phase and we will no longer cooperate with the white slavemaster. Either we are going to live or America is going to die. The ghetto experience has not been a satisfying or a useful one, but it has given us inner resources -- the ability to do much with very little.

I read in the white press how black people are dispirited and confused. White editorial writers claim that the civil rights movement is fragmented. That is not true; the movement is very together: The NAACP, which just saved the Voting Rights Bill, is doing its thing in Southern courts; the Urban League is doing its thing in industry; the Panthers are feeding kids in the streets; SCLC just had a political victory in Greene County, Alabama; Operation Breadbasket is thriving. It is white America that is at the crossroads. If she does not join us in the resurrection of her soul, in the fulfillment of her dream for all her people, then I foresee a day when little children in a schoolroom on the moon read in the history books about an empire that crumbled because all her power and might of arms could not cure the immoral greed that diseased her spirit.


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