Playboy: Though the mood of blacks has changed markedly since the death of Martin Luther King, are you still committed, as Dr. King was, to nonviolence as the only way to win racial justice?
Jackson: We will be as nonviolent as we can be and as violent as we must be. We should not choose violence first, because it is an inhumane way of dealing with problems. We also do not have the military resources to deal with the American power structure. There's no sense in facing tanks with a .22 pistol. Our circumstances and terrain would not give us the freedom to use a violent strategy. The ghettos are built like a military stockade. America never needs to actually come in. The lights can be turned off, the water shut off and the food supply stopped. We could be eliminated in the ghetto without anyone even crossing the railroad tracks to get us.
Playboy: Do you mean to imply that if you did have the military resources, you would wage war against white Americans?
Jackson: I am just pointing out that there is a strong pragmatic case for nonviolence. I am philosophically committed to nonviolence because I think it is the creative alternative and should be used as long as it helps protect and sustain life. It is a creative alternative to the Pentagon, for example. Just as there are forces in this world with a design for killing, so must there be forces with a design for healing.
Playboy: Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver, among others, say that unless blacks create their own design for killing, they are going to be killed themselves. Is this an irrevocable split in the black movement?
Jackson: No. The competition to nonviolence does not come from Stokely or Eldridge; it comes from America's traditions. It comes from little children seeing cowboys solve their moral problems by killing. The competition to nonviolence comes from the military draft, with its nine weeks' training on how to kill. The trouble is that nonviolence is so often defined as refusal to fight, and that is the American definition of cowardice. In fact, marching unarmed against the guns and dogs of the police requires more courage than does aggression. The perverted idea of manhood coming from the barrel of a gun is what keeps people from understanding nonviolence.
Playboy: If your life were endangered, could you use a gun?
Jackson: Yes. Nonviolence does not demand that one develop an absolute, universal commitment to pacifism. That old notion of being in a dark alley and having a man step out with a gun does not apply. Of course, I am going to do whatever I must to get rid of the man and his gun. I preach nonviolence because it's the better alternative. In that alley, there is no alternative. But peace is the alternative to war, and nonviolence should be seen as the antidote to violence, not simply as its opposite. Nonviolence is more concerned with saving life than with saving face. It is the most sensible way to combat white society's military oppression of blacks.
Playboy: Do you think white America is actually waging war on black America?
Jackson: Yes, it's a war. Sometimes it's waged by a white army in full military gear, as any weapons count among special riot police would show. But it's also a war of attrition, a siege, in which the violence takes other forms. To me, violence is starving a child or maintaining a mother on insufficient welfare. Violence is going to school 12 years and getting five years' worth of education. Violence is 30 million hungry in the most abundant nation on earth. White America must understand that men will steal before they starve, that if there is a choice of a man's living or dying, he will choose to live, even if it means other men die. These are human reactions, and we cannot assume that black people are going to be anything less than human.
Playboy: Is there a point at which you feel violence would be justified?
Jackson: If I saw that there was no other way for us to be liberated, yes.
Playboy: For many white people, the most disturbing incident of potential black violence this year was portrayed by a news picture of armed students at Cornell. What do you think about their use of weapons?
Jackson: They didn't use them, except in the symbolic sense of warning groups that had threatened them that they were capable of their own military defense. I have doubts about the enduring success of the technique of military defense, but I appreciate the feelings that brought such a desperate mood into existence.
Playboy: Another group that has endorsed violence as a tactic is the Black Panthers, which J. Edgar Hoover has called "the greatest threat among the black extremist groups to the internal security of the United States." Do you support the Panthers?
Jackson: I'm very sympathetic to the Panthers. They are the logical result of the white man's brutalization of blacks. The remarkable thing about them is that they have not conducted any military offenses. They have not gone to downtown America to shoot up white-owned stores. The Panthers are a defense for justice, just as the Ku Klux Klan is an offense for injustice. That's a qualitative difference between picking up a gun to keep from being brutalized and picking up a gun to inflict brutality. As far as Mr. Hoover's opinion goes, I don't think that his perspective is relevant when it comes to the problems that are facing this society -- which is surprising, when you consider all the good information he gets. He certainly knows what I'm thinking about and talking about most of the time.
Playboy: Does the FBI keep you under surveillance?
Jackson: Yes. It's admitted tapping Dr. King's phone, and I used to speak with him at least twice a week. The persons he spoke with were also frequently tapped, and I don't imagine they've untapped me, as my activities have increased since his death. But anything they've heard me say, if they come around, I'll be glad to repeat out loud to them. I want to add that I consider Mr. Hoover himself to be one of the greatest threats to our national security. His wire tapping and other surveillance methods violate the principles of democracy. The FBI director doesn't account to anyone, not even to the Attorney General; and, in reality, he heads what is very nearly a secret police.
It's on this subject of abusive police power that the Panthers are profound. No white community in America has a majority of black police, but black communities are militarily occupied by white police. The Panthers are right to say that the white police should be gotten out, just as the Americans were right in saying, "Get the Redcoats out." We are saying, "Get the bluecoats out."
Playboy: Aren't you really saying, "Get the white bluecoats out"?
Jackson: No. We don't want white bluecoats, but we don't want black bluecoats, either. We don't want to be policed by a supreme white authority, even if the agents of the authority are black. We're saying that the black community should police itself; the authority for the police should come from the home area, not from city hall, which is alien to us, has never been sympathetic to us and openly supports the police who oppress us.