Playboy: Do you think, as some radicals seem to, that America is a police state?
Jackson: For black men, it is. Nobody in the black community who's had the experience of being made to spread-eagle over a car for no reason, or because of a simple traffic ticket, would disagree with that. Some black folks disagree, but that's because of their lack of experience. If they just keep on living, they'll confront the reality soon enough. The reality is tyranny, and the tyrant must be opposed. Whether we are called Operation Breadbasket or Black Panthers or niggers, we know who the enemy is. We will gain our freedom by being more willing to die for it than the slavemaster is to die to keep us enslaved.
Playboy: Do you agree with the controversial Panther demand that all black prisoners be released from prison?
Jackson: Yes, but there are probably some black men who have been so broken, whose lives have been so twisted that they would be dangerous to all other men, both black and white, and I suppose they should not be released from confinement, though I would hope that genuine rehabilitation would replace detention. But just as the black community is a colony of white America, and those of us within that colony should be liberated, so should those of us who have been especially victimized by the viciousness of the colonial rules, and tried by the white slavemaster, be released. All of the black community should be liberated, and that includes those behind steel bars as well as those behind economic and social bars.
Playboy: The subject of black crime preoccupies white America and, in the opinion of some commentators, helped elect Richard Nixon President. Many whites feel that their fears of black crime are completely justified, particularly in the light of your previous statement that black prisoners should be freed. How would you respond to that?
Jackson: The Crime Commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson showed that most black crime is against blacks. The white folks who exploit us are as safe as a baby in a womb. The black man's hostility comes from the deprivation and frustration well; and those who don't, take it out on the nearest target -- other blacks.Another reason black men hurt other black men is that the punishment is less than when you hurt a white man. The price for hostility against whites is too high. To talk back to a white boss is to be fired. And to make violent gestures against white people is to invite instant death. So the hostility that is bred in the ghetto leads to suffering -- but mostly by blacks, not whites.
Playboy: The incidence of property crimes by blacks is very high and is increasing. Do you think the white middle class is wrong to be concerned about protecting its possessions?
Jackson: That property usually belongs to blacks, not whites. It is the ghetto resident whose home is robbed, sometimes two or three times in the same month. Black crimes against property are the result of desperation. I said earlier that a man will steal before he starves. Black crime is crime because of need; whites commit crimes of greed. Black folks do not set up elaborate kidnappings for a million-dollar ransom. The financial value of all of the property crimes committed by blacks in one year doesn't equal the money lost in the famous salad-oil swindle. Blacks are not out for a big score; they are out to stay alive. And when he's caught, the black man can't afford bail and a good attorney. Already wounded and probably crippled by the system, he spends more time than whites inside the jail system, where he is further destroyed by it. His criminality is molded by the police state. I was especially aware of this in the South, where I grew up. The police were the law. They could do anything they wanted, because the judges and the legal system were thoroughly racist.
Playboy: Do you have any recollections of personal confrontations with the police when you were young?
Jackson: I remember that they seemed to get a kick out of breaking down the front door if you didn't answer quickly enough. When I was a little kid, we'd run and hide under the house at the sight of a police car. Later on, they locked us up for things like vagrancy or cursing. In time, they would kill a few of the guys I grew up with, and it was always "in the line of duty." There were some humorous incidents, too. One cop in Greenville, South Carolina became famous for locking up a black man for "reckless eyeballing"; he had been staring at a white woman about 100 feet away. And I remember we weren't allowed to stand around the store windows while they were changing clothes on the white store dummies. My Northern friends get a big kick out of that, but it's symbolic of the awesome pattern of Southern oppression.
My own most frightening experience, though, didn't involve a policeman. There was a store on our street run by a white man named Jack. The customers were all black, and it was a comfortable place. Jack used to play with us kids all the time, and we'd run errands for him. One day, I went in and the store was full of people, but I was in a big hurry, the kind of hurry a six-year-old is always in. I said, "Jack, I'm late. Take care of me." He didn't hear me, so I whistled at him. He wheeled around and snatched a .45 pistol from a shelf with one hand and kneeled down to grab my arm in his other fist. Then he put the pistol against my head and, kneading my black arm in his white fingers, said, "Goddamn it! Don't you ever whistle at me again, you hear?" I didn't think he was really going to shoot me, even then; the thing that got to me was that none of the black people in the store did or said anything. My impression of the superpower of whites to do absolutely anything they want and get away with it right in the middle of blacks was a traumatic experience that I've never recovered from.
Playboy: Are such experiences for blacks still part of the Southern heritage?
Jackson: Yes, but less frequently, and I think Dr. King is the reason for the change. The significance of his movement can be seen only against a Southern background. He taught us that even if the police -- the law -- say you can't sit down, sit down anyway. In most communities until then, there weren't five men who had that kind of courage. He challenged us to stand up to the police we used to run from. In Montgomery, Alabama, the cradle of the Confederacy, he rose up and declared that black men deserve their full rights of manhood. There wasn't enough money to buy him, and there weren't enough jails to hold crucifixion leads to resurrection.
Playboy: One of the seeming ironies of the civil rights movement is that while the Southern black has gone far toward winning freedom, the ghetto black in the North is in an increasingly frustrated mood. How do you explain this?
Jackson: The Southern movement fulfilled some of the hopes it raised. We achieved our goals in the bus boycotts and the freedom rides. The public-accommodation and voting-rights bills were passed. We haven't had corresponding success in the North. The Northern black has seen some progress, but his advancement doesn't compare with the advancement of white society. The economy quadruples while blacks creep along with unemployment as high as 35 and 40 percent in some black communities. When the white unemployment rate was 20 percent in 1933, it was a Depression that required massive aid. But the black unemployment rate is ignored.
The most frustrated are those who have worked hardest but remain unrewarded. A black man in Chicago with a master's degree earns less than a white man with a high school diploma. You can't tell a man who has been to college that he's not educated enough to qualify for a job that goes to white high school dropouts. If you do, you castrate him. And the Northern black is more frustrated because the indifference of white colonialism in the North is more vicious than the paternalism of the South. The Northern industrialist doesn't have any emotional relationship with the black; he maintains only economic contact. In the North, you get white smiles while the shops are open, but the hypocritical charade is over when the shops close and whites take the money out of the ghetto. It's no coincidence that those stores are the primary targets in a riot.
Playboy: Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty once stated on television that he thought riots were caused by the mass media. He said that blacks rioted in imitation of the disruptive behavior they saw on television and that if there had been no television coverage of Watts during the first hours of the trouble there in 1965, there would have been no riot. Do you feel that's true?
Jackson: That's absurd. The riots are expressions of the unheard. The rioters are the mass of black people who invest hard labor on nasty chores -- they are floor cleaners, shoeshine boys, hospital attendants -- and they find that they have almost no share, no investment, no dividend in a $900 billion economy. Riots are a reaction to pain and a sense of hopelessness. There are black people whom no President's program has ever reached. My grandmother has lived through every President from 1900 to 1969, and the sum total of their grass-roots programs has not been able to teach her the 26 letters of the alphabet. Riots do not solve problems, but they indicate what those problems are. It is the responsibility of an aching man to tell the truth about his pain. It isn't to his advantage to give the appearance of happiness when he is hurting. In the past, we passively accepted the immoral acts of white society to prove that we were nice, decent folks, but that was our foolishness. Black folks assumed that Pharaoh was going to help them simply because it was the right thing to do. Now we know that Pharaoh's commitment is to property, not to persons. He must be made to do the right thing.
Playboy: It has been alleged by some observers, however, that the riots reveal a kind of death wish on the part of blacks.
Jackson: It's true that there is in the young generation an inclination toward nihilism. To challenge a police headquarters with a handful of bricks is a suicidal act, but it is also a blow for freedom. What the riots really reveal is the beastliness and sadism of white police. Nearly all of the people who died in riots were blacks killed by whites whose ethics dictate that nickels and dimes are more important than flesh and blood.
Playboy: There are whites who say that activists such as yourself foster the riots, that without you, there'd be racial peace.
Jackson: White folks don't want peace; they want quiet. The price you pay for peace is justice. Until there is justice, there will be no peace or quiet.
Playboy: At the time of Dr. King's death, many blacks said that white America had lost its last chance to solve the race problem without destroying itself. Do you think that's true?
Jackson: No, I don't, although I was one of the first people to make that statement. It seemed to me then that Dr. King's death ended America's last chance to be redeemed. But it is not for us to determine the chances of redemption. There are still people being born with hope, still people fighting with hope. God has not yet damned this country, though one may wonder how long the wicked will prosper. America at this point is the most violent nation in the world.
Playboy: Isn't that a cliché? Don't other nations have wars and assassinations?
Jackson: Of course. But no other nation wants so clearly to be the world's policeman. No other nation comes down so consistently on the wrong side of every revolutionary movement for liberation from tyranny. Wherever there is a rebellion, our conservative industrialists are helping to end it, whether it's in Angola or Venezuela. Any place we buy oil or rubber, or sell a little Coca-Cola and chewing gum, we've got to protect the old order. We spend $900 per second to kill the Viet Cong but only $77 per person per year to feed the hungry at home. We maintain soldiers in 20 countries around the world, yet we always talk about the Russian threat or the Chinese threat. China does not have a standing army outside of China: Russia has two. Yet we assume that someone's after us, that the "free world" is threatened simply because people want the chance to control their own economic market so they can participate in the world decision-making order. They don't want to go Communist or to crush democracy; they just want to end their serf status; and that's all blacks want here at home.
Playboy: It might seem incongruous to some that you can make this sweeping indictment of America, an indictment that could easily serve as the lead paragraph in one of SDS' revolutionary pamphlets, and yet, as economic director of SCLC and leader of Operation Breadbasket, you are leading blacks who clearly want to buy into the American dream.
Jackson: It's very simple. For all its faults, America is the only country with the capacity to save the world, even at the very moment that we seem bent on destroying it. We can produce more food, medicine, trained and educated people than anyone else. We try to export our killers, but people have stopped wanting them; they would accept our doctors, scientists and creators, but our armies are outdated. We could liberate nations from their poverty and their pestilence if our value system would allow us to do so. The irony is how close we are to being something great. One fifth of our nation is starving, yet we have the capacity to overfeed it. We could end the starvation in India, heal the sickness in Africa. But the tragedy is that we are as close to destroying the world as we are to saving it. We spent $78.4 billion to kill this year but only $12 billion to heal. Those who are silent now, or are neutral now, must make a decision before the opportunity passes forever.