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Playboy Interview: Jesse Jackson
  • October 13, 2011 : 20:10
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Playboy: Will there ever be another black leader as important as Dr. King?

Jackson: I don't think so, though, of course, no man can say. But it was Dr. King who crossed the frontier, who made a permanent break with the past. I grew up in the period from 1955 to 1965, and that time was dominated by his courage and strength, as opposed to the previous mass docility of black men. Dr. King was a surprise for a lot of whites who had conned themselves into believing that Negroes were really inferior. He was intelligent, moral, eloquent and courageous. The contrast of his eloquence with the lack of it in those whites he was forced to deal with gave us a rallying point. Even more important was the way he stood up to white military power in the South. Dr. King wasn't afraid of the cop's billy stick, guns or dogs. He overcame the stigma of jail cells; in fact, he dignified the jail cell and wrote great words from it. He was willing to die for black people, and finally did die, not on some lofty mountainside or in the company of ambassadors but kissing garbage men, trying to set them free.

Playboy: In the weeks before he died, did Dr. King express any particular optimism or pessimism about the future of the movement?

Jackson: He expressed both. SCLC was at that time involved in making its decision about the Poor Peoples' Campaign in Washington, D.C., that ultimately led to Resurrection City. Many of Dr. King's friends and some board members said that we should not go to Washington because of the possibility of a riot. The final decision was his. He was going through a bad time and he showed it at one of the last staff meetings he would ever attend. He was despairing that morning and Andy Young tried to tell him to relax, that things were going to get better. And Dr. King told Andy, "Don't say 'Peace, peace' when there is no peace. The country is swinging to the right and our President is obsessed with the war. Maybe I ought to turn around," he said. But then he stopped; and when he continued, his voice was more firm. "But we've gone too far to turn around. There were dark days during the sit-ins, and in Selma and Birmingham. We've come too far."

Then he changed again. "But I'm still disturbed by the division in the country. Maybe I ought to just fast. And when I get to the point of death, perhaps we could have a summit meeting of blacks. Maybe that would bring us together." But then he seemed to resolve the argument in his mind. He said, "I've seen where we've got to go. We are going to fight the good fight; we are going to liberate our brothers and raise up the poor. We're not going to turn around. It's all very clear to men now." And I think Dr. King at that moment was as sure as he had ever been of the ultimate victory of his movement. Once you've been to the mountaintop, it doesn't matter if James Earl Ray is in the bushes waiting for you.

Playboy: Do you share Dr. King's vision?

Jackson: In my stronger moments, I have no doubts. I'm even able to love those who persecute me. There must be some force that's committed to redemption, even though it's painful. The alternative is that we will destroy ourselves -- "die together as fools," as Dr. King said once. He and Gandhi and Jesus reached a spiritual state that liberates the self. Dr. King did not represent ordinary men. That's what made people love him so much. But what finally happens to the extraordinary men is what happened to Jesus. We admire them but we don't follow them, and finally we kill them because they become such a threat to us.

Playboy: In what way?

Jackson: Most of us cannot live up to the ideal of the noble and virtuous. Such men make us aware that we must settle for the real and the expedient. We are diminished by their purity, which is a threat to our self-esteem. The idealist keeps our consciences awake, but the pressure on our conscience is so great that it can be relieved only by murder.

Playboy: Dr. King was criticized for placing too much emphasis on conscience. David Halberstam wrote that Dr. King left Chicago in 1966, for example, because he could not inspire a moral consciousness, and Mayor Daley was able to dissipate his campaign with high-sounding but unspecific resolutions. Do you think that Dr. King was too concerned with the moral rather than the tactical aspects of the civil rights movement?

Jackson: No, I think that even as recently as 1966, Dr. King was correctly analyzing his problem as the need to change the psyche of the black man. You couldn't impress black folks unless you impressed white folks first. Dr. King had to make the movement as large as possible in white eyes to get respect for blacks. I think that we are inclined to lose perspective on how much things have changed since 1955. There was no black consciousness then. Dr. King was dealing with "Negroes" -- put quotes around that -- whose minds, desires, ambitions and images were white inspired. Aretha Franklin couldn't have made it in 1955. It was Dr. King who moved the "Negro" farther and farther out; and the farther he got from that white shore, the blacker he became.

Dr. King had the most national influence of any black leader, and his concern was to change national policy. The strategy was always to form a coalition of conscience between the black community and a segment of the white community. An issue had to be defined along moral lines, because the white community will split on the basis of moral against immoral, liberal against conservative. Without that white help, there is no chance for us to have an impact on national policies. Dr. King used to point out that there is not a black college in the country that could remain open six months on black contributions. That's a reality we must face. Even now, there is no civil rights organization of any consequence that functions on black money.

Playboy: Does Operation Breadbasket accept white money?

Jackson: SCLC accepts any money, and it finances us. But we get more black money out of Chicago than any other civil rights organization has ever gotten out of the black community.

Playboy: What does SCLC think of white participation in the leadership of Breadbasket and other programs?

Jackson: We discourage it. We need and want to encourage the technical and financial aid of whites in the civil rights movement, but we should make our own decisions. Whites should spend their physical energy liberating white America, because white folks need someone to help them understand blacks or they're going to continue to be paralyzed by their paranoia. Whites suffer from nightmares and irrational anxiety. When a black family moves onto a white street, the white girls are not magically impregnated by a black boy. Those fears are unreal. But whites do not allow enough communication with blacks to learn the truth. So other white folks must defend our humanity, even though our skin color is different and our hair grows differently and we have a different heritage.

Playboy: Why is there a preoccupation now with black studies and Afro styles?

Jackson: The so-called natural movement is simply trying to say that I may not know who I am psychologically and historically, but I'm not going to be defined by white folks any longer. I want to see how I'd look if I just grew. If I didn't use anything white folks gave me to fancy myself up with, what would I look like? Most of us have never given ourselves a chance to find out. We're in search of our existence as a new people -- Afro-American. White people forced us to suppress our beauty; now we want to glorify it. The fact that our natural selves conflict with the comfortable, stereotyped white image of the black man is not our problem.

Playboy: But this new emphasis on blackness seems to lead to some paradoxical situations. In spite of the need for expanded opportunities for blacks to attend college, a number of strikes were initiated last year by black college students who demanded black-studies programs at their schools. Are black-studies programs so important that it's worth closing down a school to get them?

Jackson: I think so. History plays a large role in a people's growth. The white man took away our history because it was one more way for him to control us. Without a group identity, we had no group loyalty; we were separated from our past to make it easier to control us in the present. It is one thing to see ourselves as a people only 300 years old, born as slaves and moving toward freedom. But, in fact, our forebears date back to the origin of man, and we have always been a creative and productive people; we were enslaved, but now we are returning to freedom -- and it's good to come back home. We need the pride and dignity of knowing that we are part of a great continuum. Anthropologists say that mankind originated in Africa. We are the people who carved out the great civilization of Kush, Songhai, Ghana and Mali. We smelted iron; we mined copper and gold. For us to know this is to know that we can look forward to a great destiny.

Playboy: It's the idea of exclusively black studies that bothers many white people. Other ethnic groups don't have special study programs, do they?

Jackson: But they do, and the schools recognize them as such. If you are an Italian, for instance, your history courses will cover the entire history of early Rome and then Renaissance Italy, and they will stress the worth of the Italian contributions. But no ancient-history courses emphasize the blackness of the great early civilizations. And American-history courses generally ignore the black man. If the schools had done their job, they wouldn't have the problems they are now confronted with -- and richly deserve.

Playboy: Many athletes and entertainers -- Bill Cosby, for example -- have adopted Afro hair and clothing styles; but aside from this sort of symbolic identification, do you think successful blacks have been as involved as they should be with the movement?

Jackson: I think the symbolism is important; it shows a new sensitivity. The black athletes and entertainers who are wearing natural hairstyles and Afro clothes are specifically defying the white measurement apparatus. But the fact is that the black artist has never been as far away from the black community as the white press sometimes portrays him. Every black man, for example, knows where Sammy Davis' heart is. The black entertainer moves into a white community because the houses are bigger and better there. He is just taking advantage of a new freedom. Historically, the black athlete and entertainer have been in a precarious position where, if they over-identified with the racial situation, they couldn't play in the major nightclubs, couldn't get into a movie or were black-balled from a league. Black athletes who take a militant position on the race problem endanger their jobs, even though teams are dependent on their participation. Jackie Robinson broke into baseball in 1945. In 1969, blacks dominate the game. The stars of the National Basketball Association are nearly all black, as are many in the National Football League. But we'd be doing even better in sports if there were not still some discrimination there.

Playboy: What kind of discrimination?

Jackson: Before I entered college, I was offered a contract to pitch for the Chicago White Sox. They wanted to give me less money to sign than the white boys I was striking out. I'm sure that's generally true, and many black boys can't afford to leave the farm or the factory to try to make it with a team. More indicative of the racism still alive in sports is the fact that in all of major-league baseball, there isn't one black executive or manager.

Playboy: If a black baseball player clearly shows himself to be managerial material, don't you think he'll get a shot at a manager's job?

Jackson: What does that mean? Is every white manager "managerial material"? Then how come they're always being fired? In America, a white man, no matter how dumb, is expected to boss a black man; but no black man, no matter how highly qualified, is allowed to give orders to a white man. If a white ballplayer like Eddie Stanky is argumentative and aggressive, he's considered fiery. Therefore, he's a managerial prospect. But Jackie Robinson was fiery as hell, only they called it arrogance. He was an "uppity nigger." When Robinson left baseball, his accumulated knowledge about running bases, pitching, hitting and fielding went with him. It was a waste of a great baseball mind.

Playboy: You seem to be saying that unless a black man is docile, he can't survive; yet the mood of young blacks -- including you -- is anything but docile. Haven't the times changed?

Jackson: We have changed; I don't know about the times. White society still tries to impose a different code of behavior on blacks than on whites. What to me is an expression of confidence is to white folks an expression of defiance. The country is so used to black people smiling and bowing and acting unsure of themselves that when whites meet someone who confronts them and challenges their standards, they make harsh judgments. Now things are changing so fast that the hostility of white society toward a black man may lead to respect for him from the black community. For a white man to embrace you is for a black man to hold you suspect.

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