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Playboy Interview: Jesse Jackson
  • October 13, 2011 : 20:10
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Playboy: Are you encouraged by Nixon's proposals about black capitalism?

Jackson: Not very much. It is a limited vision to make a few people rich, whereas SCLC's Poor Peoples' Campaign proposes a decent economic base for all people. Dr. King died talking about raising the level of dignity for all men. The difference between Dr. King and Mr. Nixon is the difference between a prophet and a politician. I don't believe the government has plans for the extensive development of the black community. If it did, then the Job Corps would not have been curtailed recently. Even more serious is the government's lack of understanding of the problems of the potential black businessman and its failure to develop programs to help him.

Playboy: White businessmen object to such demands on the grounds that blacks don't deserve government considerations that aren't extended also to whites.

Jackson: The government aids white businesses all the time -- in the areas in which they are endangered. It subsidizes airlines and railroads. It sets up tariffs to protect textile businesses from cheap foreign imports. The black man is endangered as a businessman because of his substandard education, and the government should be offering technical and advisory services to blacks.

Playboy: What kind of services?

Jackson: There are some basic areas where the black businessman can use government help. One is feasibility studies that will tell a man if his idea is sound. Another, of course, is capital, which should be lent according to the soundness of a business idea, rather than withheld reflexively in accordance with impossibly strict notions of what constitutes "a bad risk." If a black man came up with the idea for the next generation's Xerox, he probably couldn't get the money to develop it. Next, the government should help him get his foot in the market's door, so that the black man can at least have a fair chance. This is one area in which Operation Breadbasket has been very successful; we've gotten chain stores such as Jewel and A & P to give shelf space to black products. Then the government should provide real vocational training. Even if a black kid, who never intends to go to college, graduates from high school, he can't fix the wiring in the house, can't run a

And the vocational training should apply also to those who are already running a black business. We helped increase a black man's business from $12,000 to $160,000 in four months. But he couldn't grow with it. He had to pull his business back down to the size of his mind; he had to feel the money, count it in his hands. He couldn't handle a balance sheet, couldn't write notes for The way it is now, a black with talent has to choose to work in the security of a big white company. And his sapped spirit will never produce anything on its own. Black businesses, on the other hand, are a step on the road to freedom. Black products are a focus for a pride in black ability. We can't just consume what the white folks decide to make for us. Consumption leads to fatness, but production leads to freedom. A producer is free to make decisions, but a man who only consumes is a prisoner whose decisions are made by others.

Playboy: Breadbasket's aims, if fulfilled, seem likely to create more middle-class blacks. Do you think there will be strong class divisions between black middle and lower classes as the former get farther away from the ghetto?

Jackson: I don't think we will have significant class divisions. No matter how wealthy he gets, the black man can rarely buy a house where he wants to; he is still subject to the whim of any white policeman who doesn't like his looks; he is still going to be tried, if accused of a crime, by a jury of his white nonpeers. And these facts bind him firmly with his destitute brother.

Playboy: How do you feel about the young militants' derisive notion that every successful black is an Uncle Tom?

Jackson: I think it's important to be sensitive to who Uncle Tom is. Uncle Tom is not our enemy. He grew up in the ghetto; he went to bad schools. He's a successful black hustler who bends and smiles before the white man in order to provide for his children. He's not a man who sits around thinking up ways to hurt black people. There's nothing wrong with a Southern boy who grew up in a shack with an outhouse wanting a real home. The jobs we once picketed to get are now being derided as Uncle Tom jobs. But the black bourgeoisie is still very close to the roots, if for no other reason than the fact that in the colonial system, he can't get too far. Blacks don't move to white society for joy, fulfillment, good music or tasty meals. They move to get away from bad schools and apartments where the trash isn't collected. They aren't moving away from blacks but from the rats.

Playboy: Are you saying that there's no disunity among blacks?

Jackson: There is an unfortunate division among blacks now that is set off by a certain self-righteousness, a competition for being the blackest. But we must never forget that Nat Turner was middle class, as were Frederick Douglass and Dr. King -- and even Stokely Carmichael. We will not be trapped into glorifying ignorance and poverty. That will not improve the lives of black people.

Playboy: Do you agree with young radicals who feel that blacks who are assimilated into the economy will become new cogs in the corporate machine?

Jackson: We want to create a new value system that will produce a generation of black liberators, not exploiters. You can't ask a black man not to work because America's value system is perverted. But I would hope that when the black man gets a job in a company that is part of the military-industrial complex, he will organize in a union that is as concerned with basic values as it is with decent wages. Instead of producing war material for an unjust and immoral war, the union could pressure the company into producing goods that will help and heal people. The virtuous and vicious aspects of our economy are interrelated. We produce more food and clothing -- and guns -- than we need; we have the capacity to save more people from malice and disease than any other nation in the history of the world, and to kill more people than any other nation in the history of the world. No one attacks our ability to build X-ray machines or washing machines. Our national priorities are the real problem.

Playboy: Can blacks change them?

Jackson: This is the challenge of Operation Breadbasket. The businessmen we help, for example, are discouraged from getting rich and leaving the ghetto. We develop profit sharing; we try to make it our company as much as the owner's. We encourage a dialog between owner and employee, and we encourage participatory democracy.

Playboy: Can Breadbasket help blacks outside the ghetto as well as within it?

Jackson: Yes. Let me give you an example of how it can work -- a case of real soul power, where blacks had the integrity to stick out a crisis and aid one another over thousands of miles. When the most recent Voting Rights Bill was passed, black Alabama farmers found that they weren't able to find markets for their products anymore. Whites were retaliating for their new political power. On top of that, George Wallace prevented them from borrowing money, so they couldn't expand economically, because of the combined pressures of racism and capitalism. There were 1,500 of them -- all farming small plots. Instead of quitting, they formed the Southwest Alabama Farmers' Cooperative. They planted and harvested their crops and then brought them to Chicago. We at Breadbasket then went to the supermarkets in the ghetto and told the owners that they would either put the brother's products on the shelves or face boycotts. They accepted the produce. The brothers in Alabama could farm there and have an open outlet in Chicago. We were able to do this out of a sense of "peoplehood." That's my kind of black nationalism -- blacks helping one another on a national scale.

Playboy: Isn't it one of the great fears of Southern whites that blacks -- who outnumber them -- will usurp their place in society if they ever win enough economic and political power?

Jackson: The problem here is that the poor white and the poor black have mutual fear. Poor blacks fear that if poor whites aren't eliminated, they won't be able to eat, and the poor whites feel just the same way in reverse. The historical difference is that poor whites in the South have controlled the police and the military and have thereby maintained power over the blacks. We in the Poor Peoples' Campaign believe that the basic anxiety of whites is an irrational fear of extermination -- a fear that can be removed with a guaranteed income, with guaranteed medical care and education. Dr. King was firm in his resolve that black power must be secondary to peoples' power. When the economic base of all the people is raised, racism will decline. As the Poor Peoples' Campaign gets stronger, racism will lose its hold on the consciousness of the white poor.

Playboy: Do you honestly think, as Dr. King did, that there's going to be a movement of the poor that will include whites, blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Indians?

Jackson: It's inevitable. If our good sense doesn't connect us through affirmation, then America's greed will lock us together by negation. False racial pride has divided the lower class, but we must stop defining and separating ourselves because of skin color. We should define ourselves by our economic position and shift the fight from a horizontal confrontation of poor black versus poor white to a confrontation of "have" versus "have not." Dr. King could have been the suture that connected the various bones of the bottom classes. Just two weeks before his assassination, there was a meeting of a dozen representative ethnic groups in SCLC's Atlanta office. That was the beginning of something really new, and it is continuing. For just one example, Dr. Abernathy marched with César Chávez and Operation Breadbasket supports the grape strike as if it were our own project, by boycotting and picketing Jewel Tea and other stores where California table grapes are sold.

Playboy: But do you really think that the white poor are going to join you?

Jackson: The white poor have always been distracted from demanding their rights; they've been too embarrassed to admit their deprivation. They've nourished themselves on the meager psychic diet of racism. But during the Illinois Hunger Campaign, we offered poor whites food and they digested it. In East St. Louis, Illinois, a white man named Hicks addressed a congregation of hunger marchers. Mr. Hicks has nine children and works five and six shifts of day labor a week but still can't make enough to feed his family or even to put a shack over their heads. Mr. Hicks and his family were taken in by black folks. They shared equally, and it was the first time in his life, he said, that he felt any sense of security. There are a lot more Mr. Hickses out there who just haven't realized yet that they don't have to suffer alone, that a massive cooperative effort by the poor class is the only answer. United in a class struggle, we can force the redistribution of wealth in America.

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