Transgender rights, Rosa Parks and Hurricane Harvey: A Q-and-A with Rev. Jesse Jackson

Transgender rights, Rosa Parks and Hurricane Harvey: A Q-and-A with Rev. Jesse Jackson

Transgender rights, Rosa Parks and Hurricane Harvey: A Q-and-A with Rev. Jesse Jackson

James Krause

Before paying his first visit to NIU in nine years, Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke with News Contributor James Krause about civil rights and current events.

Q: How did you coming to the Pick Museum come about? I understand there is a personal connection between you and the exhibit.

A: Yeah, the Human Rights Quilt exhibit. We’re very impressed with the human rights quilt project. [NIU] is a really different campus with different events with built in events with voter registration, so this is the first campus we will have visited since that bill was passed into law.

Q: Do you see students getting more involved in civil rights and voter registration?

A: Over periods of time, students always were a part of the dynamic of social change and involved in various mass demonstrations. Sometimes students would even fight for voter participation. Blacks got the right to vote in 1965. 18-year-olds couldn’t vote, but we won that battle. Then you couldn’t vote on campuses; we won that battle. Next, they said you couldn’t register on campus, therefore voters couldn’t get registered, and we had lower voter turnout. Now they are automatically registered, and that’s a big deal. It has an impact on local elections. Now they can vote locally, you know? It has an impact on county elections and sheriff [elections] and state legislators, an impact on congressional races in that area and state elections. The states are directly affected by it.

Q: Do you think universities play a critical role in civil rights advocacy?

A: Students have been the makers of change for a long period of time. When I was in college, four students in Greensboro, North Carolina conducted a sit in. Students sitting across the 60s led to public accommodations for them. The student marches in Birmingham led to the right to vote. Students protested against the War in Vietnam where the most visible site of activism came from students. So, student-led protests have been a big deal historically. But again, historically, they’re big on protests, they’re big on crowds, often times not big on voting because of registration complications. Automatic registration will take on a whole new meaning.

Q: You, of course, know about the storms and flooding going on in Texas from Hurricane Harvey. What’s your reaction to what you’ve seen from Texas and across the country in terms of helping the community that’s been affected by this storm?

A: Well clearly, we are running into a global climate change with the glaciers melting, ocean water temperatures getting higher, more tropical storms, more hurricanes, more tornados. At the same time that climate change is getting real, the [Trump] administration is saying it’s fake news. On the other hand, [former President Barack] Obama put in flood relief infrastructure, and Trump resisted that, too. So now, the president needs to deal with climate change a little more seriously. And it’s not just Texas. Among others, many are being displaced in Nigeria from mudslides. The impact of global climate change and the impact of the glaciers melting and the temperatures rising is a big deal for the whole world. Look at the impact of what happened in Houston with the chemical spills and the poison there. We no longer can look at climate change in aspect terms.

Q: Over the summer, the events in Charlottesville really rekindled the public debate on race in America, including the death of Heather Heyer. Based on what you have seen in your lifetime in America, is there a way there can be peaceful discussion on race in America that doesn’t lead to the violence we saw in Charlottesville?

A: Of course there can be. As a matter of fact, if you look at the diverse makeup of the student body of NIU on a daily basis, students attend classes together, are involved together, some even live together, and it’s the beginning of a long process. It was not always that way. Hate is learned behavior — it’s something that has to be taught — that’s why you don’t have swastikas or statues of Hitler in Germany because they taught people that it’s evil and horrible and there is a difference between Nazis and civilized behavior. But what we have here is a want to romanticize the Civil War. A war of separating the U.S. government. It’s the war of secession, slavery, sedition and segregation and Jim Crow. The horrible lessons have been very divisive, very painful for the country.

Q: According to an article originally posted by The Daily Progress, in a sermon, you put Heather Heyer, the anti-protester killed in Charlottesville, in the same light as Rosa Parks for what she did in Montgomery in 1955.

A: She’s in the list of murders. There is Viola Liuzzo, a white mother killed in southern Alabama who fought for the rights of all citizens. It was [Micheal] Schwerner and [Andrew] Goodman, two Jews and a black man killed. It was Rosa Park’s protest, arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. There is Dr. [Martin Luther] King. She’s in the list of murders whose innocent blood transformed into power.

Q: Do you think the events in Charlottesville are going to create the shift in today’s civil rights movement that Rosa Parks made on the civil rights movement in 1955?

A: I’ll tell you why it’s hard to say. On the one hand, the power of what happened in Charlottesville shook the White House. Both political parties had to speak up and speak out. It made world leaders speak out, so that’s one side. On the other hand, there are those who are embarrassed by her being killed but not willing to change from the direction that led to her killing. There were those embarrassed by the dog biting in Birmingham but wouldn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act. There were those embarrassed by the beatings in Salem, but they wouldn’t vote for the Voter’s Rights Act. So it seems to me that when they go back to Washington, it’s more than embarrassed people, it leads to people having a new direction. They must go back to Washington and focus on student debt relief. They must focus on liberations, affordable health care, infrastructure. I mean, if there is anything in Houston to look at, the energy capital of the western world is in Houston. The largest port is between Mobile and Houston. And this is just one of many storms. So long as you have rain storms and hurricanes and weak infrastructure, that spells disaster unless we address it really fast.

Q: President Donald Trump announced and very recently signed an action banning transgender people from joining the U.S. Armed Forces. What are your thoughts on that decision?

A: Americans should serve based on loyalty and sacrifice, not based on religion or gender or race. For all the people that are in the military and transgender now, the commander in chief does not have their back. When I was a kid, my father fought in World War II and had to stand by while others were not accepted at military bases. We’ve been going through the process of becoming more civilized for a long time, and this is another stage.

Q: Despite a rally outside NFL Headquarters in New York City, Colin Kaepernick is still without a job in the NFL as the season is nearly set to begin. Is there something the public or fans can do to help support Kaepernick and get him a job, or at least prevent others from being fired by teams for their opinions?

A: First of all, his free speech is being denied, his right to protest. Second, it’s a collusion between the owners. The owners have decided to deny his right to protest. He’s not pushing drugs, he’s not pushing guns, he’s saying that there is too much violence in the country between or toward black and poor people, and he chose to protest it, as is his right. They tried to do this to Muhammad Ali, to take his crown. They tried to do it to Curt Flood when he wanted to test for free agency, and in the end, in those cases, righteous protest prevailed.