The Rev. Jesse Jackson has been arrested at sit-ins and demonstrations many times in his long crusade for racial, social and economic justice around the world. But his arrest 18 years ago in the small Illinois city of Decatur makes him especially proud.
On that November day in 1999, he was handcuffed and taken to jail for passionately defending the potential and the futures of seven African-American youth cast out and expelled for two years by the local school board for a 17-second melee in the stands of a high school football game.
“They were determined to throw those boys away,” Rev. Jackson says. “We salvaged them from being thrown away.”
Courtney Carson, one of the most troubled of the youth, puts it another way.
“Rev. Jackson,” he says, “saved my life.”
Carson, now a 34-year-old Baptist minister in Decatur, was recently elected to the same public school board that expelled him and the six others in the name of “zero tolerance,” which sparked a fierce national debate about the policy at the time.
“It was a terrible policy,” Rev. Carson says. “God doesn’t practice zero tolerance.”
On Saturday, April 8, Rev. Carson celebrated his election victory and redemption journey with Rev. Jackson during the international broadcast of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s weekly community forum at 10 a.m. at the coalition’s national headquarters, 930 E. 50th Street in Chicago.
“I came to give Rev. Jackson a hug,” Rev. Carson says. “A lot of people don’t say thank you. I wanted to say thank you, but not just over the phone. I wanted to look that man, who I admire so much, in the eye and say, ‘I love you and thank you so much,’ that ‘God used you and you responded.’”
One reason Rev. Carson decided to run for a seat on the school board, he says, was because he saw what Rev. Jackson saw 18 years ago – a school system willing to throw away children.
“Education is the key to life,” Rev. Carson says. “But too many of our children are seemingly on a death march, made to feel unloved and unwanted by the very institutions called to nurture, love and educate them.”
After the broadcast, Rev. Carson joined Rev. Jackson for the sendoff from PUSH of a two-bus caravan, carrying more than 70 high school students on the 19th annual weeklong PUSH for Excellence tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
“Many of the kids on this bus tour will be visiting a college for the first time,” Rev. Jackson says. “They will see what they’ve never seen and behold what they’ve never beheld and will come back changed people. People can change for the better or the worse, depending on the environment.”
Character is made by how you treat the lost sheep.
PUSH for Excellence is the educational arm of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which in addition to taking more than 1,200 students from financially challenged families on the tour, has, in the last 25 years, awarded more than $6 million in scholarships to more than 2,100 students.
One of those students was a youth from Decatur named Courtney Carson. He used the scholarship money to enroll in Aurora University.
“I thank God for that scholarship,” Carson says. “I didn’t want to let Rev. Jackson down. I stayed up late every night to maintain my GPA. And I figured something out. I could learn. I’m smart.”
The Mean Streets
Carson may have been surprised at his academic skills, but he always knew he was street smart.
“I didn’t grow up in the hood, I grew up in the jungle,” he says. “A lot of the stuff I was doing, I was taught to do. Everybody praised the negative stuff I was doing. I would make an A-plus in the streets.”
Young Carson grew up surrounded by guns, drugs and poverty. Sometimes dinner consisted of sugar or ketchup sandwiches. His father was absent, his mother always working two jobs, waiting tables.
In the fall of 1999, when he was 17, Carson was at a high school football game. Walking through the stands, he spotted a former friend turned gang rival. Words were exchanged and fists and feet started flying. The melee lasted 17 seconds.
The school board initially expelled the boys for two years. After negotiations and protests led by Rev. Jackson, their penalty was reduced to one year and they were also allowed to enroll in an alternative school.
Carson and Rev. Jackson stayed in touch. Jackson took the boys on a trip to Washington and the White House. “Every time we were with Rev. Jackson I felt an urge to do better, to do something different with my life,” Carson says. “But we had to return to that environment. It was survival of the fittest in that environment.”
Carson only attended the alternative school for a few days before he got into trouble again. He was arrested on a gun charge and got 90 days in jail. Behind bars he took the GED exam, but failed. “Too much stress in jail,” he says.
When he was released, a woman named Karen Walker tutored him and he earned his GED. Years later, Karen Walker was a member of Carson’s campaign for the Decatur school board.
Today, Rev. Carson, a self-described “Jesus junkie,” is the associate pastor at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. He also works for the Springfield Urban League Decatur Office, the Southside Improvement Association, and mentors troubled youth like he used to be.
“He’s come full circle,” Rev. Jackson says. “Democracy and morality do not guarantee results. It guarantees opportunity. He had an opportunity and a new environment of acceptance.
“It’s the parable of the lost sheep,” Jackson added. “Jesus’ point was the 99 could protect each other, but the one that is behind – for whatever reason, he may have stepped in a hole, may have been bit by a wolf or a snake – but if he had been left behind, he would have been devoured.
“Character is made by how you treat the lost sheep. Courtney was one of the lost sheep. With tough love and embrace, I thought he could be redeemed and just look at him now.”