Reflections on 50 Years of Struggle

September 4, 2013
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By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

**This is the partial prepared text of Jesse Jackson’s remarks at the March on Washington commemoration.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, August 24, 2013.

What a blessing it was to have been here 50 years ago as one of the host of witnesses, excited and fresh from jail in Greensboro, North Carolina.  To hear the collective voices of Walter Reuther from labor; the booming voice of A. Phillip Randolph; Floyd McKissick, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, Mahalia Jackson, Dr. King, Bayard Rustin and to stand with Dorothy Height, Walter Fauntroy, Jackie Robinson, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays and so many others.

I had been to jail twice, once in South Carolina and once in North Carolina.  Thank God for allowing me to be a part of an increasingly small group of witnesses who have been long-distance runners.  We changed the South and the nation.   Our movement tore down walls and built bridges.  Ironically, many who tore down the walls lay beneath the rubble while those who resisted now benefit from the new bridges.  And yet we’d do it all again.  It was important to support the living dream that was addressing the challenges of its day.

I was blessed to be with him, to watch and listen to him in the moment of ecstasy in 1963; and in the morning of agony in 1968.  He felt the air was leaving the balloon of his dream.  He felt that our propensity for the arrogance of war was undermining our moral authority in the world.  After having met for several days, I was with him in Atlanta when he agonized in our last staff meeting with Dr. Abernathy, Andy and his wife and Mrs. King.  He said, “We’re building a resurrection city of tents, shanties and shacks in Washington in front of the Lincoln Memorial where we once spoke of a dream.  But today I feel like I’m fighting a nightmare.”  He said, “For nearly a week I’ve wrestled with a migraine headache.  I thought maybe this is all I can do in 13 years.  Then he said, “But I can’t quit.  If I turn back, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass never quit and they would not accept me if I quit.

We’re going to turn a minus into a plus.  We’re going on to Washington.  We’re going to stop by Memphis.  We’re going back to the Lincoln Memorial.  Maybe we’ll engage in an act of civil disobedience, disrupt traffic in Washington.  We must engage in radical sacrifice.  It may be the end of us.  We must end poverty, racism, militarism and unbridled capitalism.”

In the last 50 years we’ve seen mountains high and valleys low.  We’ve seen the right to vote and its fruits.  We’re now Congressman, Mayors and state officials.  We’ve had our high moments.  The return of Aristide to Haiti; the freedom of Mandela; and the election of President Obama, the crown jewel of our political effort.

And yet today, with all of our vast wealth, military mis-adventurism, our subsidy of the wealthy; the attack on public education; the attack on public transportation; attacks on the public post office; attacks on small business; the largest jail industrial complex in the world continues and is expanding; private prisons with $1.5 billion per year in profits; pre-trial detention up to 5 years; prison labor is expanding; Corrections Corporation of America is on the stock market; just locking up Americans for sport and profit continues.  There’s too much hate, too much violence, too many drugs, too many guns in the land.  Our dreams are under attack.

Our challenge today may be to create discomfort in houses of power around the nation – in love and non-violence with an appeal for mercy and understanding.  There are too many poor people in a nation so wealthy.  Today we are free, but not equal.  We have closed the separation gap between races, but we’ve expanded the disparity gap between those who live in surplus and those who live in poverty.  Free but not equal.

The unfinished business will require both courage, risk and  sacrifices.  We must dream above the clouds of doubt, fear and cynicism.  We still can dream of the constitutional right to vote and an end to the manipulation of voting in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and around to Texas.  We still can dream of a new Civil Rights Commission, the conscience of our nation’s government, coming back to life again.


The march in 1963 was not merely a cultural celebration.  It was on the cutting edge of change and the challenges of that day.  During this 50-year season, we’ve won bloody battles, but with the stroke of a pen this Supreme Court intends to take it all back – and we won’t go back. We must have a political agenda that is designed to change the legal parameters and discourse of our nation.  So it was then.  So it must be now.  Too many people have been pushed outside the tent of protection.  We must end the proliferation of war.  We need expansion at home over violence and fear.  Revive the War on Poverty with appropriations and allow Dr. King to rejoice in Heaven on his special day.

James Earl Ray, with a bullet, killed the dreamer.  We must not kill the legacy of the dreamer and the prophet with mere celebrations and reflections.

We have unfinished business.  We want those who are inspired by him to follow him, not just admire him.  To admire him is to quote his poetry.  To follow him is to pick up the baton that was blown out of his hand.  To follow him is to fulfill his mission.

So keep dreaming – student loan debt forgiveness, restore public housing and end private housing schemes while bailing out banks.  Clearly if we can bailout Wall Street banks, AIG ($175 billion) and the auto industry, we cannot leave Detroit and Birmingham bankrupt and blowing in the wind.

Keep dreaming and use that vote, use those marching feet.  When President Obama takes the economy from 4 million jobs down to above the plus zone – stand with him and march for more.  And when the President tries to provide health care for all Americans – stand with him.  When he bails out our industrial base and gives them a chance to recover – stand with him.  When he ends the war in Iraq – stand with him.

Keep dreaming.  Stop the “Stop and Frisk” policy and racial profiling because racial profiling is unconstitutional.  We should go to higher ground.  Instead of “Stop and Frisk,” start “Stop and Employ.”  Ask him, “Hey brother do you have a job’?  Stop and provide health care, head start, regain trust between the police and the people.  Stop and love somebody.  We’ve tried loveless justice.  It’s too brittle.  We’ve tried just love.  It’s too sentimental.  Dr. King studied Paul Tillich and he was right.  We need love, power and justice.  But most of all we are not our brothers and sisters “keepers.”  We are our brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters. And we want to do unto them, as we would have them do unto us.  Those who obtain mercy must be merciful.

But above all stand with a conscience.  Vanity will ask the question, “Is it possible?”  Politics will ask the question, “Can we win?  But conscience asks the question, “Is it right?”  If the principle is right, it may never be popular or politic, but it will prevail.  Stand through it all, because there’s hope.  Stand on those dreams.  You’ve come too far to turn back now. Say to the White House and the Congress, partner with us.  Let’s make Dr. King happy again.  Make him happy by permanently protecting our right to vote with a Voting Rights Amendment added to the ConstitutionI know it gets dark sometimes.  But this land is our land.  We the people – with the help of God – Jew and Gentile, Muslim and Christian, male and female, gay and straight, black, white, red, yellow and brown can heal this land.  I know it’s dark sometimes, but the morning cometh.  Keep dreaming.  Keep healing.

If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will forgive their sins and heal their land.

Keep hope alive.

Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow PUSH.

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